Review: New novel tackles sexual assault on campus amid the #MeToo debate

Yes Means Yes cover image

Yes Means Yes is a new novel exploring the meaning of mutual consent in sexual relationships.

One of the most compelling scenes in the downfall of producer Harvey Weinstein was a secretly recorded dialog between him and a young model, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. In the audio, Weinstein pressures the young woman to follow him into his room. In a grotesque framing of the “Will she or won’t she?” trope, the dialog encapsulates the struggle of women against the power of men.

It’s a pattern as old as human history, and it repeated this week with the resignation of Sen. Al Franken.

Except this time, it’s different. After the New Yorker expose of Weinstein’s abuses, women by the millions—counting those who’ve used the #MeToo hashtag on social media—have lifted the veil of secrecy over their fear and shame. Americans are adjusting the power balance between men and women, though the road to a new landscape is far from straight and narrow. For one thing, the nation refuses to address Weinstein-like behavior by Donald Trump before he was elected President of the United States.

The novel is at once a seminar on the law concerning sexual assault on campus and the story of a young woman discovering its complexities at a personal level.

Since the early days of the feminist revolution, the cultural and legal issues around sexual harassment and sexual assault have clouded the never-crystal-clear relations between men and women. College campuses are often the crucible for change, as young men and women navigate a dynamic society’s mating rituals. The latest iteration stems from the meaning of mutual consent, that is, how do you know when it’s okay to move from mere attraction to a passionate kiss to a romp between the sheets?

Author Steven M. Wells explores the issues in a fictional narrative that is at once a seminar on the law concerning sexual assault on campus and the story of a young woman discovering its complexities at a personal level. The novel, Yes Means Yes, takes its title from a 2014 California law that defines sexual consent. The statute goes beyond the traditional “no means no” standard, which places the boundary of consent at the point when one of the partners says, in effect, “No further.” The California law says the partner must now explicitly says “yes” if the other partner wants sex, or else the initiating partner risks a charge of sexual assault.

In Yes Means Yes, new graduate student Katie Russell arrives on the campus of Colorado University ready to study philosophy. Facing a mountain of debt, she takes a job that makes her a kind of bounty hunter for sexual assault. The prize? $50,000. When her neighbor is raped, all evidence points to the all-star captain of the football team, who happens to be the worst kind of lout. In the meantime, Katie falls for a assistant professor who is the essence of the Western gentleman: thoughtful, handsome, ethical to a fault, and a rancher. Trouble, is, their relationship probably breaks the university’s code of conduct, threatening his career.

What follows are multiple Kafka-esque journeys that leave the reader wondering if fear of lawsuits will overwhelm the desire to mate. How could a man ever be sure that his lover really wanted him, if she happened to forget to say “Yes” during that romantic weekend alone? How could a woman be sure that her memory recalled “No” when a selfie turns up showing her and her partner apparently enjoying themselves? Suddenly, the rule is, there are no rules, as if there were ever rules in the first place.

Wells tells his story with the appropriate complexity, though it sometimes reads like a legal brief than the mystery it tries to be. That said, it’s a timely novel that gets underneath society’s confusion over the evolving roles of men and women in private and in public. A nation of laws expresses its values through its statutes and court decisions, and the country appears to be on its way toward another reset of the power balance between the sexes. Yes Means Yes is an excellent and well-written addition to the debate.

The author provided a copy to me in exchange for an honest review.

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