No more "no means no"?

Three writers wonder whether we need a better definition of rape.

Published March 11, 2006 1:00AM (EST)

Nerve today has a round-table discussion on rape with three writers in which participants Lisa Carver, Eric Swanson and Jill Soloway chat about "why it's a lot more complicated than no meaning no." Some of the reasons the contributors put forward for why "no means no" is too reductive:

1) Really hot sex often involves "informed semi-exploitation." Domination and power games may not pack the same punch if everyone is being communicative and respectful of boundaries, and some people may say no when they mean yes for the erotic kick. Carver says, "I listen to 'no' now. But out of the hundred times I ignored somebody's 'no' in the past, ninety-nine of those people were happy that I didn't. They'd been playing."

2) Every person's experience of sex is so unique that it may be impossible to create laws that protect everyone; different people may have radically different reactions to the same experience. Swanson submits: "I don't think statutory rape should exist [as a law]. If you want to bring a fifteen- or a thirteen year old's desire or ability or right to consent into the legal system, you've got to be able to get the whole story. And that may be un-gettable."

3) People may have different expectations for sex and may genuinely misread each other's signals. Discussing date rape, Solloway says, "I do believe a different sort of what's called date rape is a man bringing domination -- which is a legitimate sexual flavor in the thirty-one-flavor ice-cream shop that is sex -- into an encounter where the woman (particularly inexperienced women or women without a fondness for the sex/power dynamic) are expecting a slower seduction. In some ways, date rape can be defined as a man who is an inefficient, hurried or sloppy seducer."

In short, the participants do an excellent -- and sincere-seeming -- job of pushing a lot of hot buttons. There are even more discussion items that don't fall neatly into the above summary: Carver describes raping a man; Swanson advocates making sex a secret, private matter; Solloway says women shouldn't feel like they have to wash their hands after using the bathroom. Taken as a whole, the contributors make the case that the law is too blunt a tool for the delicate and private world of sexual mores. Which is interesting, and at some points persuasive.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that "no means no" has outlived its usefulness. If a person says no, most of us would agree it's best to assume he or she means it. The part we're stuck on is debating the cases in which not saying no still means no. That discussion is likely to continue until an asteroid hits Earth.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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