In the bad old days of abstinence education, purity pledges, and 7th Heaven on The WB television network, the common wisdom about sex went something like this: guys want to have sex for fun, and girls want to have sex for … well, virtually any other reason but fun. Daddy issues, a desperate need for attention, extracting a commitment from a boyfriend who might otherwise bail: Girls who had sex were said to be pursuing an emotional end via physical means, while the straightforward desire for intimacy or pleasure was strictly for the boys. The act itself being inherently degrading to women (or so the story went), there was something sketchy and gross about a girl who actively sought it out. Letting sex happen might be OK; desiring and pursuing sex made you a slut.
Today, abstinence education is out, affirmative consent is in, and sexually entitled men have replaced the archetypal slut as the objects of society’s scorn. And yet, a recent NPR Radiolab episode reveals that we’re just as mired as ever in sexual mores that not only restrict and marginalize women’s desire, but can’t seem to fathom that they experience desire at all.
Part 2 of a Radiolab series titled “In the No” explores issues of consent as applied to “gray zones”—disappointing sexual encounters that some feminists have begun to argue should fall under the purview of the #MeToo movement, even in cases where it’s not clear that any violation has necessarily occurred. The conversation is moderated in part by producer Kaitlin Prest, whose self-described obsession with consent, which followed her own experience of a bad hookup, is the focus of “In the No: Part 1.”
Part 2 introduces the perspective of Hanna Stotland, an educational consultant who helps students reapply to school after being expelled for sexual misconduct. Early on in the segment, Stotland describes in detail the experiences of two of her recent clients—the kinds of offenses that arguably strain even the most generous definition of “misconduct,” and which supporters of campus sex codes tend to dismiss as malign fictions. One young man was suspended from school for two years after consensual contact with a girl who claimed afterward that her “yes” was not genuine. Another was sanctioned after a girl brought him back to her room and initiated an encounter that included oral sex, but not a verbal “yes” beforehand, leading to a jaw-dropper of a soundbite from Stotland: “If you go in somebody’s dorm room and she touches you, and places your penis in her mouth, she has not conveyed consent.”
Cases like these make for a compelling counterpoint to Prest’s argument that affirmative consent standards are an infallible means of assessing when a violation has occurred (let alone a perfect system for negotiating sexual encounters between the young, inexperienced, and often drunk college students to whom they’re meant to apply). But Prest not only demurs on that issue, but sidesteps into a broader conversation about oppression and privilege that reveals just how deep the problem goes.
“What we’re doing right now is working against history,” she proclaims. “We’re trying to make progress on this issue of sexual assault, and the much larger issue of the imbalance of power as it is distributed between the genders,” she adds. “I’m not seeing the young men that I know understanding the power they have that is so easy to abuse.”
On one hand, Prest may well be right: The average 20-something man probably isn’t pausing midhookup to recontextualize himself not as an individual, but as an oppressive agent of the patriarchy. But if we truly want to work against history, and toward equality, then arguably the last thing we should be doing is to buy into the notion that women inherently lack sexual agency—or indeed, that a history of gendered oppression makes it impossible for them to truly know their own minds.
To say this creates a confusing environment for young people is an understatement. Taken to their logical conclusion, affirmative consent standards may teach an entire generation of heterosexual men to distrust their partners: to assume that they’re drunk, confused, or even faking enjoyment rather than acting in accordance with genuine desire. (For some proponents, the “haze of fear and confusion” that affirmative consent creates surrounding sexual communication is even part of the appeal.) And women, in turn, are being taught that every encounter—romantic, sexual, or even professional—finds them at the wrong end of a power dynamic which makes even their own feelings suspect. Haven’t they been socialized to please others first? As Prest muses: “If you’re taught from birth to define your pleasure based on someone else’s pleasure, how can you know what you want and don’t want?”
Abstinence education is out, affirmative consent is in, and sexually entitled men have replaced the archetypal slut as the objects of society’s scorn.
Alarmingly, this view—which simply deletes the possibility of active female desire by casting women as forever on the precipice of victimhood—has become increasingly trendy in progressive spaces. A woman who instructs her date to get a condom and explicitly requests rough sex later describes his behavior as “coercive.” Another describes being “forced” (by the same man) to put on a certain style of eye makeup before a hookup, and writes, “What he did to me was rape.” In the notorious Babe magazine account from a woman who had an encounter with Aziz Ansari, the woman says, “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault. And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad.”
A throughline emerges in all these cases: These are women who made decisions under their own power, but couldn’t cope in the aftermath when those choices made them feel terrible. Under other circumstances, this might lead a person to contemplate the gap between her actions, her desired outcome, and the actual result—and to recognize that this kind of miscalculation is normal, human, and an essential part of the trial-and-error process by which we eventually become better judges of what will make us happy. But consent culture increasingly doesn’t leave the door open for that kind of nuance. There is no room within the framework for a desired choice to lead to regret, or for a woman to say, “I wanted this in the moment, even if things didn’t work out as I’d hoped.” Instead, women retroactively strip themselves of their agency: “I didn’t consent to feeling bad about this, hence I didn’t consent to any of it.”
It’s not hard to understand why young women are leaning into victimhood in the aftermath of these “gray area” encounters. Societally, and particularly when it comes to sex, we remain far more comfortable with the idea of women as helpless victims than as autonomous human beings who sometimes want things that aren’t good for them. Overt slut-shaming has gone out of style, but the stigma surrounding female desire lingers. And there are few things that are worse to feel than ashamed of yourself, and few things harder than owning responsibility for the choices that led you there. Under those circumstances, “Look what you made me do” can be an attractive way out, an opportunity for young women to avoid reckoning with the consequences of their own choices. Faced with the weight of self-blame, or blame from others—deserved or not— it’s all too tempting to dump it all in someone else’s lap, or maybe even see him punished for not saving you from yourself. Consider this moment in the first episode of the Radiolab series, in which Prest walks home after hooking up with a former boyfriend—sex which she initially claimed not to want, but then consented to and enjoyed, a fact which leaves her angry and conflicted. Marinating in regret, she considers her decision, wondering, “Is that on me?”—only to reject the patently obvious answer: Yes, it’s on you.
The easier path is a retreat from autonomy and into pre-ordained powerlessness, where “I didn’t say ‘no’” becomes “I couldn’t,” and the thousand-year weight of the patriarchy pins you in place but also shields you from responsibility. Passivity can feel like safety. But that safety comes at a cost, one that women ought to consider before they go all in on this fragile, passive brand of femininity: To admit your desires is to make yourself vulnerable, and to pursue what you want is to risk not getting it (or getting but regretting it, and having to revise your future behavior accordingly). But if your goal is to protect women at all costs from feeling bad about their choices—because you don’t think they can handle it, and they probably don’t know what they want anyway—then we already have a word for that. It’s not feminism. It’s paternalism. And it denies women a fundamental if unglamorous freedom: to not just make decisions, but to live with and learn from the consequences of their less-than-great ones.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.