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Filtering by Category: Campus Sexual Assault

Yes Means Yes in the News

Steven Wells

December was a busy time for Yes Means Yes, which was featured in a number of media outlets, including on op-ed on Motherhood Moment, an interview with Cyrus Webb on Conversations with Cyrus Webb, and an interview on Publish with Connie. For your convenience, I've reproduced my op-ed from Motherhood Moment below. Enjoy.

Why did you decide to write this book?
Three years ago, I started researching possible topics for a new novel. News stories about college sexual assault were common. In 2011, the Department of Education had released its controversial “Dear Colleague” letter, requiring colleges to take a more proactive role in eliminating sexual assault on campuses, or face Title IX investigations. Then, the state of California passed a law requiring college students to obtain informed consent before engaging in amorous relationships. This consent must be ongoing, could be withdrawn at any time, and could be non-verbal. The law was nicknamed Yes Means Yes and became the title of my new book. The subject is compelling, timely, and surprisingly complex—the perfect subject for a novel.

How has your perspective been affected by being the father of a young adult daughter?
I raised my daughter in equal custody with her mother from the time she was six. Neither of us remarried during those years before college, and fortunately we lived within miles of each other. My daughter built lasting friendships with a small group of girls in middle school, ones that survived high school and even through different colleges. As I watched my daughter and her friends experience academics, sports, dating, college admission, and early careers, to my knowledge, none of them ever experienced sexual assault.


However, as I researched my book, and began interviewing many young women who were attending, or had recently attended college, my limited view gave way to a realization that many young men feel entitled to sex and are willing to use drugs or alcohol to achieve an encounter. In my opinion, this objectification of women is a strong component behind the issue of sexual harassment so prevalent in the news today. Luckily, or maybe with some degree of successful parenting, my daughter was savvy enough to recognize this problem and seek out men who stood on higher moral ground.


Now twenty-four and living in Los Angeles, she visited me this past Thanksgiving. Over dinner one evening, we discussed details of my book. After I finished describing the plot and the issues of sexual assault described in the novel, she sat back and looked at me with disarming confidence and simply said, “Dad, the rule for guys in college is: Don’t have sex with a drunk student.” She made it sound so obvious. And so easy.

How do you balance messages of safety without inhibiting fun?
That’s an excellent question. During a recent book signing, I fielded questions from the audience. A mother asked me what she should tell her son before he leaves for college. She’s worried by stories she’s read of male students who believe they’ve had consensual sex with a female, then are later accused of sexual assault. It’s widely accepted that in university investigations, if a male and a female are both intoxicated, a notoriously difficult state of mind to measure, have sex, and then the woman later complains, the male will almost always be found guilty of sexual assault. Disciplinary panels consider who initiated sex and whether informed consent was received. A female student cannot give consent if she is intoxicated, and if a male student is intoxicated, the argument goes, he would be physically unable to initiate sex.


My advice to the mother was to encourage her son to know his partner well. If in doubt, wait. If too much alcohol has been consumed, wait. Even for a day. I suggested he have a friend able to testify to the state of mind of both students before and after the event. These personal testimonies are important in the disciplinary hearing. This certainly takes the fun and spontaneity out of such encounters, but when expulsion and being branded an assailant are possibilities, the risk is very high.

Why is the issue sometimes more complicated than "victim" and "perpetrator?"
On a university campus, young adults experience a precarious transition from youth to adult. Most sexual assaults occur during the first four semesters of college, and ninety percent of victims know their perpetrators. The prevalence of drugs and alcohol almost guarantee great decisions aren’t being made. Students who willingly and knowingly enter into a consensual sexual relationship will join prior generations of students. Trouble arrives when legal and affirmative consent is not clearly stated and received.
 

 

Empowerment

Steven Wells

As I finished editing Yes Means Yes, I encountered a scene that caused some spirited debate with several test-readers. It arrived in chapter three of the book, after protagonist Katie had spent her first summer, post-college, agonizing over a broken heart and a looming decision about graduate school. I liked the scene a lot. But in the end, I decided to delete it, and how I arrived at that decision illustrates one of the many challenges of writing. Here is the scene as originally written.

