Right of Refusal

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Night stop sign
So when do you have the right to absolutely refuse a certain kind of sex to your partner?

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.

Red_flag 1
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.

Right of Refusal
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28 thoughts on “Right of Refusal

  1. 1

    I’m not big into this, but isn’t a no safeword rape fantasy, actually just a rape? If one partner can’t say or do anything to make the other stop isn’t that a rape?

  2. 2

    I’m a big believer in reciprocation. I wonder how eager the boyfriend would have been to enact his rape fantasy if his mate had said, “Okay, but at some unspecified time in the future, I get to cuff you to the bed, strap on a double-ender and rape you. Lube optional at my discretion.”
    On a less fraught front, reciprocation is worth thinking about in re many other activities, such as oral. If one is unwilling to give, one should not expect to receive, either.

  3. 3

    That’s an interesting question, penn. I personally would have no truck with acting out such a fantasy under those conditions… for exactly the reasons you spell out. For me, the point at which I (or my partner) can no longer stop it is the point when it stops being a rape fantasy and becomes rape.
    I understand, though, that some people do play like this, to their mutual enjoyment.
    But for it to work AT ALL, for it to be anything other than a psychological minefield, I think both partners need to be equally enthusiastic about it. The “victim” needs to be as excited about the prospect of real loss of control as the “perpetrator.” And that clearly wasn’t the case in this scenario.

  4. 4

    I could see it working, but I think it is very risky. A partner may be very enthusiastic at the prospect, but be uncomfortable or even horrified by the actual act.
    It’s like the reverse of the broccoli scenario. I’ll call it the funnel cake scenario. You may go to the fair and think that a funnel cake sounds like the tastiest treat ever, but midway through your hands are sticky, and your pants are covered in powdered sugar, and you can literally feel your arteries clogging and your pancreas giving out. At that point you quickly throw the rest out and swear off Satan cakes for life.
    I think super-secret safewords of some sort are a necessity because you are playing with fire. I also totally agree that if you don’t at least have that initial excitement, then it can’t work, and if someone aggressively and manipulatively tries to push the idea they need to be kicked to the curb post-haste.

  5. 6

    It’s sad that this should even be something that needs saying. That these arguments must be made indicates, to me, that our culture is far too accepting of rape.

  6. 7

    If one is unwilling to give, one should not expect to receive, either.
    I think it depends on how we define ‘give’ and ‘receive’. It’s perfectly possible to have a couple where A hates giving head and B loves it, or doesn’t mind it. In that situation B refusing to go down on A is being punitive: A is withholding head because the idea upsets him/her, but B is withholding it to even the score with A, which is a much worse reason.
    Of course, if A has a thing for some other act that B doesn’t like, in that situation B has the right to refuse. But that’s not because you should be looking to even-steven all the refusals in the relationship, it’s because in a healthy relationship each partner is prepared to respect the other’s limits. B would have the right to refuse even if A was willing to go down.
    Rather than getting too specific about acts, it’s better to agree that each will give pleasure to the best of their ability and receive pleasure likewise. Exactly how you go about it has to be worked out between the couple.

  7. 8

    I happen to like broccoli and tofu.
    If one partner wants to do something that the other is unwilling to talk about and refuses does this necessarily mean that they won’t want to try it when caught up in the moment? There are clearly limits and it is down to a couple to find them but, playing devil’s advocate, some sex acts might be taboo conversation topics but OK in the bedroom.
    This may well say more about the couple’s inability to communicate that their sexual foibles but asking a partner to expand their sexual practices isn’t a bad thing. As long as you respect them and can recognise when you’ve gone too far.

