Thursday, August 5, 2010

No – A Short Word With A Complex Meaning

I am sure that you have heard the saying “No means No.” To some people, it is a pretty simple concept: if a woman says no in bed, the man should just stop. In the real world, unfortunately, things are often more complicated.

Jenny says: 'No' means 'no'. It's as simple as that. Anyone with an IQ over 12 should be able to understand it. If a woman says 'no', just stop. That's the end of it.

Joe says: Sure, sometimes 'no' means 'no', but, really, if every man who ever heard 'no' stopped immediately, the human race would simply cease to procreate. I stop if I get a good firm 'no', but with a soft 'no', that's just her saying I need to try harder.

This is a very complex situation for many reasons, but two of the keys are a pair of social pressures placed on women. One pressure is the need not to seem 'easy'. The other is the need to please.

Many women will put up false resistance to show that they are not easy, that they are not sluts. They will give soft no's, with the expectation that they will be 'convinced' to change their no to a yes. This can be cute and playful, but it gives men a very confused idea of what 'no' really means. This creates beliefs like those that Joe hold.

As girls, many women are taught to be agreeable, that it is their job to please and serve and not disagree. This can make it very difficult to give a firm 'no', like the one that Joe is looking for. For some, they are so conditioned to please, that they will change their 'no' to a 'yes', even if they would rather not have sex, just to please their partner. In some such cases, the partner will actually think that she wanted to go ahead, even though she really did not. In some cases, a woman may even feel that she was raped in such a situation, believing that her consent was coerced by social pressure.

As they said in Cool Hand Luke, What we have here is a failure to communicate. Fortunately, there is something that we can all do about this.

First, let us clear up a myth. Most people know the truth about this, but I just wanted to touch on it. You may have heard of a condition called Blue Balls. It almost never happens. Ladies, getting a man excited and not getting him off may get you a frustrated man, but it will not get you a trip to the emergency room. Also, remember, there is more than one way to get a guy off, as I discussed in this article. (Gentlemen, this is a two way street. If you are getting, you better me giving if you would like to be getting again the in the future.)

Dan says: For years, I thought that 'no' was something that could be negotiated. I felt that if she really meant 'no', she would say so clearly. At times, I would find women upset with me after the fact, even though they had agreed to everything we had done. Then, I decided that it was not worth it. If she said 'no', I'd just accept it and be patient. A remarkable thing happened. When I did this, some of the women who initially said 'no' relaxed and became more comfortable, eventually saying 'yes', but without any convincing from me. They were comfortable with their decision, and I got what I was hoping for by not pushing for it.

To men, as well as women who might encounter a 'no' in the bedroom, remember that many women have been taught that it is rude to say 'no'. They do not want to be seen as frigid or a tease. Furthermore, sometimes, a woman is physically aroused, and she desires to say 'yes', but she does not want to for one reason or another. Her physical desire is a minority shareholder in the decision making process, and it is a poor idea to try to stoke that fire against her better judgment. Tomorrow morning, the fires of passion will have gone out, but the rational reasons why she wanted to say 'no' will still remain. You may have gotten her to say 'yes', but at what cost?

A man are also well advised to check in periodically, asking if what he is doing is alright, especially if he is with a new partner. Some people will want to stop but may not be comfortable asserting themselves enough to say something. Even if this is not the case, checking in is always a good thing to do anyway. You never know what interesting thing you may learn.

Dominick says: I always try to check in, but I hate playing the 'what does that mean?' game. When I am with a woman who is ambiguous, I will usually call things off because I would much rather not play that play and discover later that she consented but didn't really want to.

To women, as well as men who might want to say 'no' but are not comfortable saying so, it is important to understand that, while your partner might be disappointed to hear you say 'no', he is much happier to get a clear, unambiguous 'no' then to find out after the fact that he made you do something that you did not want to do. No one (at least no one of good moral character) wants to force their partner against their will, and no one wants to have to second guess what a no really means, so if you mean 'no', say 'no' and stick to 'no'.

Emily says: A valuable concept that I realized when I got into the kink world was that of safewords. In the kink community, a safeword is a hard and immediate 'no'.

In kink, especially BDSM, people will generally have a safeword that they can use to pause or stop a scene because something is uncomfortable or uncomfortable/dangerous. Such a concept would work well in this situation. One of the problems that comes up with misunderstood 'no' is that the situation does not pause. The pressure stays on, and there is not a moment to step back and think about if you are doing the right thing. In some communities, the word 'red' is used as a general safeword to completely stop the scene. 'Red' means stop everything, step away, all-stop. Being able to do this would create the space to make clear what everyone's needs are.

