SXSW Review: 'Yes, God, Yes' Works to Destigmatize Female Sexuality

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From the utilitarianism of sex in the Victorian era that spawn the sexually repressed vampire tropes, to the ideal and virtuous woman who waited to have sex until her wedding night, female sexuality  persists as a taboo subject. It goes without saying that as women’s rights are debated on a federal level that there is still plenty to be learned on the matter, particularly by much of the male population. But director Karen Maine’s debut feature film Yes, God, Yes aims to destigmatize a reality that society has long turned a blind eye to. 

Set in the early 2000s, the story centers on Alice (Natalia Dyer), a teenager who attends a strict Catholic high school. There she is taught of the perils of *gasp* extramarital sex, homosexuality, and masturbation. However an encounter in an AOL chat room, prompts her sexual curiosity just before a weekend retreat that promises to change her life.

What Yes, God, Yes does so well is talk openly about female sexuality in the context of a Catholic upbringing. In this repressive environment, Alice is led to believe a number of misconceptions about sex and its peripheries that results in conflicting emotions. In her ‘sex ed’ classes, she is taught to believe that sex is only supposed to occur between a married man and woman, and that anything outside of that, including pleasuring oneself, is a sin. This leads Alice to repress herself again and again until she learns that she will not in fact go to hell for masturbating.

Alice’s conflict regarding her sexual urges reinforces society’s inadequacy in addressing such issues, and Maine tackles it on multiple fronts. One instance may find Alice ridiculed for sexual behaviors she never did while the alleged male recipient gains social currency. Another finds Alice holding back her desires for a camp counselor in fear that she may be viewed as unvirtuous. And as pitched in the synopsis, Alice learning about masturbation in a society that doesn’t even acknowledge it. The scenarios ask the audience to reconsider the ways in which society treats these issues about female sexuality, particularly under religious institutions. 

Religious values are critiqued much in the same way The Miseducation of Cameron Post did last year. Absurdist humor is used to underscore the ways in which religion, in this case Catholicism, preaches ironies it doesn’t uphold or antiquated principles that fail to stand the test of time in modern social contexts. It doesn’t have the bite that Cameron Post has when critiquing these institutions. Instead, Yes, God, Yes goes with a more playful interaction that keeps it light and humorous which may come off as dismissive of larger social issues, but for the tone it sets, it comes out alright.

The film is also a coming of age film, so we get a handful of genre touch stones, but Maine hones in on the teenage rumor mill. We’ve all experienced high school gossip in some form or another, but in this case, Alice is accused of tossing someone’s salad, a term she doesn’t even know the meaning of. Lies, truth, and social perception mix and mingle in the midst of Alice’s sexual urges, leading to some cringeworthy, albeit funny scenarios. Alice herself bears witness to the hypocrisy of others as they like to cast judgement on others while also violating their own virtues. From this, Alice is put right in the center of a Scarlet Letter-esque public shaming, but one that affirms her own conclusions about herself in the process.

The film’s resolve leads to an unceremonious climax. The hypocrites the film takes aim at are set up for a real reckoning, but instead of breaking them down, the drama just defuses. You expect some sort of boiling-over point where lies are brought to fruition and characters are exposed, but instead of giving what is expected, Alice makes a final proclamation that sums up what she learned over the four day retreat. Perhaps this is a way of saying these liars, scenarios, and critics you receive are hurdles in life that cannot be avoided, but it does leave something to be desired.

Regardless, by the end of Yes, God, Yes you come to learn more about the social inadequacies of female sexuality. Everyone can learn from this narrative, as it speaks specifically to women on how to cope with this sort of scenarios and how men can avoid being active enablers. The stigma attached to female sexuality is one that is not made equal to the experiences of male counterparts, and even though our culture has made some strides in the years since the early 2000s, we still have progress to be made.