Growing up, I was always taught that I should just say “no.” If someone offered me drugs, I should just say “no.” If I didn’t feel comfortable going somewhere, I should just say “no.” If I found myself in a bad situation, I should just say “no.” I was taught that women need to be their own advocates and that by just saying “no,” I could extract myself from a bad encounter.
There’s a joke that I’ve heard several times that goes something along the lines of “no means yes and yes means anal.” I’ve heard it from people in my high school and I’ve heard it from people in college. Admittedly, I even laughed at the joke when it was told because it seemed so absurd that anyone would seriously believe it. Of course, if a woman clearly says “no,” a man will respect that. All a woman should do is clearly and emphatically say “no” and she can stop the problem.
Many of the stories I have read recently about sexual assault seem to deal more with the haziness of consent. Many women have recalled encounters where they were too drunk to say yes or they were too paralyzed to say no. They describe how they blacked out but could recall fleeting moments from their assault. They recount how they felt so frozen by fear that they were immobilized and didn’t say anything. These are terrible experiences and I strongly empathize with them. No woman should have to go through something like this and silence does not equate to consent.
I remember when things were getting heated with my boyfriend at the time and he started to initiate sex. I didn’t want to have sex but I didn’t say “no.” I felt like I owed it to him because I was the one who had initiated the kissing. I felt like I would be a “tease” if I didn’t continue. I felt like I would be a bad girlfriend if I didn’t give in at least sometimes. I didn’t want to do it but I couldn’t say “no.” I just laid there, focusing on the popcorn ceiling, tracing its peaks and valleys, until it was over. When it was done, he tried to cuddle me but I didn’t want him to. The feeling of his hand on my skin repulsed me. I felt like my skin was crawling when he touched me. I just wished he would disappear so that I could be alone.
I have never been able to fully articulate why I felt that way. I didn’t say no to his sexual advances, so it wasn’t rape. I never told him to stop. He was a good guy and I know that he would have stopped if I had just spoken up. So why hadn’t I just spoken up? And why did I feel like I wanted to cry? Why didn’t I just say “no?”
I would be a liar if I said that I had learned from this experience and started saying “no” when I didn’t want something. This continued to happen several more times, but for some reason I still didn’t say no. I just wanted to be a good girlfriend. I know how messed-up that sounds when I say it out loud, but that was how I felt deep inside.
Somehow, I had created two different sets of standards: one for myself and one for everyone else. For everyone else, women are strong and independent and it’s not their job to please their man. Women are not just there for male pleasure and should do what is good for themselves. Although I truly believed this for other people, somehow I had a different standard for myself. I felt like I was a bad person if I didn’t do what my boyfriend wanted to do. He never tried to pressure me into anything and always told me that we shouldn’t do anything that I didn’t want, but somehow, I still felt that it was my duty. I considered myself a feminist but when it came to my personal life, my gut seemed to be stuck in the 1950s.
After we broke up, I was determined to finally start saying “no” when I didn’t want to do something. Although I wasn’t always perfect with this, I made improvements. After a few years of working on this, I felt like I was finally comfortable with saying “no” to a guy when I didn’t want something. While there are undoubtedly men out there who still don’t take “no” as an answer, I thought they were few and far between. After all, I had been raised on the premise that saying “no” would stop an unpleasant situation, so it seemed reasonable that most other people had been raised that way too. Everyone was taught that “no means no,” right?
I met a guy through a mutual friend when we were all hanging out. Although he was awkward and shy, he struck me as a nice person. He was childhood friends with another friend of mine, so I figured that he must be a good person. We chatted and he seemed to be interested in me. The following day, our mutual friend told me that this guy had asked him for my number and we started talking. He eventually asked me out and I agreed.
On our date, we got pizza and I agreed to go back with him to his house on the condition that we would not go any further than kissing. I had just met this guy and though he was a friend of a friend, I wanted to take things slowly. Before we even went on the date, I explicitly told him over text that I didn’t want to go any farther than kissing and that I, under no circumstances, wanted to do anything under my clothes. I stated this at least three times and made him say that he understood me three times.
When we got back to his house, we started watching the cop drama End of Watch on TV. I don’t like gory, violent movies and I asked him if we could change it. He ignored me. I was disappointed that he didn’t seem to listen to me. We continued to lie there on his couch cuddling, and he started to kiss me. While we were lying there, he started to slide his hand under my shirt. I immediately told him to stop and I pushed his hand away. He tried again at least two more times and I emphatically said “no” and pushed his hand away. A few minutes later, he tried to slide his hand down my shirt again although this time, he was a lot more forceful. Once again, I said “no” and tried to push his hand away. He ignored me. He forced his hand down my shirt and under my bra and grabbed my breast. He was on top of me and I felt pinned down. My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in because I was terrified of where this was heading. I tried to push him off me while saying “stop” but he said, “one minute, baby, just let me have one minute.” He ignored me. I distinctly said “no” but he kept pleading with me to let him have his “one minute.” I pushed him off me as hard as I could and yelled “stop.” He fell backwards a little bit, looking bewildered, which gave me enough time to get off the couch. He quickly regained his wits and grabbed my arms to try to stop me from leaving him. I again said “stop.” He ignored me. I had to push his arms off me to get away. I immediately walked away, feeling like I was going to cry.
I said “no.” I did what I was always told I was supposed to do. I clearly and emphatically told him to stop. But he ignored me.
Why are our teachers, our parents, our community leaders so focused on teaching girls how to say “no?” I have struggled through a large portion of my life with learning how to say “no.” I thought that things would get better for me once I learned to say “no.” I had sex that I didn’t want because I couldn’t say no. Once I finally mastered the skill of saying “no,” I thought that would mean I would finally be free.
But I was sexually assaulted, even though I said “no.”
When I told a guy friend about the incident he said, “Let’s try to forget about it and be more careful next time.”
Instead of teaching girls to say “no,” we should teach boys to ask. Instead of teaching girls that it is their duty to ward off sexual predators, we should teach boys that it is their duty to not be sexual predators. Instead of teaching girls that they did something wrong when they are assaulted, we should teach boys that they should never touch a girl without her permission. The fact that I said “no” did not deter him. I did everything that I was supposed to do and in the end, it was still not enough. That’s the part the gets me the most; I did what I was taught to do and it still didn’t mean anything in the end.
Until we teach boys to listen to what their female counterparts say, we are going to continue to see people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump doing as they please. Saying “no” does not mean “convince me,” it does not mean “maybe,” it does not mean “try harder.” It means “no.” We have raised boys to believe that if they push a little harder, they can get what they want. This is especially detrimental when it comes to consent, because women’s voices are ignored. We are in dire need of a paradigm shift. Instead of encouraging women to say “no” when they want to stop and leave them hoping that their partner listens, we need to encourage a focus on making sure that both partners actively consent and that both people listen. “No” always means “no,” but an absence of “no” does not automatically mean “yes.”