This works better in an ongoing relationship where there is already an established safeword, but even if a safeword has not been established there are common words that could be used to do the same thing. 'Stop', 'pause', 'hold', and 'wait' are all words that could be used to jar a seduction to a stop to make sure that everyone is comfortable with things. 'Pikachu' is also a very effective safeword to bring things to a stop.

This is one of the most important cases of the need for clear communication. Ideally, a couple will discuss things ahead of time, talking about limits and what they are willing to do. This is the best way to avoid ambiguous situations. Of course, this is not always what happens in the real world, but it is still better to communicate clearly now than end up in a regrettable situation later.


  1. "For some, they are so conditioned to please, that they will change their 'no' to a 'yes', even if they would rather not have sex, just to please their partner. In some such cases, the partner will actually think that she wanted to go ahead, even though she really did not. In some cases, a woman may even feel that she was raped in such a situation, believing that her consent was coerced by social pressure."

    Oh, for fuck's sake. The way you framed that is rape apology. Consent can be coerced by societal pressure; it's not just that some women believed that it was!

  2. @Del-
    I disagree. I am a woman who has been raped. I said no, I fought back, it still happened. That was rape. I've also said "Yes" or nothing at all when I did not really feel in the mood for sex. That was not rape. Unless a firm, strong "No!" is issued or something of the like it is not rape (I'm not including situations where drugs and alcohol were involved.)
    As a woman it's my job to stand up to societal pressure and stand strong in what I feel. If you cannot do that, and have sex anyways, you have no right to call it rape, and as a rape surviver, I find this use of the term offensive.

  3. @Anonymous-
    I feel an important thing to consider in this scenario is that there was a 'no' issued. If someone says 'no' and continues to be pressured, then a change to saying 'yes' can't really be considered true consent. (Though the blog is not very clear on how definitely the 'no' was iterated.) And I agree with you that women have a responsibility to make their consent, or lack thereof clear.
    However, having been in a situation where I knew there was no way for me, physically, to overcome the other person and get away, where I was completely at the mercy of the other person to choose not listen when I asked them to stop (which I did ask, firmly), I can very much attest to the fear and the mental and physical paralysis that can overcome someone in that situation. I "gave in" and said yes, even if though I didn't want to. I often wish I had had the strength to fight back, the strength that you had, but the fact that I didn't does not make what happened any less an assault.

  4. @ the first Anonymous:

    As a rape survivor myself, rape apologia from fellow rape survivors turns my stomach.

    I could have said "no," you're right. And I probably should have. However, I didn't think it was possible/socially accecptable/nice to say "no" to my boyfriend. I thought it would be rude if I did. I thought that women should have sex to please their partners. Then on top of that, he was violating my boundaries in other ways (feeling me up when I physically moved his hands away multiple times, fucking with our BC without discussing it with me first), and the few times I *did* say no, it got extremely, extremely awkward. Oh, and I was 18 and previously a virgin, and he was 21 and not at all a virgin.

    There were all sorts of good reasons for me to play along and say "yes," even when I didn't want to, and all sorts of bad reasons for me to refuse. It was hella traumatic for me. Go on, tell me it wasn't rape again.

    He should have asked, verbally, if I wanted to have sex, instead of just assuming I was cool with it and initiating. He shouldn't have sulked when I said "no." He should have goddam controlled his hands when I physically removed them from my body. He should've stopped what he was doing the times I went unresponsive during intercourse, because I wasn't enjoying what was happening.

    Rape happens even when women don't say "no." It is not, and was not, my responsibility to stop people from doing things to me without my consent; it is other people's job to not do things to me without receiving my consent first!

  5. @Del

    I am not discounting or trying to devalue what happened to you, I understand you feel that you had no choice but to go along with things once they started happening however, according to Merriam Websters the definition of rape is "to seize and take away by force." Now, I understand this definition is limited however, barring situations where drugs, alcohol, physical force or violence are involved, you always have the choice to say "no" regardless of what society tells you.

    I am a feminist and as a feminist I truly believe at my core all women should use the power they have. As a free and independent person and as a woman it is your job and your job alone to say "no", to state how you feel and to stand strong in your convictions. It is your job to keep yourself safe and it is your job to own your choices, bad, good or otherwise.

    I will go ahead and tell you it was not rape but I do believe it was a traumatic experience for you, no doubt about that.
    I have been in your exact situation. I was in my freshman year of college, I felt alone, I fell in with a crowd that although not good for me was always there. I kind of reluctantly started dating a guy in this group of friends. I did many things with him, including unprotected intercourse more then once, that even at the time I felt ill doing. But, even though it was unwanted on my part, I never said "no". The situation sounds very similar to yours, I was scared to say "no" because I'd lose my entire social group. I finally did say "no" and I DID lose my social group but I gained a hell of a lot more by doing it. It was not rape though. Like I said, I've been raped, I've been sexually abused, but not saying "no" even when I wanted too, is not rape, it's a bad judgment call.

