TBT: Why “No Means No”

This was originally posted in June 2009.

One of the tangential issues that came up in the rape thread that would not die is the statement “no means no.”

I really hate to have to point this out, believe me… but sometimes a simple “I’d rather not,” “I shouldn’t,” or even “no” isn’t clear enough. I won’t try to guess at numbers, I’m not qualified, but there are most certainly women who enjoy that particular game. Keep in mind that we’re talking about college kids here. Boys and girls in their late teens and early twenties for the most part, and clear communication about sex and relationships is going to be fairly uncommon. Again, I’m not even going to pretend to put numbers on it, but I’m absolutely certain that sometimes it is honest miscommunication.

“No means no” is a simple slogan, but it just doesn’t reflect reality. Imagine stopping only to be yelled at because your partner was getting into it and you ruined the mood. Imagine it happening when you’re young and still inexperienced and emotionally fragile. How many times do you think that has to happen before a person is capable of mistaking a sincere “no” for a repeat of the previous situation, if only for a short time?

I’m not trying to say it’s common… I’m just saying I’d be amazed if it never happened, and that I’d be amazed if there aren’t piles of similar ways a misunderstanding could happen in a moment of passion. If the “victim” says that it was a misunderstanding, I’m inclined to believe her unless there’s some other information to imply otherwise.

I’m going to assume that this is an honest statement of confusion, not an attempt at rape denialism or some kind of justification. It is worth noting, however, that I wasn’t sure when I read it or much of the conversation that followed from it. But it’s not useful to think of this as anything but a misconception that can be corrected, so I’m sticking with that.

The big problem with this statement is that “no means no” is not a slogan, meant to tell us what people are saying. It’s an instruction.

The way that our culture talks about sex–or, more importantly, doesn’t–is fundamentally screwed up. We’re not really talking, most of us. We’re role playing. We’re taking the things that we’re supposed to think and feel about sex and repeating them to one another in the place of figuring out and talking about our own feelings.

Religion hasn’t helped, of course. The inequality between the sexes and mistrust of pleasure that the dominant religions of our society have promoted place particular pressure on women to deny enjoyment of sex, to deny desire. That means that “no” has frequently meant something other than “no.” This is not a new concept.

However, it is a concept that came to be used by men as a justification for rape. As a means of excusing nonconsensuality, it came to be accepted and enshrined in a not insignificant portion of our media and our cultural mythos. That acceptance had to change.

“No means no” doesn’t mean that everyone will always tell you the truth. It means “The only way to be sure that you do not victimize someone is to believe that they are saying what they mean. Do that.” That part of it is true, and using counterexamples of when someone has not been entirely forthcoming doesn’t change that truth at all. All it does is provide fodder for the people who don’t want to follow the instructions.

In case it needs to be said, “no means no” goes for both men and women, and men were not the only people who needed to change their behavior. Communication never involves just one party. Men needed to act as though they believed something that often wasn’t true, but women needed to learn how to tell the truth. “No means no” means that women had to learn to speak about their own desire. They had to take responsibility for their own sexuality, societal pressures notwithstanding.

I don’t know how many times I heard while growing up, “If you’re not mature enough to talk about sex, you’re not mature enough to have it.” The topic at the time was birth control and preventing STIs, but the same absolutely goes for the topic of consent. This is similar to the idea behind prohibiting statutory rape–consent cannot be meaningfully given at certain maturity levels–although honesty and thoughtfulness are much better indicators of maturity than age. (Incidentally, for the folks who worry about being accused of rape after consensual sex, attending to a potential partner’s maturity has benefits for you, as well.)

In the end, “no means no” is about making the sexual landscape a better place to be: fewer victims, less blame laid on victims, more people seeing their desires fulfilled, better distributed work of communication. “No means no” isn’t about describing the world as it is. “No means no” is about remaking the world as we want it to be.

TBT: Why “No Means No”
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16 thoughts on “TBT: Why “No Means No”

  1. 1

    I told my nephew “Silence is NOT consent. If she( or he) wants to have sex with you, they have to say so. Never have sex with a person who has not explicitly said ‘Hell, yeah, let’s do this!!!!’. Some girls have been socialized to believe that only sluts say yes, so you are going HAVE to talk about it. And until you have explicit VERBAL consent, you do not have consent.”

  2. 2

    There ought to be a very simple cost-benefit issue here – the worst possible thing that can happen on the one hand is that you might not have sex; the worst possible thing that can happen on the other is that you might rape someone.

    It’s worrying how many people seem to think that there’s actually a dilemma there.

  3. 3

    It’s worrying how many people seem to think that there’s actually a dilemma there.

    Exactly. I wonder how many guys would say they would rather die a virgin than risk becoming a rapist? Seems like an uncontroversial statement, but I think the PUAs and “incel” types would be horrified by it.

  4. 4

    For those of us with children, please recall that teaching on this starts very young and independently of sex.

    For instance: Kids play “tickle” all the time. There’s generally a fair bit of “stop!” squealing going on that nobody actually expects to be obeyed. Step on this hard. At any age (and yes, that means when you or your co-parent or the grandparents are doing it, too.)

    By the time they’re at all likely to be tempted by the sexual version, they’ll have had lots and lots of “why is she saying ‘stop’ and he isn’t stopping, Mommy? That’s not the rule!” conversations that can grow increasingly deeper and more detailed.

    Pardon me while I go back to reviewing my notes in wishful anticipation of grandchildren.

  5. 5

    Very good article. I am confused by the comment above me though. DC Sessions, you are saying that children should be taught to honor “Stop tickling me,” is that correct?

  6. 7

    Absolutely to both.

    One of the only times I blew completely off the handle with her as a teen was when I overheard her playing ticlke with her boyfriend and “no! stop!” was not honored and the game kept on. I went ballistic and read both her and the boyfriend the riot act, relating it to rape etc.

