This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
There was a letter to Dan Savage that got me thinking about this. A woman who’s a rape survivor has a boyfriend who wants to act out a rape fantasy with her. A serious, hard-core version of a rape fantasy, too, in which he could spring it on her at any time, and she wouldn’t get to use a safeword. Not surprisingly, she said “No” — and instead of dropping it, he’s continued to pressure her about it, accusing her of being manipulative and having no regard for his needs, and bringing it up again and again.
Dan’s advice: Dump the motherfucker already.
I totally agree with Dan’s advice, as far as it went. A rape survivor absolutely has the right to say “No” to acting out a rape scene that they think will traumatize them… and to drop the partner who won’t take that “No” for an answer.
But I’d actually go further than that.
I’d say that anybody has the right to say “No” to any particular form of sex, for any reason whatsoever.
This isn’t just about pressuring a lover to do a heavy-duty edge-play scene, a lover for whom that particular scene is an emotional minefield. Yes, that raises giant red flags for me. That definitely makes me agree that his ass should be dumped; that the letter’s author is entitled not only to keep saying “No” to his request, but to kick him to the curb and never look back.
But if someone had written to Savage Love saying, “My lover is pushing me hard to give him oral sex, I’ve been willing and happy to try other stuff with him but I really really don’t want to do this, and he’s pressuring me hard about it and is refusing to drop it and is saying I’m manipulative with no regard for his needs”… my reaction would be more or less the same. Not as extreme, and shaded with several Ifs and Buts and waffly equivocations… but more or less the same. My red flags would not be waving quite as high, or as frantically. But they’d still be waving.
Here, as promised, are some of those Ifs and Buts and waffly equivocations.
If the things on your “No” list aren’t actually going to cause you trauma — if they’re just things you’re not that crazy about — then I do think it would be sporting of you to give them the old college try. To say the least. When we’re looking at our sexual likes and dislikes, I think it’s important to sort them into what I call broccoli and tofu: the things that make us want to hurl just thinking about them, and the things that simply aren’t our favorites. And if something simply isn’t your favorite — or you’ve never even tried it and you just think you won’t like it — then I think it’s more than a little selfish to not even consider it. I don’t think we have a right to expect our partners to give us anything and everything we want in bed… but I do think we have a right to expect that they care about our sexual pleasure and want to help us get it. That’s sort of the point.
I also tend to agree with Dan Savage that there are certain basic sex acts — oral sex, say, and light bondage — that are… well, basic. Things that most people assume will be on the menu in a sexual/ romantic relationship. If you’re going to say “No” to rape fantasies or diaper play, I don’t think you need to say anything else… but if you’re going to say a permanent, non-negotiable “No” to giving oral sex, I think you need to be aware that you’re stepping outside the common expectations for a relationship, and should perhaps show some extra flexibility in other areas to make up for it.
And if you have an insanely huge laundry list of things on your “No” list, none of which you’re willing to negotiate or even consider, then that’s definitely a problem. If you’re saying “No” to oral sex, that’s one thing… but if you’re saying “No” to oral sex, and manual sex, and tying each other up for sex, and dressing up for sex, and sex outside the bedroom, and so on and so on and so on…. that, in my opinion, is seriously obnoxious.
Any or all of this may make you unreasonable. It may make you inflexible. It may make you unsporting. It may make you not exactly the best lover on Loki’s green earth. It may make you, in short, a jerk. It may make sex advice writers everywhere advise your partner to dump your sorry ass and move on.
But you still have a right to it.
Ultimately, you get to be the one who decides what your hard “Absolutely not” list is.
And if there’s just a couple/few things on that “No” list? If you’re generally good, giving, and game in bed, if you’re generally interesting in pleasing your partner and open to trying things they like, but there’s just a couple/few things that really just gross you out? You know you’re not being rational, but they just do?
It doesn’t matter what those things are. It doesn’t matter if the thing you don’t want to do is a hard- core no- safeword rape scene or a garden variety blowjob. You still have the right to say “No”… and to have that “No” ultimately accepted. And it doesn’t make you unsporting, or unreasonable, or selfish.
Yes, we have a right to expect our partners to take our desires seriously. Yes, we have a right to assume that our partners want to give us pleasure and are willing to be flexible to make that happen. And if the sex is really not working — whether it’s because our partner is an unreasonable, selfish jerk or the two of us just aren’t sexually compatible — we have the right to end the relationship.
But we don’t have the right to get the exact sex we want, from the person we want it from.
So I ask again: When do you have the right to absolutely refuse a certain kind of sex to your partner?
You always have that right.