    I do agree that he should of asked if you wanted to have sex. I also agree that he was a dick for touching you in way you did not want or like.
    I do not agree that it is his job to interpret your response or lack there of. I have said "Stop" in the middle of sex with partners when, for whatever reason, I felt it needed to stop. Yes, it's awkward but it's worth using your voice to avoid feeling bad about a situation later.

    I will say that in cases where a lover/partner has demonstrated extreme physical violence and has a history of such it may not be the best idea to refuse them. In fact I'd say go along with it so you can hold out long enough to go get help and get out of the relationship.
    I feel only in this situation is it appropriate to not say "no" and then call what happened rape.

    ** continued in next comment

  6. This is rape;

    These cases as well as thousands of others around the world in and the United Sates where woman are physically forced, where woman fight for their lives, scream "no" and STILL are violated are examples of rape. The 15 year old girl who tries beer for the first time, gets drunk and is penetrated because she is too inebriated to say no and fight back is rape.
    Not using your voice for out of a fear of social awkwardness is NOT rape.

    Yes, it'd be wonderful if we lived in a world where everybody explicitly asked for consent before doing anything but we don't so we must adapt. As a woman you are the only person who can give your consent. Let me say that again; You are the only person who can give your consent.
    If you had EXPLICITLY said "No" and he kept going then it's rape but by keeping quiet you essentially gave your consent.

    In the right forum saying he raped you could ruin his life. Yes, he should have not done what he did but you should have spoken up. If you were to say this to a cop he could be arrested, put in jail, loose his job, loose any scholarships he may have for school, if he has kids he could loose them too. Allegations of rape are not and should not be taken lightly.

    Please, next time you are in a situation that you do not like stand up for yourself! Do the things that may be awkward but are the better choice! But please do not look back and call it something it is not, you only hurt everybody involved.

    The First Anonymous A.K.A R.C.

  7. Dear RC,

    How lovely it must be to live in your binary world where no is no, and anything else is an unambiguous yes.

    I find it really loathesome that you feel you're in a position to define someone elses experience as not rape because it doesn't fit your... oh, I mean... Webster's definition.

    A coerced yes is a coerced yes, but is it consent? I wouldn't count on it.

    So thoroughly disgusted with your comment. I wish there was a way to place a counter next to your comment that increased everytime someone sees you say "I'm a feminist" and yells "NO YO UFUCKIGN AREN'T!" at the monitor because the crap you're spouting above makes me wonder what you consider a feminist to be. Guess I'll have to check Webster's.

  8. @LordAsparagus

    I never said no does not mean no. No absolutely means no and should be respected every time. The point I was trying to drive home is that not saying anything, going along with things, then looking back and deciding you did not like it, is not rape.

    I'm not trying to compare other's peoples experiences to my own although I'll admit I did. I'm simply trying to get across the point that rape is rape and yes, although awful, pressured sexual experiences are not rape although they are not alright in any way.

    A coerced yes is not consent but I feel what went on in Del's case is more of a self taught societal pressure then a coerced yes. This does not make it okay but it does not make it rape either.

    Just as you ask who am I to define other people's experiences who are you to define my feminism and out looks on life? I am a strong, independent, hard working, educated woman, the type of woman feminist teach their little girls to be. I'm fair but I have my opinions which I do not apologize for.
    I find it petty that you must take such a personal stance on this (so mad you could not spell check?) and I hope you see I meant no harm and, just like you, was just saying what I feel my truth is.


  9. @RC

    If something is self-taught, it cannot also be a socially imposed pressure. I did not teach myself to be a sex object. I did not teach myself that women should never say no. The patriarchal culture we live in, and probably my sex-negative catholic upbringing, taught me that. The patriarchal culture we live in also failed to teach my then-boyfriend to be careful about consent.

    What I have taught myself (with the help of the feminist blogosphere) is that women are not sex objects, women should say no, and that I am not to blame for my own rape. Which is something you seem to continue to willfully miss. I was not in a position in that relationship to properly give my consent, therefore the sexual activities I was pressured into are rape, full stop.

  10. RC:

    I like how you find what I did petty, only to make a petty comment in the same breath regarding an insignificant typo.

    Let's take a look at what you said...

    "I never said no does not mean no". I never implied you did.

    You seem to have painted a picture in your head about the exact details of Del's experience. Sexual assault is not cut and dry. The best thing you can do when someone tells you that they've been raped is to BELIEVE THEM.

    Have you heard reference to "rape culture"? The feculent blather spewing from your mouth isn't helping. Everytime someone says the kind of things you're saying, it's just another entry in the rapists' guidebook of ways you can rape-without-raping.