The Men, And Women, Of Yale

Nearly thirty years ago, in a column in the New York Times Magazine, conservative firebrand William F. Buckley waxed nostalgic about his college days at Yale. He imagined a young Yalie today, at the now-coed, gender integrated, university, longing for “a fraternity house that wouldn’t end:”

Someday, damn it, we’ll have a treehouse of our own. We’ll build it out in the woods where Mother can’t find us. And we’ll eat when we want, what we want. We’ll bring our friends. Have a secret club. And no girls.

Defensive and wistful, Buckley experiences increasing gender equality as an invasion into those pure homosocial refuges, one coupled with constant policing by angry Mommies. Not all that surprising from a guy whose first book title included only God and man.

I was reminded of this little dream of homosocial purity when I received a link this past week to the now-viral video of pledges at Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity marching around and shouting “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”

(For the historically minded, DKE was mentioned in The New York Times in 1967 in a scandal over branding their pledges with red-hot coat hangers. The Yale Daily News called the practice “sadistic and obscene.” The chapter president defended it as akin to a cigarette burn. His name, incidentally, was George W. Bush. That was the first time Bush was mentioned in that newspaper.)

The immediate and universal outcry over the video focused, rightly, on the first half of the chant–the explicit support and encouragement of sexual assault. Legal questions were raised: Is this hate speech? Does it promote a hostile environment in which actual sexual assaults (of which Yale reported 13 a year in its most recent crime statistics) are ignored, downplayed or explained away?

At first, the fraternity issued a cover-your-ass smirking apology for offending people’s feelings (read: you feminists can’t take a joke). Their next apology, a day or so later, was far more abject, and showed they’d put some serious thought into how their actions might have been experienced by others. It seemed sincere enough.

But it lacked historical perspective. In 2006, fraternity guys marched in a sort of picket line outside the Women’s Center on campus, chanting those same phrases. In 2008, members of another fraternity celebrated their love of “Yale sluts” by screaming about it outside that same campus Women’s Center.

What does it mean to chant “No Means Yes” outside the campus Women’s Center, the place that offers a safe space for women who have been assaulted or abused? What does it mean to target the one place where women might actually feel safe enough to find their own voice, feel strong enough to succeed in a world still marred by gender inequality? It’s a reminder that men still rule, that bro’s will always come before “ho’s”. Even the Women’s Center can’t protect you.

That is, it’s a way to make even the safe unsafe.

We could leave it there, and let the campus judiciary and the blogosphere continue to debate about free speech and hostile environments and hate speech. But I think it would miss another, equally important element–the second half of the chant, “Yes Means Anal.”

This chant assumes that anal sex is not pleasurable for women; that if she says yes to intercourse, you have to go further to an activity that you experience as degrading to her, dominating to her, not pleasurable to her. This second chant is a necessary corollary to the first.

Thanks to feminism, women have claimed the ability to say both “no” and “yes.” Not only have women come to believe that “No Means No,” that they have a right to not be assaulted and raped, but also that they have a right to say “yes” to their own desires, their own sexual agency. Feminism enabled women to find their own sexual voice.

Sometimes, as in the case of the now-famous Karen Owen at Duke, they can be as explicitly raunchy as men, and evaluate men’s bodies in exactly the way that men evaluate women’s bodies. (I agree with Ariel Levy that women imitating men’s drinking and sexual predation is a rather impoverished style of liberation.)

This is confusing to many men, who see sex not as mutual pleasuring, but about the “girl hunt,” a chase, a conquest. She says no, he breaks down her resistance. Sex is a zero-sum game. He wins if she puts out; she loses.

That women can like sex, and especially like good sex, and are capable of evaluating their partners changes the landscape. If women say “yes,” where’s the conquest, where’s the chase, where’s the pleasure? And where’s the feeling that your victory is her defeat? What if she is doing the scoring, not you?

Thus the “Yes Means Anal” part of the chant. Sex has become unsafe for men–women are agentic and evaluate our performances. So if “No Means Yes” attempts to make what is safe for women unsafe, then “Yes Means Anal” makes what is experienced as unsafe for men again safe–back in that comfort zone of conquest and victory. Back to something that is assumed could not possibly be pleasurable for her. It makes the unsafe safe–for men.

In this way, we can see the men of DKE at Yale not as a bunch of angry predators, asserting their dominance, but as a more pathetic bunch of guys who see themselves as powerless losers, trying to re-establish a sexual landscape which they feel has been thrown terribly off its axis. This is especially ironic, of course, because these straight, white, upper-class Yalie DKEs are among the most privileged 20-year-olds on the planet. And yet now they feel one-down, defensive, reduced to impotent screaming–and all because of women’s equality.

Man up, guys. Women can say no–and they can say yes. And in 2010, real men can learn to hear both.


Michael Kimmel is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today. He is distinguished professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University, where he directs the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities.