California just passed its "yes means yes" affirmative consent law, which requires all colleges and universities that receive state funding to implements affirmative consent standards as part of existing sexual violence policies. Gloria Steinem and Michael Kimmel weighed in on the change in an opinion piece for the New York Times, and pushed back against criticism that accuses the new law of being anti-sex or fuel for false accusations.
The new law, by imposing an affirmative consent standard, means that only "yes" means yes. This seems pretty basic, but is nonetheless controversial. As I've argued before, the real conversation about affirmative consent isn't about policing sex, but about prioritizing mutual desire and mutual pleasure. Talking more before, during and after sex is an important way to be sure that all parties are comfortable with what's happening, and it also allows people to express what feels good and what doesn't.
After a bit of a rundown on the history of people getting very upset over the idea of affirmative consent (Steinem and Kimmel have been doing this work for a long time, and have likely heard it all), the two get clear about what they think is really shifting as a result of the new law:
Until now, this has been the state of affairs in our nation’s laws on sexual assault. Invading bodies has been taken less seriously by the law than invading private property, even though body-invasion is far more traumatic. This has remained an unspoken bias of patriarchal law. After all, women were property until very recently. In some countries, they still are.
Even in America, women’s human right to make decisions about their own bodies remains controversial, especially when it comes to sex and reproduction. [...]
Until [California passed SB 967], the prevailing standard has been “no means no.” If she says no (or, more liberally, indicates any resistance with her body), then the sex is seen as nonconsensual. That is, it’s rape. Under such a standard, the enormous gray area between “yes” and “no” is defined residually as “yes”: Unless one hears an explicit “no,” consent is implied. “Yes means yes” completely redefines that gray area. Silence is not consent; it is the absence of consent. Only an explicit “yes” can be considered consent.
And rather than being a buzz kill, Steinem and Kimmel see this as a truly erotic turn: "But seriously, since when is hearing 'yes' a turnoff?," they asked. "Answering 'yes' to, 'Can I touch you there?' 'Would you like me to?' 'Will you [fill in blank] me?' seems a turn-on and a confirmation of desire, whatever the sexual identity of the asker and the asked."