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Why “No Means No”

PZ posted a comic about listening to a woman when she tells you what she wants. Predictably, the comment thread took a turn for “but sometimes they don’t mean what they say.” Time to repeat myself. This was originally posted here.

One of the tangential issues that came up in the thread that would not die is the statement “no means no.”

I really hate to have to point this out, believe me… but sometimes a simple “I’d rather not,” “I shouldn’t,” or even “no” isn’t clear enough. I won’t try to guess at numbers, I’m not qualified, but there are most certainly women who enjoy that particular game. Keep in mind that we’re talking about college kids here. Boys and girls in their late teens and early twenties for the most part, and clear communication about sex and relationships is going to be fairly uncommon. Again, I’m not even going to pretend to put numbers on it, but I’m absolutely certain that sometimes it is honest miscommunication.

“No means no” is a simple slogan, but it just doesn’t reflect reality. Imagine stopping only to be yelled at because your partner was getting into it and you ruined the mood. Imagine it happening when you’re young and still inexperienced and emotionally fragile. How many times do you think that has to happen before a person is capable of mistaking a sincere “no” for a repeat of the previous situation, if only for a short time?

I’m not trying to say it’s common… I’m just saying I’d be amazed if it never happened, and that I’d be amazed if there aren’t piles of similar ways a misunderstanding could happen in a moment of passion. If the “victim” says that it was a misunderstanding, I’m inclined to believe her unless there’s some other information to imply otherwise.

I’m going to assume that this is an honest statement of confusion, not an attempt at rape denialism or some kind of justification. It is worth noting, however, that I wasn’t sure when I read it or much of the conversation that followed from it. But it’s not useful to think of this as anything but a misconception that can be corrected, so I’m sticking with that.

The big problem with this statement is that “no means no” is not a slogan, meant to tell us what people are saying. It’s an instruction.

The way that our culture talks about sex–or, more importantly, doesn’t–is fundamentally screwed up. We’re not really talking, most of us. We’re role playing. We’re taking the things that we’re supposed to think and feel about sex and repeating them to one another in the place of figuring out and talking about our own feelings.

Religion hasn’t helped, of course. The inequality between the sexes and mistrust of pleasure that the dominant religions of our society have promoted place particular pressure on women to deny enjoyment of sex, to deny desire. That means that “no” has frequently meant something other than “no.” This is not a new concept.

However, it is a concept that came to be used by men as a justification for rape. As a means of excusing nonconsensuality, it came to be accepted and enshrined in a not insignificant portion of our media and our cultural mythos. That acceptance had to change.

“No means no” doesn’t mean that everyone will always tell you the truth. It means “The only way to be sure that you do not victimize someone is to believe that they are saying what they mean. Do that.” That part of it is true, and using counterexamples of when someone has not been entirely forthcoming doesn’t change that truth at all. All it does is provide fodder for the people who don’t want to follow the instructions.

In case it needs to be said, “no means no” goes for both men and women, and men were not the only people who needed to change their behavior. Communication never involves just one party. Men needed to act as though they believed something that often wasn’t true, but women needed to learn how to tell the truth. “No means no” means that women had to learn to speak about their own desire. They had to take responsibility for their own sexuality, societal pressures notwithstanding.

I don’t know how many times I heard while growing up, “If you’re not mature enough to talk about sex, you’re not mature enough to have it.” The topic at the time was birth control and preventing STIs, but the same absolutely goes for the topic of consent. This is similar to the idea behind prohibiting statutory rape–consent cannot be meaningfully given at certain maturity levels–although honesty and thoughtfulness are much better indicators of maturity than age. (Incidentally, for the folks who worry about being accused of rape after consensual sex, attending to a potential partner’s maturity has benefits for you, as well.)

In the end, “no means no” is about making the sexual landscape a better place to be: fewer victims, less blame laid on victims, more people seeing their desires fulfilled, better distributed work of communication. “No means no” isn’t about describing the world as it is. “No means no” is about remaking the world as we want it to be.

Comments

  1. says

    One of the best things about my husband is that he stops whenever he thinks I’m not fine, be it because he’s lying on my hair, because I have cramps in my legs or because…. well, I’ll keep the rest our intimate secrets.
    So he’ll stop, ask a quick “are you allright?” and then corrects whatever he can do about it, like getting off my hair.
    Because nothing ruins the mood as much as pain.
    And yeah, no can mean “yesyesyesyesyes”. Only that it’s very, very easy to spot those cases.

