Yes Actually Just Means Yes, and Nothing Else

November 7, 2010


About two weeks ago, members of the Yale Chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity marched down campus one night for an initiation exercise.  The blindfolded initiates were marched to a part of campus where mostly female first-years lived, as they chanted “No means yes, yes means anal.”

Now, your first reaction might be laughter, or it might be disgust.  Or you could be thinking that this is old news.  But many students, activists, and even parents nationwide are scratching their heads about the incident, as Yale faculty scramble to maintain the school’s public image.  And that is precisely what is so interesting about the DKE case: how students and faculty have handled an already appalling situation.

Let’s begin with the event itself.  A YouTube video surfaced shortly after that night.

The video depicts blurry footage of faceless silhouettes moving around; the only thing distinguishable about it is the unified yelling of “No means yes, yes means anal.”

When I first read about the event, I had a fairly mild reaction of mixed annoyance, rage, and even a little amusement about these frat boy antics. I mean, does this kind of behavior surprise anyone given the reputation Greek Life has in the U.S.?  But then I watched this video, and heard the enthusiasm in these kids’ voices.  And suddenly, I felt unsafe–even though state borders and a computer screen separated us.

That’s the first thing people have to understand about why the DKE case is so problematic.  There’s nothing funny about large groups of men skipping past your house and singing about violently raping you. Furthermore, the chant implies that anal sex is a shameful act women should be embarrassed about, goaded into, or victimized by.  It implies the act can never be consensual–let alone pleasurable–and is merely a weapon of perceived male power.  Charming!  It implies that women don’t deserve sexual agency or control over their own pleasure.  It implies a message of “she was asking for it.” That chant was loaded.

Even more problematic, though, has been the diverse campus-wide and national backlash to DKE’s actions. According to the Yale Daily News, the DKE Board of Directors called for a temporary freeze on all pledge activities.  Yale faculty and the campus Women’s Center hosted a forum to make some decisions.  Yale College Dean Mary Miller and many other were very pleased with how the forum was organized and called it a solid first step.

But–there is a big but–some thought these actions were too harsh.  The situation was dismissed by some fraternity directors as a case of “bad judgment.” Bad judgment. As if singing and prancing in exaltation of violent rape was, what, a slip of the tongue?   Naturally, the Yale campus Women’s Center had a strong reaction to the incident.  But when they went so far as to claim that “making light of rape crossed a line,” the Yale Daily News wasted no time in replying that the Women’s Center response was “histrionic.” As in, hysterical, theatrical– characteristics typical of females, of course. Overreacting, because the boys were just, you know, being boys.

I’m going to let that one sit for a second.

What upsets me is not the incident itself, and not even the misogynistic reactions to it, but the fact that nobody so far has taken a comprehensive view of the situation.  The fact of the matter is that Yale female students were victimized that night; words have the power to hurt and threaten.  However, one also has to look at the other side: that of the perpetrators’.  Let’s face it: Yale doesn’t have the best reputation for female empowerment within its Greek life.  Two years ago, members of the Zeta Psi frat posed for a photo in front of the Women’s Center, holding up a “We Love Yale Sluts” sign.

It isn’t fair to dismiss all fraternities as misogynistic organizations.  Chauvinism happens, but it’s up to individual people to stop it.  The same goes for rape: potential perpetrators are the ones who can stop rape in its tracks.  These boys knew exactly what they were saying when they yelled “No means Yes.”  We all get taught about sexual assault as children; it’s not rocket science.  However, while these boys surely knew it was wrong, I doubt they knew exactly why.  After all, many students surveyed by the Yale Daily News were themselves unsure.

I didn’t learn about the concept of “Yes means Yes”–the idea that consent to a sexual act requires an emphatic “yes,” and not silence, an unconvincing “yes” or “no”– until my third year at university. I didn’t know much about rape culture either.  And I’m a girl, right?  I should know this kind of stuff.  So I highly doubt that these underclassmen frat boys knew either.  This doesn’t make them blameless, but it means that students nationwide remain largely uneducated about sexual violence.

If it were up to me, I’d probably suggest some heavy exposure therapy to the responsible individuals.  I’d probably suggest that Yale University take a harsh campus-wide stance in combatting sexual violence.  Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority of those who think so.  Many Yale students claim to remain unoffended by the incident, dismissing it as merely silly.  Others were offended, but couldn’t pinpoint why.

The important thing to take away is that rape on campus is probably more prevalent than you would think.  It isn’t talked about enough; it’s a complicated issue.  Many of us who make rape jokes or make light of sexual violence– well, we do it with harmless intentions, but we don’t always realize what our words mean.  Until we do, one can only hope that someone at Yale comes to their senses and takes some comprehensive and appropriate reaction to recent events– and maybe teaches the rest of us something too.