"our courteous Antony,
— His aide and friend Enobarbus on Mark Antony,
in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
I think most of my readers will agree with the formula, "No" means No; "Yes" means Yes; "Maybe" means maybe. Now I'd like you to think about the implications of that formula for young Americans, and especially how we educate and train young Americans.
First off, if "Yes" is to mean "yes," people have to ask yes/no questions, and other people must be free to answer "yes" or "no." As one of my feminist colleagues put it (I'm quoting from memory), "I tell my students that asking once isn't harassment; it's what he's supposed to do. If he repeats himself after you've said "No," that is harassment. The first one is a freebie."
And, second off, it's a freebie for everyone, or at least everyone in a voluntary encounter between (or among) people of the age of consent. Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is from the early 17th century, and it's set shortly before the Christian era. Even back then, they had the concept that at least a good looking, imperial-class stud would be asked for sex by women, and he might, in theory, say "No." Antony won't, but (a) undesirable women probably couldn't get near him, and (b) by the mid-20th century guys had developed the concept of male slut, which we can apply to this vision of Antony, as in the rhetorical question, "Is there anything you won't fuck?!"
Antony won't say "No," but he could, so his "Yes" is significant.
And Enobarbus seems convinced that women who want a man might very well ask, which is more significant.
When I was in high school in Chicago around 1960 and guys would say, "Hey, she really wants me," we could respond, "If she really wanted you, she would ask you."
Women and older girls, then, need to be able to say "Yes," or their "No" isn't totally convincing. Women and older girls need to be free to ask, and if they do not ask, then guys should assume that these gals might be willing to have sex with them but aren't exactly, let's say, champing (or chomping) at the bit.
If "Yes" means yes and all, then the old idea of the coy young maid is a bad idea.
The Machiavellian Duke of Buckingham tells the even more Machiavellian Duke of Gloucester — soon to become King Richard III — that when offered a crown Richard should "Play the maid's part: still answer nay, and take it" (Richard III 3.7.51; through-line 2252). Or as Shakespeare sexistly puts into the mouth of a young woman, "[…] maids, in modesty, say 'no' to that / Which they would have the profferer construe 'ay'" (Two Gentlemen of Verona 1.2.54-55; through-lines 207-08).
So let us say an emphatic no to the gushy old romantic ideal of the shy maid who cannot say "Yes" but really wants "it." And equally no to the old romantic ideal of the pleading lover who keeps pressing his case; the repeatedly-rejected wooer always was a pathetic schmuck with no sense of dignity, but now we can, and should, see him also as an incipient stalker.
"No" means no, damn it. Give her your number, and tell her that if she changes her mind to call. Ditto for "him" and all the various variations.
I would not go so far as to push the case that people engaging in sex should ask permission for each stage of the encounter — each "base" in the sports metaphor — or I won't make that case unless they both get off talking dirty. After the initial "Yes," most couples can get along on body language and monosyllabics like "no," "stop," or "Oh, yeah!"
(Sometimes, though, it's simply necessary to pause and "Use your words." I have no idea what sort of squeal or grunt I made, but a woman once courteously stopped what she was doing and asked, "Did that hurt?" And I had to think a moment and say, "I … I'm not sure. Do it again.")
Initial saying of "Yes" or "No" and, if "Yes," some basic decisions — "Your place or mine?" "Do I need to buy condoms?" "You're sure your creepy roommate is out of town and took her iPhone with her?" — initial negotiation, even if quite brief needs some physical and aural space for communication. This is an additional reason why hook-up bars designed for noise and sensory overload are abominations on the face of the Earth. Indeed, some of the customers are in such places precisely because serious talk is impossible, but that's no reason they should be encouraged, or no reason beyond financial gain.
So: One problem area in serious sex-ed for America's young people is more or less in the political Center and Left: squishy Romance and the subspecies of feminism that discourage talking about sex, especially guys' directly asking older girls and women for sex. (My colleague had to tell her students that "The first one is a freebie" because other people had told them that any request for sex that turned out not to be desired was sexual harassment.) This problem area overlaps with the Right, and the "Just say 'No'" American puritanical tradition.