    For all those who don’t believe it, here’s a little homework:
    Man and woman are sitting on their couch, he starts caressing her, leans over to kiss her, his hands wander to her breast. She turns away her head, gently holds his hand to stop it and tells him “no, sorry honey, I’m damn tired tonight”.
    And now imagine that instead of turning away she turns towards him, kisses him passionately, directs his hands to her crotch and says “Oh no you nasty boy, you’re not going to get any sex tonight, especially not on the kitchen table”
    Now, if you can’t tell one from the other, you shouldn’t interact with other humans at all

  2. Dunc says

    Asymmetric risks: if you take “no” to mean “no” when it doesn’t, you risk (at worst) upsetting or disappointing someone; if you don’t take “no” to mean “no” when it does, you risk raping someone. Imagine that happening when you’re young, inexperienced and emotionally fragile…

    Assuming you’re not actually some sort of monster, realising you’ve raped someone is a hell of a lot worse than missing out on some potential nookie.

  3. Eric Riley says

    Although – if in doubt, if it’s not an enthusiastic ‘Yes’, you might assume that it’s a ‘no’, rather than taking ‘no’ for a kind-of-maybe ‘yes’.

    Because here’s the real question – do you want to ‘accidentally’ be guilty of rape? If you don’t care about that, you *really* shouldn’t be interacting with others. If you do, but are (for whatever reason) unable to see the difference in Giliell’s two scenarios above – then take the ‘no’ as ‘no’, even if she’s also grabbing your crotch. Let her know that you are confused by the mixed message – but you are taking her at her word that she meant ‘no’. If you’re wrong, and she really meant ‘yes’ – she’ll let you know.

    And Giliell – there *are* people who might not be able to tell the difference, but are quite capable of interacting with others. There are any number of cognitive and emotional disorders that prevent that kind of understanding.

  4. Glodson says

    I don’t get it. Honestly, I don’t get this at all. I have never in my life been unsure of the consent of a woman I was with sexually. I never felt I had to go out of my way to get consent, or anything else. It was fucking obvious. This shouldn’t be a mystery at all. Basically, if a woman you don’t know well says no, in any form, that means no sex.

    There should be no confusion. Yes, human sexuality is hard to distill into a few words. But there’s a big fucking difference between rape and normal healthy sex. If you cannot understand that, maybe you need therapy.

  5. Crommunist says

    I was going to say the same thing as Dunc. It’s like an actually functional version of Pascal’s Wager. If you assume that “no” always means “no”, the very worst case scenario is that you will occasionally piss someone off who is speaking in riddles. Now maybe everyone on the internet is an impeccable, fantastic lover (*snicker*), but I’ll admit to having pissed off my fair share of partners by doing something stupid in bed. You move past it.

    If you don’t assume that “no” means “no”, then you run the risk of not only violating someone’s person and trust, but of also winding up in court or in jail.

    The point about women having to recognize that “no” should mean “no” is a good one too. If someone tried that “but I wanted you to overpower me” bulls**t with me, that’d be the LAST time I slept with that person. I need LESS crazy in my life, not more.

  6. julian says

    Now, if you can’t tell one from the other, you shouldn’t interact with other humans at all

    I don’t think it’s fair to go that far but this individual should be especially mindful of what’s said and always err on the side of caution but being hopelessly oblivious (not saying you can be that oblivious) shouldn’t stop them from interacting with people.

  7. erb says

    “No means no” is a simple slogan, but it just doesn’t reflect reality. Imagine stopping only to be yelled at because your partner was getting into it and you ruined the mood. Imagine it happening when you’re young and still inexperienced and emotionally fragile. How many times do you think that has to happen before a person is capable of mistaking a sincere “no” for a repeat of the previous situation, if only for a short time?

    I’m not quite following the storyline here. Perhaps a dramatic recreation?
    Act I
    Partner A: “No.”
    Partner B: [Sex stops]
    A: (yelling)
    B: (confused, emotionally fragile. Sex resumes, reproachfully.)

    Act II
    A: “No.”
    B: [Sex doesn't stop]
    A: (confused, emotionally fragile.)
    B: [Sex continues]
    A: “Whack!” [Sex stops. For a long time.]

  8. Stuartvo says

    but I wanted you to overpower me

    Of course, this is all perfectly legitimate in an existing, trusting relationship where this sort of role play is agreed on well in advance.