  8. 10

    There are BDSM scenarios where a partner voluntarily gives up the right, ahead of time, to be able to say no, such as accepting a rape scenario with no safeword. But the point is that the “victim” has voluntarily chosen to enter into that scenario. It is still not “rape”, although it strongly resembles it, because a real rape victim does not ever, at any point, give her rapist permission to rape her (I’m using the “her” pronoun for simplicity, it could go for any gender).
    Sharing a scene with your partner where you give up your ability to refuse is still sharing the scene. It is a conscious choice to allow your partner to take you somewhere in your mind that might be dark and scary, but you have agreed to go there with your partner to accompany you. It can lead to revelations about yourself and your partner, and is one path, among many, to increase intimacy. It’s not for everyone. But it is still not “rape”.
    As for the original blog topic, yes, the way I look at it, anyone has the right to say no at any time for any reason or no reason at all. But your partner has the right to decide if your “no” is a deal breaker. Knowing that my partner might view this act as a dealbreaker is what would make me consider all those caveats and waffly sorts of issues. How much do I really hate this? Have I even tried it? Can I do this for his pleasure? Is he generally a pretty giving partner willing to do some things for me that aren’t exactly his cuppa tea? That sort of thing.
    I have the right to say no at any time. And so does he. If we genuinely care about each other as people and as relationship partners, we can negotiate on some of those broccoli and tofu acts because the underlying premise is that we genuinely care for each other and each other’s pleasure. Am I willing to lose this partner because I only kinda don’t like doing X? Or is X so traumatic to me that losing the partner is the better part of the deal? Of course, if he really cared about who I was, he wouldn’t be pushing for something traumatic to begin with so in that case, I’d stick to my “no”.
    And now I’m rambling. The point was, anyone can so no to any sex act at any time, even if you’ve already started the sex act (with the very rare exception of those agreed upon BDSM scenes where the “no” option has been removed voluntarily). But anyone can also say no to the relationship at any time.
    Bottom line is that I agree.

  9. 11

    Y’know, I was just going over my comment, and it occured to me that this sort of topic shouldn’t even need to be discussed. It should go without saying. But then I started thinking about how many people I know that do not know this.
    For example, a girl I know (the sister of an ex-bf) told a story of something that happened to her a couple of weeks ago. Apparently she was at a nightclub with some friends, one of whom was a guy she didn’t really like that much but he was part of the group. He was plastered, apparently like usual. He asked her to dance, she said OK, then on the dance floor, he reached out and grabbed her breast. Not some sly kind of brushing that could be passed off as accidental, no, he had to reach across several feet of space and grabbed it like a baseball. She knocked his hand away and said no. He immediately used his other hand to grab her crotch.
    Now, the truly amazing thing here is not the audacity of this guy, but that the girl went around asking several people if it was OK that she told him no and was upset at him doing this. My ex, who told me the story, was absolutely flabbergasted that any adult woman in our society would even consider that she was not justified in being upset and was of the opinion that she should have kneed him in the balls right there on the dance floor.
    In this day and age, some people still do not know that they have the right to say “no” and to have that “no” be respected. Some people still think that it’s somehow their own fault when people cross boundaries. That means that those of us who fight for civil and social rights are not doing our jobs.

  10. 12

    Well, I don’t know. The whole “common expectations for a relationship” concept really bugs me because I thought the whole point of sexual liberation is that we all have our different kinks and squicks, and the “common expectations” were, in fact, deeply wrong when it came to how many women experience orgasm. (That, and queer sex is still practically terra incognito.)
    Which is one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get behind Savage as an expert, (although I love him when he’s just the cranky old opinionated gay man) or the whole good, giving, and game mantra which seems to be blanket advice, except when it’s not.
    The bottom line is that I feel there are some very real mixed messages here. It is, in my mind, a very real contradiction between saying that a person has the right to the kind of sexual relationship they want and need, and say that one is “obnoxious” for having too many limits.

  11. 13

    On further reflection, I’ll add a criticism that I’ve had many times before (but didn’t add to my last post.)
    A serious problem I feel that exists among much sex-positive, BDSM, and polyamory advocacy is that the right of refusal is acknowledged but not valued. It has been profoundly frustrating to me to have my decision not to engage in sex, or certain kinds of sex, be considered pathological, uptight, or obnoxious by people who had been previously supportive of previous decisions to be kinky and polyamorous.

