Sex in the modern world: Can even a 'yes, yes, yes' actually mean 'no?'

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.
Sex in the modern world: Can even a 'yes, yes, yes' actually mean 'no?'
When commentators analyze the new wave of women's struggles, one of their conclusions is that "no means no" is not enough to lead to a "happy sex life." This is because it still leaves space for more subtle forms of coercion.

Recently, in The Guardian, we saw an exemplary case of this line of argument: "Badgering someone into queasy submission might technically be within the law, but it is not the road to a happy sex life and it may no longer protect a man from public censure,"  wrote journalist Gaby Hinsliff. She was covering the views of Erin Tillman, an American ‘dating coach’ who believes the potentially ambiguous absence of "no," but the enthusiastic presence of a "yes, yes, yes" or affirmative consent is what is required nowadays.

"In 2018, 'no means no' is totally antiquated. It puts all the pressure on the person in the most vulnerable position, that if someone doesn't have the capacity or the confidence to speak up, then they're going to be violated," Tillman has said. "If somebody isn't an enthusiastic yes, if they're hesitating, if they're like: 'Uh, I don't know' – at this point in time, that equals no."

Modern phrases

One cannot but agree with all the critical points in this passage: How a weak "yes" under pressure equals "no," etc. What is problematic is the demand for "the enthusiastic presence of a 'yes, yes, yes.'” Because it's easy to imagine what a humiliating position this condition can put a woman into who, to put it bluntly (and why not?), passionately wants to get laid by a man. Basically, she has to perform an equivalent of publicly stating "Please f*** me!"

Are there not much more subtle (but nonetheless unambiguously clear) ways to do this? Furthermore, if one looks for "the road to a happy sex life," one searches for it in vain for the simple reason that there is no such thing.

Circumstances always, for inherent reasons, go wrong in some way in sex, and the only chance of a relatively "happy sex life" is to find a way to make these failures work against themselves. Directly searching for "the road to a happy sex life" is the safest way to ruin things, and the imagined scene of both partners enthusiastically shouting "yes, yes, yes" is, in real life, as close as one can get to Hell.

Things get even more complex with the right to withdraw from sexual interaction at any moment – it’s rarely mentioned how this right opens up new modes of violence. What if the woman, after seeing her partner naked with an erect penis, begins to mock him and tells him to leave? What if the man does the same to her? Can you imagine a more humiliating situation?

Clearly, one can find an appropriate way to resolve such impasses only through manners and sensitivity, which by definition cannot be legislated for. If a person wants to prevent violence and brutality by adding new clauses to the contract, they lose a central feature of sexual interplay, which is precisely a delicate balance between what is said and what is not said. Sexual interplay is full of such exceptions, where a silent understanding and tact offer the only way to proceed when folk want things done but not explicitly spoken about, when extreme emotional brutality can be enacted in the guise of politeness, and when moderate violence itself can get sexualized.

Oval Office orgasms

If we go to the end on this path, we have to conclude that even an enthusiastic "yes, yes, yes" can effectively function as a mask of violence and domination. Monica Lewinsky recently said that "she stands by her 2014 comments that their relationship (with Bill Clinton) was consensual,” but muses about the "vast power differentials" that existed between the two. Lewinsky says she had "limited understanding of the consequences" at the time, and regrets the affair daily. "The dictionary definition of ‘consent?’ To give permission for something to happen," she wrote. "And yet what did the 'something' mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age?.... he was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better," she said.

This is true, but she did not just consent, she directly initiated sexual contact, and it was Clinton who "consented," and the "vast power differential" was probably a key part of his attraction for her. As for her claim that since he was an older experienced man, he should have "known better" and rejected her advances, is there not something hypocritical in this self-ascribed role of an inexperienced victim?

Do we not find ourselves here at the exact, almost symmetrical, opposite of the Muslim fundamentalist view, according to which a man who raped a woman was secretly seduced (read provoked) by her into doing it? Such a reading of male rape as the result of woman's provocation is often reported by the media. For instance, in the fall of 2006, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, Australia's most senior Muslim cleric, caused a scandal when, after a group of Muslim men had been jailed for gang rape, he said: "If you take uncovered meat and place it outside on the street…. and the cats come and eat it… whose fault is it – the cats' or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem."

The explosively scandalous nature of this comparison between a woman who is not veiled and raw, uncovered meat distracted attention from another, much more surprising premise underlying al-Hilali's argument: If women are held responsible for the sexual conduct of men, does this not imply that men are totally helpless when faced with what they perceive as a sexual provocation? They are simply unable to resist it, being totally enslaved to their sexual hunger, precisely like a cat when it sees raw meat?

In contrast to this presumption of a complete lack of male responsibility for their own sexual conduct, the emphasis on public female eroticism in the West relies on the premise that men are capable of sexual restraint, that they are not blind slaves of their sexual drives.

This total responsibility of the woman for the sexual act strangely mirrors the Lewinsky view that, although the initiative was fully on her side, the responsibility was fully on Clinton's. In the same way that, in the Muslim fundamentalist view, men are helpless victims of woman's perfidious seduction, even if they commit a brutal rape. In the Lewinsky case, she was a victim even if she provocatively initiated the affair.

The symmetry between the two cases is flawed, of course, since in both the men are in the actual position of social power and domination. However, playing the card of a helpless victim in such a case as Lewinsky's is a self-humiliating spectacle which in no way helps women's emancipation – it merely confirms man as the master.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.