“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

[Content note: sexual assault/coercion]

Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, recently livetweeted her son’s high school sex education class. (Here’s her article about it.) The results were…about what you’d expect, if you’ve been following the news about high school sex ed. Students were warned that condoms frequently fail (as in, 18% of the time) and that premarital sex can lead to drug abuse and imprisonment and (obviously) teenage pregnancy.

But the most disturbing thing in the whole livetweet, for me, was that bit about going for the girls who say no:

This is how purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin.

On one side of the coin is the idea that only “good” women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be “good.” Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only “good” as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in “good” women, what happens when a woman stops refusing?

So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.

And that’s why rape culture is the other side of the coin. If saying no is the only way a woman can be “good” and therefore desirable, if pushing past “no” is romantic and sexy, if sex is only morally acceptable if the woman didn’t really want it–then rape is acceptable. Not all rape, of course–most purity culture adherents would probably be horrified at stranger-in-the-bushes rape–but I would argue that accepting some rape is equivalent to accepting rape, because as soon as you accept that it is okay to violate someone’s consent in some cases, you will be able to justify violating someone’s consent in any case where you have a motivation to justify violating their consent.

Of course, people who endorse views like “the good ones say no” would be quite offended by what I just said. After all, they’d say, a woman need only say no until she is married to a man. Then she can magically undo years of sex-negative messaging and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life with her husband. More easily said than done.

But this has consequences far beyond wrecking individual people’s sex lives. The idea that “the good girls say no [until marriage]” implies that women frequently say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or wish they could say yes, or whatever. This is one of the beliefs that is most frequently used to justify sexual assault and coercion.

Of course, even if someone says no to sex that they actually want, that’s no excuse to pressure them into bringing their actions in line with their desires. If I say no to a party I’d really love to attend because I have to write a paper instead, it’s still wrong to pressure me to go. If I decline to go on a trip with you that I really wish I could go on but cannot afford, it’s still wildly inappropriate to just buy me the tickets and then expect to be paid back. Most adults understand that we can’t and shouldn’t always do what we want to do regardless of the consequences, and people who don’t understand this are people that I usually feel unsafe around.

And what of the unknown proportion of women who say no while hoping that their partners will ignore it and proceed anyway? Sexual predators claim that many, if not most women do this. (And many men have told me stories of how they dutifully took “no” for an answer, only to have the woman demean their masculinity and lose interest because of it. Needless to say, I still think they did the right thing and should keep doing it.) I don’t have statistics, but I can’t imagine this is very common. And regardless, there’s a simple solution–always believe someone who tells you “no.” If that’s not what they meant, they’ll quickly learn to say what they mean.

(And if not taking no for an answer is sexy for your and your partner, negotiate a kinky scene that’s consensually nonconsensual.)

More broadly, I think this is a small part of how we get that cultural message that resisting is sexy (when women do it). Think of how many romantic scenes in books and movies hinge on a woman saying no over and over until the man finally wears her down and she agrees–or he just straight-up physically forces her.

Some people say that this is sexy because there’s just something inherently sexy about chasing someone. (But only for men, for some reason.) I don’t know about that. More likely, as Emily Nagoski writes in her excellent book, Come As You Are, there is little about sexuality that isn’t learned.

And certainly it’s okay to find it sexy and to incorporate it into your life in a consensual way. In fact, one of the vignettes in Nagoski’s book features a couple trying to do exactly that. The problem is when women are taught that refusing is the only way to be sexy, and when men are taught that “chasing” a woman who refuses is the only sexy thing to do. And that’s exactly what the sex ed class that Dreger livetweeted tried to do. The speaker implies that women who don’t initially say no aren’t worth pursuing at all.

(Obviously, this particular class will not be the only way that these teens will get this message, and if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this because it’d be a drop in an otherwise-empty bucket. But it’s a drop in a very full bucket, and we have to empty the bucket drop by drop.)

When girls get the message that saying no makes them sexually/romantically appealing, they lose touch with their own boundaries and their own sense of what they want*. When boys get the message that girls who refuse are playing coy in order to attract them, they learn to ignore any intuitions they may have about respecting boundaries and not pressuring people. I hear from a lot of men who are so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of pressuring women into sex, but are nevertheless convinced that they must do it because it’s just what men should do. Why do we persist in teaching young people this convoluted and contradictory way of thinking about sex?