  12. 14

    I’m not big into this, but isn’t a no safeword rape fantasy, actually just a rape? If one partner can’t say or do anything to make the other stop isn’t that a rape?

    There’s simply no excuse whatsoever for rape sex games with no safeword.

  13. 15

    I agree with David. Rape is having sex* without the other person’s consent. If there’s no way for the sex to stop, there’s no way to prevent rape. I might even go so far as to say that rape sex games without a safeword are rape by definition, but don’t know enough about the BDSM community to make so strong a declaration.
    *not the best word choice, I know, but I’m uncertain what the correct way to phrase this is.

  14. 16

    A person asking for no safeword sex is asking for permission to keep doing what they’re doing even if you change your mind.
    If someone you’re in a relationship with asks for that:
    Leave that relationship and don’t look back.

  15. 17

    some sex acts might be taboo conversation topics but OK in the bedroom
    … hang on a minute. If your partner absolutely refuses to discuss them, ever, how can you assume they’re ‘okay in the bedroom’? That seems dangerously close to the old rapist’s creed that a woman’s words may say no but her eyes say yes.
    Thinking it’ll be okay to spring it on your partner when s/he’s ‘caught up in the moment’ feels like a bad idea to me. They said no. Even supposing you spring it and they like it, there’s a high risk that afterwords they’ll feel bad about it – and why wouldn’t they? You’ve proved that they can’t trust your word, and that you see their arousal as something to take advantage of.
    Not to mention the fact that if you’re ‘caught up in the moment’, it’s easy to kid yourself that your partners is caught up as well. A turned-on person is not at their most level-headed.
    I’d be scared if my partner took that line.
    Also, it’s not an ‘inability to communicate’ with this couple. The woman’s communicating perfectly clearly: there are things she’s prepared to do and no-safeword rape play isn’t one of them. She’s told him why, she’s told him how she feels when he pushes the subject, she’s told him the effect his pushing is having on the relationship. She couldn’t have been clearer. He’s just responding with insults and emotional blackmail.
    This isn’t a communication snafu between two people of good will. This is one person trying to be reasonable and one dangerous bastard.

  16. 18

    I’m not sure I agree with the people who say that consensual no- safeword rape scenes are always a bad idea at best, and are inherently rape at worst. It’s not a scene I’d want to play; but some people do play them, to their mutual enjoyment.
    An analogy I’ve been thinking of is a roller coaster. If you get on a roller coaster, then once that bar goes over your belly and the car starts moving, you can’t stop it. Even if you decide midway through that this roller coaster is too big and too scary for you and you don’t want to be on it anymore — there’s nothing you can do but wait until it’s over. That doesn’t mean it was a terrible idea for you to get on that roller coaster, or that the person who locked the bar over your belly is a bad person.
    Life is full of situations that we consent to but can’t change our minds about afterwards, from getting on an airplane to joining the Army. If two experienced players both enthusiastically consent to a no- safeword rape scene, and negotiate it carefully… it may turn out to be an unpleasant experience, but I doubt that it would be as unpleasant and horrific as actual rape.

  17. 19

    If someone wants to request no safewords for him or herself, that’s one thing (still extremely poor judgement, in my opinion).
    But to request no safewords for your partner? No.
    “Give me the permission to do what I want whether you want it to continue or not” is the sort of request that’s a clear indicator that you’re in bed with someone you should be kicking to the curb.

  18. 20

    That, David, I totally agree with. It’s one thing if both partners are equally enthusiastic about a no- safeword rape scene. It’s a very different thing if one partner is reluctant and the other is pressuring them into it.

  19. 21

    Thanks for your opinion, Greta. Not sure I entirely agree with it, but I think I can better understand why someone might want to engage in no-safeword sex and how it could be done without being entirely problematic.