BY LATE AUGUST, KATIE HAD FINISHED her last day as a barista and had begun to pack. She didn’t own much beyond clothes, books, and a few kitchen things, so she could squeeze most everything into her five-year-old Subaru, a high school graduation gift from her parents. She shipped a few remaining boxes to the school to be picked up once she arrived. At her mom’s request, Katie convinced one of her roommates, Teresa, to accompany her on the drive to Boulder.
On her last night in Claremont, Teresa suggested that they go out for a farewell drink. Teresa drove her to a restaurant; when they walked inside, Katie was surprised to find six of her best friends crammed into a large booth in a corner. On the table were several gift bags surrounded by drinks from the bar. Tears and laughter came easily as she relived their many great memories from school. The enormity of her move began to sink in. She knew she’d really miss her friends and the comfort they brought her. Each of them had encouraged her after her breakup with Justin and now repeated what they’d told her earlier: she wouldn’t have any trouble meeting other desirable guys.
After opening and passing around the pile of cards and presents, Katie made a trip to the bathroom. Afterward, she returned to her friends by way of the restaurant’s crowded bar. Over the din of loud, alcohol-fueled conversations, she heard someone calling out her name. She turned and saw a guy she vaguely recognized from campus. She stepped over to join him, and he quickly reminded her that they’d taken sociology together. She hadn’t noticed him at the time, but while talking to him near the bar, she decided he was seriously cute. Better yet, he seemed mature. He mentioned that he, too, had just graduated and that he planned to stay in Claremont for work. When Katie mentioned that she needed to rejoin her friends, he suggested that she return to the bar afterward. She surprised herself and said “Sure.”
About an hour later, while saying good-bye to everyone, she told them about her earlier encounter. They all wanted to go check him out for themselves. She dissuaded them and planned to return later on by herself. Before leaving, Teresa made her promise to text her if she wouldn’t be coming home.
She found him in the bar with a couple of other guys, drinking beers and laughing. She guessed it was around midnight. She didn’t even know his name. She walked up to him and extended her hand. “I’m Katie.”
“I’m Ryan. Nice to finally meet you.”
Katie appreciated his firm handshake. He stopped suddenly. “What happened to your hand? I’m not hurting you, am I?”
“No, it’s from an accident I had playing soccer in middle school.” Katie held up her right hand and displayed her crooked index finger. “It was badly broken, and the doctor didn’t set it right. It doesn’t hurt—just looks funny.” She teasingly poked him in the arm. “See? Doesn’t hurt.”
Ryan’s eyes sparkled. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Just a glass of water.” She’d already had enough alcohol.
When a beer and a glass of water arrived, Ryan suggested they go find a table.
Katie studied his smooth face and solid jaw. “How’s the job hunt going?”
“I’m looking. I hope to find something soon. My parents keep telling me I’m on my own.”
“What’s your major?”
“Economics. I’m hoping to work for a couple of years and then go to graduate school. That’s my plan, anyway.” He laughed and took a sip of beer. “What about you?”
“I’m going to graduate school straight away. In fact, I’m leaving for Boulder tomorrow.”
“Great place. ‘Rocky Mountain High’ and all that.”
“I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s one of the best college towns in the country. I’m excited.” Katie turned and faced him square on.
“I’m sure you’ll like it.”
They were silent for a few moments. Ryan finally broke it and said, “Hey, weren’t you dating a guy named Justin?”
Katie could have gone all night without hearing that name again. “I was. Not anymore.”
“I’m not too sorry to hear that.”
“I’m not too sorry to tell you.”
“You want to get out of here?” As he said it, Ryan reached over and touched her hand.
“What do you have in mind?”
“Let’s go to my apartment. It’s quieter there.”
“OK.” Katie had just crossed a line that was unusual for her—spontaneity. Maybe it was the alcohol talking. Perhaps it was the reality of leaving town the next day and never coming back. Maybe it was a way to take one more giant step away from Justin. What she couldn’t deny was that she felt some serious desire for Ryan.
They walked half a mile or so to his apartment. He had a very nice condo, she noted—especially for a student—and she appreciated its great view and the tasteful furniture that didn’t appear to be secondhand. Katie was impressed. “Nice place. Didn’t you say you were worried about money?”
“My parents bought this for me after my sophomore year, once they believed I’d actually graduate. They felt it was a better investment than just giving me rent. Now that I’ve graduated, I have one year to start paying them back, or they’ll evict me. I’m sure they mean it.”
“Well, I’m guessing that with a major in economics, you won’t have any trouble.”
“I hope not.”
They walked into the living room. Ryan took Katie’s jacket and tossed it onto a nearby sofa. He put his arms loosely around her waist and kissed her, softly at first, then with increasing passion. Katie responded and explored his mouth with hers. Ryan wound his arms around her waist and pulled her in tight. She felt his strong chest underneath his shirt. Katie gave herself permission to shut off any second-guessing and enjoy what she knew was going to happen with a very sexy guy. She moved her hands down and started to unbutton Ryan’s jeans. His hands began to unbutton her white blouse.
Katie asked, “Got a condom?” Please say yes.
“Yes.”
Following an erratic path across the living room floor, interrupted by more kissing and clothes falling away, they arrived in his bedroom. She was down to her underwear and he his boxers. It wasn’t long before those hit the floor as well.