    And any person, man or woman, who doesn’t understand this vital distinction is taking a terrible risk, that of “accidentally” becoming a rapist for the guy, or for the girl , becoming a rape victim.

    “Friends don’t let friends play dom-sub without agreeing on the ground rules first”

  9. says

    I have always suggested the simple rule.

    No means No.

    Just treat it as no, it makes life simpler. If anyone (be it man or woman) says no when they mean yes then quite frankly it’s anyone’s game. You cannot tell and quite frankly you are better off tap dancing in a minefield than dating someone who assumes insane games are the best way forwards. What if he says he is okay with something you do but means the opposite? What if she says that she doesn’t want to go on holiday but means the opposite? You pretty much cannot have a relationship based on mind reading.

    Assume Maybe means no.

    A lot of people say maybe to fob you off politely. Give them your number, if they want to chase you up then they will do it. This way you are pleasantly surprised when they do call.

  10. The Ys says

    I think this bears repeating as well:

    “It seems clear then that young men, in these focus groups at least, are capable of displaying not only that they are competent at the offering of refusals, but also of hearing forms of female conduct (e.g. ‘body language’, l. 263, 268; the ‘shortness’, l. 270 or ‘abruptness’ of conversation, l. 272) as ways in which women may clearly communicate their disinterest in sex. It is also clear that the men can hear both ‘little hints’ (l. 278) and ‘softened’ refusals as refusals—thus statements like ‘it’s getting late’ (l. 273) or ‘I’m working early in the morning’ (l. 276) are not taken at face value as comments by women on the time or their employment schedule—but rather as indicators that, in the moderator’s words, ‘sex is not on the cards’. Of note here is that in none of the examples given do the men indicate that the explicit use of the word ‘no’ is necessary for a woman’s refusal of a sexual invitation to be understood as such.”

    https://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/mythcommunication-its-not-that-they-dont-understand-they-just-dont-like-the-answer/

    It’s not just about getting people to accept a “no” as a no. It’s about getting them to accept that the other person has the right to say no.

  11. says

    erb, suffice it to say that the person who was assumed to be making an honest statement for purposes of argumentation has not demonstrated himself to be the most honest of people. I’ve already banned him at one blog. He’s one of the MRA trolls in the Pharyngula dungeon.

    I don’t think the very few people who can’t innately tell the difference between no-no and no-yes are the problem. They learn to ask. The problem is that we have a group of people who have absorbed the meme that it’s difficult to tell. Even if they can tell the difference, they accept the idea that for some people or under some circumstances, it’s actually hard to tell. It’s a very useful meme for rapists and harrassers, of course.

  12. says

    Re the “game players”, If all men, all the time, chose to take “No” as face value, it would instantly make the “No doesn’t mean no” game pretty useless and I’m betting it would stop pretty quickly. Imagine this scenario:

    Person A: (makes a move)
    Person B: No.
    Person A: (stops)
    Person B: (yelling, whatever, no didn’t mean no this time)
    Person A: My apologies. I believe that when a person says “No” they mean “No”, and it is just too risky for me to assume otherwise. If you would like to engage in a roleplay where we can pretend no means something else, and where we can agree on boundaries and other things to make us both feel comfortable, I am all for that, but without more explicit context I will be unable to stop assuming you mean “no” when you say “no”.
    Person B: ….

  13. D. C. Sessions says

    My only experience with “no really means yes” was when I was turned down for dates by girls in high school, then learned years later that they were upset by my taking them seriously.

    Well, tough luck. I’m glad to have contributed, however little, to teaching them that that game is a Bad Idea. I’m also glad to have come down on my daughter the one time I heard her telling her boyfriend (insincerely) to stop tickling her. Not acceptable, end of subject.

    I have, however, been on the receiving end of too many conversations where people (*cough* ex-wife *cough*) insisted on believing that I didn’t mean what I was saying.

    I therefore commend to everyone that they take others at their word, barring the usual self-defense exceptions. If, as others have pointed out, you’re wrong then they can correct the misunderstanding by actually telling you what they do mean. All good.

    Best of all, they may learn something from the experience.

  14. Makoto says

    My rule has always been “No means no. If they meant something other than no, they will tell me so. If they meant no, everyone walks away in a decent manner”. So much easier than the alternatives.

    If they say no, but meant yes.. well, some people are oblivious to subtle hints if they’re not already in a relationship where hints are established over time. So sue me.