  20. 22

    You are completely spot on with this post. You always have the right to refuse a type of sex or sexual act if you don’t want to do it. Whatever it is, whether it’s hardcore sex or a typical sex act, you have a right to say no and your partner can accept it or leave you if they think nothing they want sexually is on the table.
    Thank you for this post!

  21. 23

    Something that the no-safe-word opponents are missing is that it is not always the aggressor who requests no safe word. In BDSM, it is usually the bottom, the sub, the “victim”, whoever is receiving the action, that makes the bottom-line rules. But even if it is the aggressor, (s)he is not necessarily a bad person.
    And I have to agree with Greta here about the roller coaster analogy. It doesn’t make the aggressive partner the “bad guy”, even if you have buyer’s remorse later. We have to take responsibility for our own actions and choices, and sometimes those turn out to be bad and sometimes they’re good. But it’s perfectly acceptable to attempt an activity for which you cannot end it midway. We do this all the time with non-sexual activities and if we end up not liking it, we don’t do it again.
    There also should not be a penalty for asking for what you want, regardless of which side in the scene you will be taking. You can’t reasonably expect to get what you want if you don’t ask. Once your request has been denied, however, any further requesting can be seen as pressuring, but the first act of asking should not be punished or prohibited.
    If we are in intimate, consensual, loving relationships, that intimacy should make us feel as though we *can* ask our partners for things. It is not a guarantee that our partner will do that thing, of course. Everyone should be free to ask, but we have to remove our expectation of agreement to our request. Our request is our own and our partners are not obligated to then fulfill them. But there’s nothing wrong with the asking in the first place.
    I have never used a safeword in my BDSM play and I regularly engage in rape scenes as the “victim”. It is by my request to not have a safeword. I have had partners try to give me a safeword and I do not use them. But, then again, I only play those games with people who I have a deep and intimate knowledge of, and who have that of me, and we have chosen to engage in a psychologically-charged scene together because we both want to.
    No-safeword-scenes are not inherently bad and the people who want them, on either side, are not inherently bad or dangerous. People just have kinks and everyone is different. We can’t really help what gets our motor going, and what does it for one person is different for someone else. It’s what you do about your desires that makes you a “good” or “bad” person. If you ask your partner if they would like to share something with you, and they say no, you have to respect that. If what you want is a deal-breaker to the relationship, well, then the respectful thing to do is to tell them it’s a deal-breaker and allow them to choose to either try the request or leave. But pressuring them into it when they don’t want it is not OK, regardless of what the request is.
    I would be more concerned about someone who is willing to punish a partner just for asking for something that he may or may not know you consider a sign of danger, than I would be of a partner who gets off on nonconsent BDSM play. Since some people *do* have that kink and *do* like that kind of play, how is anyone supposed to know that you do not if they don’t ask? And how are they supposed to ever find a partner who does share that kink if they don’t ask? It’s the repeated asking after the no that is the problem here, not the kink itself.

  22. 24

    Thank you so much for writing this Greta! 🙂
    As soon as I read the question/first line, before I read the rest of your post, my response was “you always have that right” 🙂 As much as I love Dan Savage, I have issues with his somewhat ‘hard line’ on sexual expectation, and even more of an issue with his sometime-approval of cheating ~ everyone deserves to know the ‘reality’ of their relationship, the truth of what it ‘is’, because everyone deserves the right to choose to remain in or leave a relationship based on that reality, imo…..
    soooo many people seem to be just fine not being entirely honest (usually about extracurricular activities) because they’re afraid that if their partner knew, they would leave. Well, guess what, they have that right to decide to leave. But Dan, unfortunately, sometimes veers into the you-can-justify-being-dishonest territory when he offers his ‘sometimes it’s best for the relationship if the other person doesn’t know because staying together is better than breaking up’ advice.
    Sheesh, I didn’t plan for my post to turn into a little Savage Love critique! my apologies.
    Anyway, kudos again for your main point 🙂