Most of the controversy about abstinence-only and otherwise sex-negative sex ed is that it teaches teens falsehoods about safer sex and STIs, and that’s true, and that’s scary and wrong. But there’s a lot more lurking in these lessons than medical misinformation.
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*I just want to add something here for all the women who find it sexy to be pressured in certain ways but not in other ways or some of the time but not other times or at first but not once you pause and really think about it: there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re taught to ignore our own intuitions about what we want, and we’re taught that men know what we want better than we do. In some situations, you might truly be okay with someone pushing you to do things, whether it’s because you trust them or for any other reasons, and in other situations you might not be. My advice is to do the difficult work of figuring out what you want, not what other people think you want, and then go about getting that by being clear with your partners about it.

I’ve felt that flutter in my chest when I watch movie scenes that are totally not consensual and I sometimes wish that would happen to me, and then I remember that it has happened and it was never like it was in the movies and I never turned out to want it. Maybe someday it will happen like that, but in my own experience, these things are better negotiated and brought out into the open rather than assumed.

And guys who date women: you need to try to understand these dynamics if you’re going to date women ethically. What men often write off as women being “fickle” or “complicated” is actually just us trying to negotiate some peace treaty between all the competing messages we’ve been given about our bodies and our sexualities. Negotiating peace treaties, as you may know, can be messy, difficult, and time-consuming. That’s life. For the time being, that is. Until classes like the one Dreger attended never happen anymore, and the things said there are never said anymore.

“How Do I Get My Partner To Try Polyamory?”

The title of this post is one of the most common questions I’ve seen people ask, online and off, about polyamory. “I really want to try an open relationship but my partner doesn’t. How do I get them to change their mind?” “I’ve started seeing a wonderful new person, but there’s a catch: they’re not poly. How do I convince them to try it?” And so on.

Here’s the short answer: you don’t.

Here’s the longer answer: This way lies potential for mutual growth and awesomeness. But this way also lies an arguably greater potential for hurt feelings, manipulation, coercion, and even abuse. Please be careful.

The first important thing is to understand why your partner does not want to try polyamory. People have all sorts of reasons for that:

  • they’re afraid of feeling jealous
  • it’s against their religious beliefs
  • they want a partner who’s always available to them
  • they don’t want to worry about the complications of safer sex with multiple partners
  • they don’t want to face stigma from friends, family, employers, or communities
  • they’re not interested in seeing anyone else
  • they want to get married and/or have children soon and don’t want to deal with polyamory in that regard
  • they just don’t understand what it is or how it works or why it might be worthwhile
  • and many more.

If you are polyamorous, many of these may not seem like very good reasons to you. Some of them don’t really to me either. But it’s not up to you to pass judgment on how good someone else’s reasons are, and if that someone else is your partner, being nonjudgmental is especially important.

Ask your partner what their qualms about polyamory are. Don’t frame the question like “Yeah well why not” or “But what’s wrong with polyamory” or “But don’t you want [to feel more free/to let me be more free/to explore other options/etc].” Go into the discussion with the intent to understand your partner, not necessarily to be understood by your partner or to push a specific point of view. Ask, “How do you feel when you think about being polyamorous?” or “How do you imagine an ideal relationship?” This will probably not be a one-time conversation, though. Follow the discussion and see how it unfolds.

Eventually, you may–if your partner trusts you and if you’re empathic and patient–understand why your partner doesn’t want to try polyamory. If the reason is that it goes against their core beliefs or it’s just not how they envision what a relationship ought to be, you’re probably out of luck. Sometimes people have beliefs that you strongly disagree with; that’s a good indicator that they may not be the best partners for you.

Sometimes, though, people don’t want to try polyamory because they don’t really understand how it works. For instance, I once thought that polyamory meant that none of my partners would “truly” love me. None of them would ever want to, say, live with me or get married or sit at the hospital for hours while I recovered from surgery. I thought that polyamory just meant having a loose collection of friends with benefits who pass in and out of your life seemingly at random. While for some people that might be great, for me it sounded horrible.

But then I read some books about it out of curiosity and I discovered that there are people who would want to do all of those Serious Relationship Things with me while still being okay with me seeing other people! Those things are not mutually exclusive. And although I now value Serious Relationship Things much less than I used to, and would be comfortable being single and not having those things with anyone, it’s nice to know that they are not incompatible with polyamory.

If your partner is like I was back then, you can certainly help them understand what you’re looking for by sharing with them good books and articles about polyamory, introducing them to poly friends who can talk about how their own relationships work, and just talking about how you envision the future if you stay together and become poly.

But the key is that you cannot be too forceful or pressuring. If you do that, you will fail, but more importantly, you will probably seriously hurt your partner.

Often, though, it’s not so simple. Many people say that they don’t want to try polyamory because they would feel too jealous. Remember that jealousy, like any other human emotion, is neither good nor bad; it just is. Some people choose to hack their own emotions and try to replace them with more optimal ones (compersion, in the case of polyamory), but other people have no interest in doing this. That’s their right. Feel free to share with your partner your own perspectives on jealousy, but remember that it’s unfair to presume that your partner “ought” to try to get over their jealousy. That’s for them to decide.

