Yes Means Yes

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 (Leslie Bell)

Yes means yes. That's the shorthand for the new legislation poised to become law in California.

This new law would require that California college students give active consent to one another before all sexual activity, either by saying "yes" to a spoken question or by signalling agreement in a nonverbal way. Contrary to popular myth, this new law would not require a signed contract between students.

In the wake of this legislation's passage, we've heard the usual objections: It's not the job of universities to micromanage sex. Do I have to ask if everything I do is okay? This is going to ruin the mood.

What these questions and negative reactions signal, in addition to some still ingrained patriarchal assumptions about sex, is our collective discomfort with talking about sex in an affirmative way. When both partners feel comfortable talking about sex, some pretty sexy things can happen. "Can I do this?" "Yes. Yes. Yes."

But when we're uncomfortable talking about sex, lots of unsexy things can happen. Sexual assault chief among them. CDC statistics show that one in five women in the US has been raped. And we know that by the time a woman graduates from college, nearly one in four will be a survivor of rape or attempted rape.


Of course talk about sex alone will not solve the problem of sexual assault. But it can go a long way, particularly in the college years of early sexual exploration, towards changing the way that young adults interact with one another when it comes to sex.  

I applaud the California state legislature for taking the lead on an issue that as recently as the 1990's drew guffaws of derision from the cast of Saturday Night Live, which mercilessly parodied Antioch College's "Yes Means Yes" code of conduct for their students. For California college students today and in the future, "yes" is an erotic word, a turn on, and an invitation to a lifetime of healthy sex.

With a Perspective, I'm Dr. Leslie Bell.

Leslie Bell is a psychotherapist and sociologist in Berkeley and author of a book about the sex and love lives of women in their 20s.