  23. 25

    I agree with you, but I also believe that it follows that someone has a right to seek out sexual satisfaction outside of a relationship if their partner refuses to provide it.
    I know quite a few women, and a few guys too, who aren’t satisfied with the amount or quality of sex they’re getting at home, and they’re torn between suffering in silence an dissolving the relationship. Like those are the only choices.
    Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is about having a little recreational extramarital sex. I think it is quite possible to do that and still be emotionally faithful to your partner. I don’t really get why people call this infidelity–being “unfaithful”–and at the same time offer up divorce as a morally superior option. Isn’t divorce the ultimate infidelity?
    It just seems to me that no one has a right to say, “I won’t do this” and, at the same time, “you can’t do it without me.” If you’re not into something, and your partner is, it’s just not fair to put such a limit on them just because you’re in a relationship. Most people accept this line of reasoning when it comes to golf or gardening; why not sex?
    I suppose this is one of the many reasons why I’ve never been big on the whole monogamy thing. If you could have the love, trust, intimacy and all that without all the arbitrary limits and constraints, I might even find the arrangement acceptable.

  24. 26

    Buck, I totally agree with your point that a person shouldn’t have to compromise an aspect of their life/being (in this case, their sexual satisfaction) if it’s something that’s ‘essential’ to them ~ and as long as both partners are aware of the situation (one partner engaging in extramarital sex) and agree to an ‘arrangement’, then what you say is valid. But if the partner who isn’t going outside the relationship isn’t aware that their partner is, then that’s ‘cheating’ and as such, is unfair and thus, unjustifiable imo.
    Don’t you think it’s simply a matter of finding someone who shares your attitudes about extramartial sex? I couldn’t quite glean whether or not you’re suggesting that it’s ‘fair’ to go behind your partner’s back in the process, but if you are….why don’t you think it’s just as ‘fair’ for the non-cheating partner to have the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to stay in the relationship? No one partner should be able to ‘unilaterally’ decide what the ‘reality’ of the relationship is.
    People talk as though breaking up/divorcing is the worst possible outcome. I’ve never understood this ~ and how is divorce ‘infidelity’? it doesn’t involve dishonesty and each partner always has the right to stay or leave.
    ‘Infidelity’ is what the couple decides it is. Both partners establish what the ‘rules’ of the relationship are. It’s as simple as that. If one doesn’t like them or they can’t come to an agreement about it, they shouldn’t get into a relationship. Pretty simple I think.
    Plenty of people aren’t into monogamy but want a committed relationship ~ if they’d all just find each other these problems wouldn’t happen 🙂

  25. 27

    I imagine no-safeword BDSM sex play could be quite positive to both parties, as Joreth stated, or akin to a bad roller coaster trip, but I DO think that the FIRST such situation ought to have a safeword. If the “victim” really liked it and wanted to push the limits further… that’s one thing. But I dunno… it’s kinda like jumping into the deep end before you’ve ever *seen* a swimmable body of water if you go straight to no-safeword play!

  26. 28

    As a responsible alternative-sexuality advocate, I do recommend people use a safeword, especially at first. But the desire to not use a safeword itself does not indicate any inherent “bad guy” quality, regardless of which role one takes in the scenario.
    That being said, I never used a safeword even on the first time and I’ve never regretted it. Using the safeword defeated the purpose of the activity, which was to experience a situation that I could not get out of.
    It’s a psychologically-charged scene that has very specific psychological traits that make it different from rape scenes with a safeword. It may be the first time I’ve explored this kink, or the first time I’ve explored it with this partner … but it’s not the first time I was *with* that partner. We had to take the time to develop a trusting relationship first, to build intimate pathways, to really get to *know* each other, in order to explore this particular scene – not only is that more safe, but it’s also more threatening (in the context of the scene) because my aggressor knows which of my buttons to push, heightening the intensity of the scene. At that point, there is no longer any need for a safeword, even if this was the first time for this activity.
    Since no-safeword-play happens to be a kink of mine, I simply find partners who are responsible and trustworthy enough to share it with me.
    And I find them by asking them if they’d be interested in it.

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