A revolution in sex law is underway, with the “no means no” consent standard being gradually replaced—mostly in college rule books, but also in certain state laws—with a “yes means yes” standard requiring explicit agreement for every sexual act in every sexual encounter. Of course, no revolution is complete without a re-education campaign, and California—which earlier this year became the first state in the country to require colleges to enforce “yes means yes”—is now pioneering an effort to teach tenth-graders the new paradigm (even though the rules only apply in college campus tribunals, not in the courts). According to a New York Times report by Jennifer Medina, who sat in on a lesson at a San Francisco high school, it’s not going particularly well:
Consent from the person you are kissing — or more — is not merely silence or a lack of protest, Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School of San Francisco, told the students. They listened raptly, but several did not disguise how puzzled they felt.
“What does that mean — you have to say ‘yes’ every 10 minutes?” asked Aidan Ryan, 16, who sat near the front of the room.
“Pretty much,” Ms. Zaloom answered. “It’s not a timing thing, but whoever initiates things to another level has to ask.” […]
The students did not seem convinced. They sat in groups to brainstorm ways to ask for affirmative consent. They crossed off a list of options: “Can I touch you there?” Too clinical. “Do you want to do this?” Too tentative. “Do you like that?” Not direct enough.
“They’re all really awkward and bizarre,” one girl said.
California’s teenagers seem to have more common sense than their state legislators. “Yes means yes” is an ideologically-motivated project that is utterly unworkable from a practical perspective. It is simply not the case that people—especially people already in a romantic relationship—will always ask for verbal permission from another person before holding hands, before kissing, or before each article of clothing is removed. No amount of re-education will change this. Of course, the less starry-eyed proponents of “yes means yes” understand that it won’t lead to a sudden and radical change in the way people conduct ordinary sexual encounters—they just think that it should be implemented to make it easier to convict men in campus tribunals, or in Ezra Klein’s words, to make men “feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.”
We’re unsettled by “yes means yes” standards in part because, as some judges have ruled, they undermine basic principles of due process, but also because of what their proliferation says about the state of our underlying culture. Even if you believe the rape crisis narrative being pushed by campus feminist activists, you can still admit that the millennial sex scene has its share of downsides—for both genders, but for women especially. It’s clear us that the campaign for “yes means yes” is to some extent an effort to rein in those excesses. But a healthy society would deal with these challenges by creating new cultural norms around sex and romance—not by turning to government to remake the culture through a clumsy, clunky, nonsensical re-education program that’s unlikely to work.