KATIE WOKE UP FEELING CONFUSED, and she rolled toward the opposite side of the bed. Justin’s naked body lay partially covered by a sheet. She lifted it up and took a quick peek. A smile crossed her face as she recalled the pleasant details of the past several hours. Then she panicked when she realized that it was light outside and that she had planned to meet Teresa back at her apartment for the drive to Boulder. She’d also forgotten to text Teresa that she wasn’t coming home. Katie quietly slipped from the bed and retrieved her clothes, a task made harder because it required her to follow the trail they’d left from the living room. After she dressed and found her purse and phone, she returned to the bed and kissed Ryan on his forehead.
He opened his eyes partway and in a shallow whisper said, “Can I call you?”
Katie thought for a minute. Her eyes swept across his form lying under the sheet. “No, I don’t think so. But thank you.” She slipped out the front door.
Katie reflected on the evening’s events during the short walk to her apartment. It was her first one-night stand. She didn’t quite know how to react; it was out of character, to say the least. Her life suddenly seemed full of new possibilities. She felt empowered. One aspect of her actions was undeniable: she’d just put the final nail in the coffin of her relationship with Justin.
Later that morning, after only a few hours of sleep, Katie left Claremont for the last time. After a stop at the apartment’s rental office to drop off her key and leave a forwarding address, Katie and Teresa drove northeast to Boulder by way of Las Vegas.

So what was it about this scene that elicited such strong opinions from my test-readers? It was Katie's decision to participate in her first one-night-stand, and her reaction of feeling "empowered" afterward.

One readers said "Sure, having casual sex might be fun, but empowering?  No way." I explained my motivation in writing it that way, that Katie was doing what men have been doing for generations, having casual sex and moving on, and that she felt empowered to realize that she too could enjoy sex outside of a commitment. It put her on equal footing. The test-reader wasn't persuaded.

Another reader said, "At that point in the book, Katie, wouldn't do it. She was too conservative and still hurting after her painful breakup. Plus, she didn't really like sex."  I agreed, and found several others who had the same concern. Casual sex was just too inconsistent with her character.

The aspect of this feedback that I found most interesting is how it broke along age. There were eight women who weighed in on this point, ranging in age between eighteen and seventy. All women thirty or under felt the scene was totally appropriate and believable. And without exception, the older women all said they didn't like Katie engaging in such casual sex. So I decided to cut the scene. I felt for the majority of readers, it just didn't work. And with it gone, no one would notice that it was missing. It's hard for a writer to let something go. As an editor once told me, if a reader has a problem with a certain aspect of the book, they can attribute it to personal preference.  But if several people have the same problem, then you as a writer have the problem. It was great advice.