In a recent piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Susan Dominus writes clearly and movingly about being at a loss for words when, years earlier, she wanted to interrupt an undesirable sexual encounter at a college fraternity party. She didn’t use “no,” she says, because of its “mundane familiarity.” For other women, she asserts, “no” seems too “confrontational.” Dominus calls for another way of signaling ambivalence about an impending sexual experience—something of a safe word, like “red zone,” that both parties would understand. The difference between “red zone” and “no” or “stop” is that it conveys not outright repugnance, but something much closer to the truth—uncertainty and sensitivity to potential emotional danger.
I don’t know that I agree with Dominus’s contention that “no” is either too mundane or too confrontational. In fact, those two descriptions seem at odds, if not contradictory. But I think she’s on to something when she reaches for language that’s neither black nor white, neither yay nor nay. If we can imagine a woman on the verge of sexual activity who, moments earlier, might have been flirting with the other person, we can also probably imagine that the woman may hesitate to proceed, but, at the same time, may hesitate to say precisely “no.”
Whether a safe word like “red zone” is the answer in such a situation is, for me, doubtful, because both people need to buy into it, and often the two people involved hardly know each other and can’t be expected to have any sort of pre-agreement about following the path to sexual intimacy. That very lack of familiarity between two people who are about to fall into a sexual experience together strikes me as exactly the point: how do they communicate about what they feel and want, particularly if alcohol is blurring their judgment?
What’s clearer, I think, is that sexual desire is often less than straightforward or unquestionably—equally—felt by both people. Maybe slowing down would help; maybe continuing would ultimately prove agreeable. In either case, “no” doesn’t accurately represent feelings; neither does “yes.” The reality is something closer to “maybe.”
Of course, some sexual encounters are unequivocally wanted by both people. In those cases, affirmative consent—“yes”—is easy enough to conjure. A vast number of potential sexual experiences, however, fall into a gray area of desirability, rendering the notion of affirmative consent ineffective, insufficient.
While this subject doesn’t specifically relate to professor-on-student sexual harassment or assault, which is the subject of this blog, neither is it alien. The issue of consent gathers complication as it cuts across the spectrum of sexual harassment and assault. If two people of nearly the same age have difficulty expressing their feelings about sex, a person of a younger age, faced with what may well be the flattering advances of an older professor, will probably feel even more conflicted and, therefore, less likely to find language that matches the situation. During the first week when affirmative consent is now a legal requirement on California public university campuses, it warrants attention.