On the Difficulty of “Saying No”
Kathryn Holmquist's little piece of horrific sex advice—sometimes, girls, it's "too late to say no”—has evolved into a more advanced discussion on this blog. The question: Why should women be required to say "no" in the first place?
The "no means no" mantra that Holmquist is railing against is itself pretty old-school. "No means no" operates on the outdated assumption that men are the "scorers," women are the "gatekeepers," and the goal of every sexual encounter is for men to sneak past a woman's line of defense and get her to not say no. In this model, the default setting of women's bodies is "available." Only by verbalizing a "no" can a woman signal that her body is not up for grabs. In recent years, that bullshit has been replaced by more progressive models which focus on raising the consent bar from "absence of no" to "enthusiastic yes."
On the other hand, "no" is still a really helpful tool for women to use when they must quite urgently communicate to a person that, actually, he does not own her body. Mrs. D lays it out:
“no” should be said, clearly, when the first unwanted interaction occurs. A guy starts to get handsy, you push his hand away, and say “no, stop it.” You’re making out with a guy, and he wants more, you stop what you’re doing and verbally make it clear you’re not interested in more. Most women won’t do this…they’ll do a fully choreographed routine to get away from him without directly telling him no. That is social conditioning imposed on women that needs to change.
She makes a good point: Because women are consistently told that their bodies are public property, it can be a pretty transgressive, frightening, and even dangerous move to tell a man "no." Saying "no" communicates to a man that he does not own you, and if you're dealing with a rapist, he may not take too kindly to that suggestion. This power gives "no" its effectiveness, but it also makes the word sometimes difficult to verbalize. (At this point, I'd like to stop and administer another big fuck-you to Kathryn Holmquist for making saying "no" even harder).
When is it difficult to say "no"? Obviously, if a person is passed out drunk, it can be impossible to verbalize a no. It can also be difficult to say "no" when there is a physical and social power dynamic encouraging you to stay silent—when your sex partner is stronger than you, older than you, more respected than you, more confident than you, 0r simply maler than you (remember the part about everyone just assuming that men have a claim on a woman's body?) In other words, it can be difficult to say "no" when you find yourself in a rape scenario.
But acquaintance rapes present a peculiar barrier to saying "no." In an acquaintance rape, the power dynamic is a little bit different—you may be hanging out with someone who is bigger, stronger, and maler than you are, but you know them and you trust them. You're friends. That implicit power imbalance doesn't even enter your brain. A couple of comments left on a Daily Kos piece on rape discuss how that sense of security can make "no" a lot more difficult:
There's something so incredibly surreal about being the victim of a violent attack for the first time. Even growing up female, knowing that rape happens all too often, the first time you're struck, or groped, or your clothes are torn, it's such an incredible disconnect from your normal existence that it's hard for your brain to process. Date rape is even worse, the change in context from normal conversation to violence.
You can end up a "deer in headlights" while your mind tries to process and catch up to what is going on. Going to a high school dance is not like entering a war zone. You don't expect to be the victim of violence when a classmate wants to hang out with you. Because you're not in that mindset, it takes some time to reach the conclusion that there's a threat of serious bodily harm to you. No matter how many times you've been told that the world's a bad place, that first moment of violence directed at you, in a lifetime otherwise characterized by love and acceptance, it is unbelievably shocking and it imposes a lag time in your response that makes it unreasonable to believe that pulling a gun in self-defense would be a viable option. I speak from experience. I was already being violated by the time I realized what was happening.
Another commenter echoes that sentiment:
It was probably two or three minutes before it even occurred to me to scream.
It's good to tell girls that it's never too late to say "no." But we must also teach our kids the importance of waiting for a "yes"—because by the time someone can say "no," it may already be too late.
Photo by smlp.co.uk, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0