You may be entirely correct if you think that your partner would be better off learning to manage their jealousy and becoming polyamorous. But sometimes, when it comes to relationships, being kind is more important than being right. I’ll share a personal story to illustrate what I mean.

The main reason I was initially extremely opposed to polyamory (personally, not universally) was because I had depression. I didn’t realize this at the time; I thought that I was just a person who has Extreme Feelings of Jealousy and that’s Just How I Am and nothing can be done about it, because I hadn’t ever been able to do anything about it for as long as I could remember having those feelings. The mere thought of polyamory made my guts churn.

But when I recovered from depression, I realized that those Extreme Feelings of Jealousy had all been tied into my depression, which was fueling my insecurity and fear. I started identifying as poly within a month of recovering and started seeing my first poly partner two months later. Although I still have manageable, healthy feelings of jealousy sometimes, that gaping chasm of fuckfuckthisisterribleIcan’tdoit had closed and becoming polyamorous was actually a very easy decision.

How would I have felt if, prior to my recovery, a partner had patronizingly informed me that the reason I didn’t want to try polyamory was because I was depressed? Pretty angry and hurt. I would have felt manipulated if I sensed that my partner’s main concern about my depression was not that it was making me depressed, but that it was preventing me from agreeing to polyamory and letting my partner get their rocks off with other people. I would have felt that my serious illness was being trivialized. I would have felt that my partner was treating me like a child by making assumptions about how depression affects the rest of my life. Because even if a partner of mine had understood what was going on–itself an unlikely feat–it’s not their place to tell me how my mental health is affecting my relationship choices and that I should improve my mental health so as to make “better” relationship choices. That was my battle to fight, and I fought and won it.

Sometimes being kind is more important than being right. And, I would add, presuming to know what’s best “for your own good” is not being kind in my book. It’s being manipulative and condescending.

So, try not to speculate about why your partner is feeling the way they are about polyamory. Let them discover that on their own. Hopefully, if they value your relationship, they will at least make an effort to do some soul-searching and help you understand them, just as you, if you value your relationship, will make an effort to understand their objections rather than trying to “convert” them to your preferred relationship style.

I want to emphasize how fine a line you have to walk. It’s quite possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory and they’ll be really glad they did. It’s also possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory, and later–in months, or years–they’ll gradually understand that they only tried it because they started to believe that they had to do it in order to keep you. They may feel manipulated even though you never intentionally manipulated them. They may feel worthless because they were unable to do what you wanted them to. This may not be your fault whatsoever, or it may be a little bit your fault, or it may be almost entirely your fault. Neither of you may ever know for sure.

This is why my knee-jerk answer at the beginning of this post was, “You don’t.”

I completely understand how awful it feels when you really like/love someone, but you’re poly and they’re not and you don’t know what to do. Some poly people deal with this situation by trying monogamy, temporarily or permanently, to varying levels of success. Some try to convince their partner to give polyamory a try, as I’ve laid out above. Others end the relationship.

The later is, in my opinion, the safest and healthiest option. It assumes responsibility for your own needs rather than expecting your partner to conform to them, and it acknowledges the fact that trying to “get” your partner to try another type of relationship is a situation that’s pretty likely to lead to lots of frustration and resentment for both of you.

I would love it if people would reframe the question in this post’s title as, “How do I help my partner understand polyamory?” This suggests that your goal is to help them come to their own conclusion about whether or not this is something they’d like to try, and that your role in the process is to provide them with resources and support, not prefabricated opinions.

Whichever path you choose, be prepared to spend a lot of time examining your own biases and motivations and making sure that you’re not being coercive or manipulative. Remind your partner that you only want them to try polyamory if they decide they want to, not in order to please you or keep you from leaving. Try to refrain from making assumptions about their reasoning; while people are often wrong about themselves, they still have access to much more information about themselves than you do.

Remember that sometimes, being kind is more important than being right.

“Women just need to learn to say no.”

[Content note: sexual assault]

Every time people talk about coercive sex–you know, the kind where someone manipulates someone into having sex with them as opposed to physically forcing them–the concern trolls come out in droves.

“You can’t expect men* to only ask once!” they prattle. “Women* just need to learn how to keep saying no! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If you don’t learn how to stand up for yourself you’ll get screwed over!”

The asterisks are there because these Very Concerned Individuals never seem to realize that sex doesn’t just happen between men and women. Neither do they realize that men aren’t the only ones who rape, and women aren’t the only ones who sometimes have trouble repeatedly saying no. But since these are the objections that they continually spew forth, these are the objections I will have to address.