Old-style, capital-"P" Puritans can be seen as generally orthodox Christians, who believed human beings are essentially souls and that the crucial issue is whether those souls are saved or damned. So far as we have any control over our salvation — and we may have none — traditional doctrine taught resistance to the soul's enemies: the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.
Souls, in traditional Christian theory, are lead into evil by the bodily sins of Lust, Sloth, and Gluttony, and by the Worldly/Demonic sins of Wrath, Envy, Greed, and Pride. Puritans emphasized the threat of the Flesh, and today many pious Americans put little energy into condemning wrath, envy, or greed. And, with one crucial exception, today's puritans have nearly forgotten that Pride is a sin.
Young Americans are taught morality mostly in terms of their sexuality and secondarily as an imperative to obey the laws or social conventions governing what drugs they may put into their bodies — variations on that battle against Lust, Sloth, and Gluttony. "Pride is the root of all evils" only when it takes the form of intentional disobedience to adult authority. "Just Say No" means "No" to peers, not to parents, ministers, or the law.
One student at my university used puritan doctrine to explain the tendency of our students to "Get drunk, get stupid, get laid," without planning and without protection, and certainly without negotiation. One can get drunk, get stupid, get laid, and then get repentant and get absolved and get welcomed back into Holy Church. One can get wasted and sin and remain "a good kid."
The fleshly sins are deadly, but easily forgiven. Unforgivable, she argued, would be the rebellion of an unmarried 19-year-old's planning to get laid, buying condoms, having sex, enjoying sex, and responding to older-adult accusations with "Yeah, I got laid—So? 'Sex is dangerous'? Skydiving is dangerous! Anything worth doing is worth a little risk to do! You take sensible precautions, which I did."
If the question is obedience and the soul's salvation, not bodily health, equally unforgiven would be a 19-year-old who says, "No, we didn't smoke pot; we drank dope tea, talked, and took a bus home as a group. Tolerate it." Far better, in terms of obedience, for teens to sneak tequila and beer Friday nights, get drunk, get wild, and meekly repent on Saturdays.
All the more so if the 19-year-old in question was a young woman. Again, when guys in high school would say, "Hey, she really wants me," we could respond, "If she really wanted you, she would ask you." More exactly, she would ask back then only if she had a lot of guts, and even after graduation, as a legal adult, it would take guts to tell her parents, if asked, "Actually, I planned the date, and the sex."
Things have gotten better with educating gals on sex. I'm not so sure there's been progress with guys about sex or with either group on the closely-related matter of alcohol and other drugs. When I was growing up, fathers and "older guys" would instruct boys in sexual protocol (e.g., "bathe; take your socks off; spend the night; cook her breakfast"); and both sexes often got informal training in how to "drink like ladies and gentlemen." Bingeing and puking on your date was bad form, to say nothing of a bad introduction to asking for sex.
Nowadays, chastity training discourages all nonmarried people from asking for sex. "Abstinence Only" precludes discussions of sexual hygiene and sexual manners — and helps makes mutual bingeing, not negotiation, a primary way for unmarried teens to get sex, however sloppily and dangerously.
"Just Say No" undermines the believability of "No means no" and contributes to alcohol abuse, sexual assault, and morning-after charges of sexual assault. Under "Zero Tolerance," teaching your kids how to drink and throw a responsible party can get adults arrested.
Under "Abstinence-Only" regulations, straight-talking, honest drug education — "This is what the drug will do for you, this is what it may do to you" — is forbidden.
"Just Say No," "Zero Tolerance," and "Abstinence Only" cut off debate and forbid discussing relative risks and risk reduction.
Puritan policies make excellent sense in terms of saving souls and training obedience, but in secular, democratic terms, they have high costs.
Unless ruthlessly enforced, such policies contribute to teen-pregnancy, venereal diseases, and abuse — as opposed to learning responsible use — of alcohol and other drugs, and of other people. When ruthlessly enforced, Abstinence Only/Just Say No train for submission to power, not ethical choice.
You want to reduce sexual assault on campus and elsewhere? After you've arrested, tried, convicted, and put in prison a whole lot more of the serial rapists responsible for much of the problem, start working on the cultural issues. Tops among those cultural issues are the people who haven't thought through "Yes means 'Yes' … (etc.)" and have implemented policies they see as solutions but are very centrally part of the problem.