    As it happens, today she sent me this:


    Maybe I did something right.

  7. 8

    That does sound pretty strict but anyway thanks for the reply. This is a lousy format to ask followup questions but had you been teaching your daughter that her whole life or was it something you started when she was older?

  8. 9

    Teach kids to use safe-words if they want to be able to say “Stop!” when they’re being tickled and not have the other person actually stop. Seriously. Teach them that if, in a specific situation, they don’t want no to mean no, they need to say so – and pick a different word to mean no. Traffic light colours are good, they need to learn what those mean anyway.

  9. 10

    What sawells said at #2. It’s really very simple.
    It has actually happened to me that someone I was getting physically intimate with said “no” and was somewhat miffed that I, in her words, “gave up so easily”. I found it humorous that I was the one explaining that “no means no” and that I needed clear communication if we were to continue.

  10. 11

    This is a lousy format to ask followup questions but had you been teaching your daughter that her whole life or was it something you started when she was older?

    More and more as she got older. The whole “parent” thing is very much a “learn on the job” process and I didn’t start out especially wise. Which is one reason I pass along tips like this. My seventh-grade homeroom teacher liked to decorate the room with various aphorisms. The two I remember best (fifty years later) were:

    Learn from your mistakes. Otherwise there’s no point in making them.
    Learn from the mistakes of others. You haven’t time to make them all yourself.

    Especially when you only get one try to get it right with each child.

  11. 12

    We always teach the kids that “no means no” mostly by respecting their own “no” and enforcing other people’s (kids’) “no” as well.
    There are many ways you can foreground bodily autionomy and respect and you don’t need to talk about sex and BDSM for that ;). For example, I never tell my kids to give me a kiss. I ask them if they want to give me a kiss, from time to time I remind them that it’s OK if they don’t want to, and, most importantly, I put on my big girl pants if they say NO. No emotional blackmail.

  12. 13

    I really struggle to empathize with people who find this confusing. It isn’t rocket science.

    If boundaries are unclear, stop what you’re doing and talk about them.

    Always err on the side of respecting the boundaries of others. It is better by far to risk missing out on a sexual opportunity than it is to risk violating someone’s right to withhold or revoke their consent.

    I don’t know how many times I heard while growing up, “If you’re not mature enough to talk about sex, you’re not mature enough to have it.”

    Three cheers for that.

  13. 14

    This is a great article. Education on consent is one of the best ways to keep people from becoming victims or victimizing others. One thing I would like to get people’s opinions on, is relations that flow from a more “organic” nature. Say you have two individuals cuddling on a couch. Soon the cuddling progresses to kissing, kissing to foreplay and then sex. How should people express consent in this particular situation? Should it be assumed via action? Should the individuals stop and get explicit verbal confirmation?

    I like to hear some other thoughts on these issues

  14. 15

    OMG the ‘tickle’ discussion.

    my daughter is 6, and we have been preaching HARD on this one. By the time she was 3, she learned to say, “ok, that’s enough tickling”. I have repeatedly tickled her – to get her to say “STOP”, which I honor. Or, for her to say, “ok, you can tickle now.’ Slightly different conversations with my son, (age 9) as he collapses upon being tickled!!

    The really uncomfortable thing I worried for has now happened twice in a month. I am not bragging, but my daughter is eye-catchingly exotically beautiful – full genetic jackpot. She now has the attention of two older boys, family friends, aged 12. We have blundered into seeing her with each of those boys (only once each, thank god,) cuddled up, and tickling. Not like, you have two kids chasing each other. Like, cuddled up the way I might with my husband. We could tell that during the second incident boy was – however innocently – a bit aroused by this.

    The first time it happened, I did some role play to discover WHERE she had been tickled, no sexual boundaries had been crossed, but dammit, a 12 year old boy has no business spooning with my 6 yr. old daughter. What I explained is that cuddling and tickling is ok for family – mom or dad, and even her brother (unlikely as that might be). Grandparents are ok too. Other family is ‘ask first’. Buddies and boys, nope. So, the second occasion, my husband breaks up the session, role plays a bit to find out if it’s feet, armpits, sides – anything else. Nothing too worrisome here either. I notified the first boys family, as we are good friends, his mother and i are nearly positive it was innocent, but she agreed that he didn’t need to be cuddling up little girls. The second boy, we have no opportunity to talk to the parents. So, yep, I have to again reinforce, “no cuddling with boys, you are too young to be messing about with that.” She asked ‘even ____” and I said yep. (didn’t say, “ESPECIALLY”)

    I am trying to keep her out of situations I CAN”T EVEN EXPLAIN TO HER because she is too young to even get it. Clearly, I have to check in every 20 minutes when there is a mixed-age group of kids over! And, I’ve started the conversation with my husband about appropriate age groups and chaperoned behavior.

    Both kids know ‘private parts are PRIVATE’, but it doesn’t cover actions that start innocent and get ‘exploratory’. It also is tough because I don’t want to reinforce a worry or concern that she has done something wrong, or that she is in trouble. It’s a fine line to cross, so it seems I am back to reminding her – weekly? that some touches are NOT ok, because some parts are PRIVATE. FWIW, we have also nEVER told her to hug or kiss someone, it’s always been, ‘would you like to give someone a kiss or hug?’ because we have no business telling our kids they can’t be in control of their own bodies…..

  15. K.

    What you say jibes with what I’ve always felt about the “no means no” thing – that even if the partner saying “no” meant yes, it’s way better to have two people not have sex than to have someone get raped. And then next time, the partner who was trying to be coy will just have to learn how to communicate (or they could even do so in the moment – oh hey stop, I was just kidding, we should totally bang). Everybody wins.

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