  15. julian says

    Well, tough luck. I’m glad to have contributed, however little, to teaching them that that game is a Bad Idea.

    Oh yeah.

    A woman who’s playing hard to get is one giant signal flare for me. It means she doesn’t want a relationship. She wants some cheesy Hollywood flick.

    Here’s a copy of ‘Good Luck Chuck.’ You two were destined for each other.

    Me, I’ve got better things to do. Like chill with my super awesome wife who believes in the totally radical and absurd idea of telling me what she wants.

  16. F says

    “No means no” doesn’t mean that everyone will always tell you the truth. It means “The only way to be sure that you do not victimize someone is to believe that they are saying what they mean. Do that.”

    This.

    I don’t know why this is so foreign, or so difficult.

    Better to handle the effects of being overly cautious than to commit a violation. Better to take someone at their word (and state that this is exactly what you are doing if you are unsure of the situation) than to manipulate or force someone into doing something they don’t want, or don’t happen to want at that time.

    This is actually the sensible and useful thing to do in situations other than those of declined sexual encounters as well. Actually, moreso, as when someone says “no” to a direct sexual proposition, you can pretty much bet the house that they mean “No”.

    We aren’t living in that fictional past where women thought the proper response was to say no, but they really wanted your hot man sex, and were just waiting for the manly men to “take them”, and if a man didn’t, a woman would be really super disappointed and hav a sad and maybe go looking for some other man who knew what she really wanted. Gah.

  17. says

    I also fail to see why the fact that some women like to play silly buggers should have any bearing on how I should be treated.
    I’m not those women. I most certainly don’t need anybody explain to me what I really mean when I’m saying something. I perfectly well know what I‘m saying.
    Well, I don’t know what other people understand, but they’re free to ask for clarification.

    BTW, I would think that those people who have real serious issues with indirect speech and figurative language would be aware of the fact that they’re functioning differently than most people.
    It’s like my dad and his colour-blindness: He knows that the rest of the world sees things differently and doesn’t assume that they’re willfully making life difficult for him using concepts like red and green.

  18. stuartvo says

    BTW, I would think that those people who have real serious issues with indirect speech and figurative language would be aware of the fact that they’re functioning differently than most people.

    Absolutely! I’m a recently-diagnosed Aspie, but even before I had a name for my affliction I realised that I wasn’t “getting” this whole “social interaction” thing, and that I needed to be extra-careful.

    I’ve in fact gone to the other extreme. When a woman does want me she has to almost literally throw her naked body onto me, I’m too scared of even kissing a woman without her permission.

  19. carolw says

    Yes means yes.
    No means no.
    Stop means stop.
    It’s really simple. Most men get it. I don’t understand the rapey assholes who don’t. I really don’t, and I don’t want to. Do they not have mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers? How would they feel if those women’s “nos” were ignored?
    Protip to any rapey MRAs reading: the “rape fantasy” women supposedly have is just that, a fantasy. It’s about playing a role, surrendering control with someone you trust, not literally being raped.

  20. Dhorvath, OM says

    Glodson,

    But there’s a big fucking difference between rape and normal healthy sex.

    That there is the rub though. For far too many people the only difference between rape and normal healthy sex is the internal mental state of the participants afterwards. There is no distinction made between a person forcing themselves on another person and that person feeling violated and a person forcing themselves on another person and that person enjoying it for the person doing the forcing. There is no onus on a very large set of people to distinguish these two during the act, both represent what they think the sexual narrative should be.

    No means no and yes means yes seek to disrupt that narrative so that people who are ostensbily normal and healthy don’t end up doing shitty things to other people based on tired social scripts. The system as it exists is broken, it breeds rape, and it needs to change.

  21. Freemage says

    Brilliant piece. This needs to be an explicit part of the explanation of “No means no” when it’s told to teens and college students. Just asking guys, “Do you want to be a rapist? No? Then what steps are you willing to take to avoid being a rapist? Is deciding that ‘no’ means ‘no’ one of them, even if it means you won’t get to have sex with someone who might’ve said or meant ‘yes’ eventually?” Put that starkly, yeah, it becomes easy to see. Yet I do know that when I was that age (in the era of Reagan), I was stupid enough to not get that point right away, just from “No means no”. (Not, mind you, that I EVER did anything that would even approach rape. My bad romcom-derived behavior was of an entirely different variety, thank gods, which means I just look back and go, “What an idiot,” rather than, “I should be in jail.”)