Here’s an Imperfect Analogy™. If everyone were trained in self-defense, we would be able to prevent the majority of muggings and “stranger” rapes (except perhaps the ones involving weapons, but let’s ignore that for a moment). After all, just about anyone, regardless of body type and fitness level, can learn how to defend themselves with a trained instructor. Got a physical disability? Just get over it. Get panicky when you have to fight? You’re a pansy. There’s no need to discourage mugging and assault because people should just learn self-defense. And if you don’t learn self-defense, well, you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and it’s not our job to keep you from getting yourself mugged or assaulted.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all.

The ability to say “no” over and over despite wheedling, manipulation, and implied threat is not that different from the ability to disarm an attacker, target vulnerable body parts, or block a punch.

That is, the ability to defend yourself emotionally is not that different from the ability to defend yourself physically. We are not born knowing how to do either of those things.

Furthermore, just as some people have physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to fight off an attacker, some people–many people, in fact–have mental disorders that make it difficult for them to say “no” over and over. Just as some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back, some people are terrified by unceasing social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop–even if that means relenting to it.

This is not consent.

This. Is. Not. Consent.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down. Humans are psychologically wired to give in to social pressure. It makes sense, because acquiescing to the demands of others–especially others who are stronger than you–helps groups and societies run smoothly. The amount of research evidence for this is astounding, which is why I think everyone should be required to take a psychology 101 class. Stanley Milgram famously showed that most people are willing even to cause extreme pain to someone just because a person in a position of power is telling them to.

How is this relevant to (heterosexual) sexual encounters? Because men typically hold the reins. Men buy drinks and dinner, men invite women on dates, men initiate sex. Men are usually physically stronger. Women are likely to see their male partners as being in a position of power. And understand that this isn’t really a conscious thing–most women don’t think, “Gee, this guy has social and physical power over me, so I’d better do what he says.” It’s subtle. Subconscious. It sometimes makes “no” the hardest thing in the world to say.

And about buying drinks and dinner. This activates what psychologists call the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something nice for you–even if you didn’t ask for it–you may feel a strong urge to do something nice for them, especially if they’re asking you too. Lots of salespeople use this to their advantage, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that our dating system is set up this way.

Add to this a culture that claims, over and over, that a woman’s agency means little. Think of that “romantic” scene in The Amazing Spiderman, when Peter ropes Gwen in with his web and essentially forces her to kiss him. Think of the movie (500) Days of Summer, in which Tom uses a different type of coercion–he repeatedly badgers Summer for a relationship even though she’s told him many times that she’s not looking for one. Think of that Yale fraternity’s infamous chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Think of pickup artist (PUA) subculture, which literally teaches men how to coerce women into sex. Think of the expectation that a girl who’s asked to a high school prom by a guy sleeps with him afterwards.

Think of the irony of teaching women that they shouldn’t say no while demanding that they learn how to “take responsibility for themselves” by saying it.

And remember that many women–especially (and tragically) those who have already experienced sexual assault–make the assumption that “consenting” to sex is better than taking the risk of having it forced on you. If someone won’t take “no” for an answer, relenting may seem like the safer option. Remember that. Remember that this is not consent.

It’s absolutely true that women (and anyone else) can learn how to override their psychology and stand up to social pressure. But it’s true in the same way that it’s true that they can learn self-defense. It takes a long time–years, maybe–and lots of effort. It probably requires working with a professional or at least reading some useful books on the subject. You can’t just wake up one morning and “choose” to have a new personality.

And yet, that’s never what these concern trolls actually say. There is no advice about getting a therapist or improving your confidence. There is no acknowledgement that these things are difficult and take time. There is no compassion. There is only “Yeah well, she needs to learn how to say no. Not his fault she was such a pushover.”

That’s how I know that none of this is really about your supposed “concern” for these women. If you refuse to condemn people who use coercion and instead condemn people who allow themselves to be coerced, you are, to put it bluntly, on the wrong side.

In that case, here’s a challenge for you. Why is it so important to you that people be permitted by our social conventions to pressure, manipulate, and coerce each other into doing things–sometimes deeply personal and vulnerable things? Why do you insist that women can just magically “grow a backbone,” but that men can’t just stop coercing them?

And if the reason is that you think you’re being “realistic” and “pragmatic” because “things will never change anyway,” then I challenge you to direct fewer of your efforts at blaming victims of sexual assault, and more of them at actually fighting sexual assault.

Putting the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical. It is selfish. It prioritizes your desires over the needs of others.

No means no. A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.