"Women just need to learn to say no."

[Content note: sexual assault]

Every time people talk about coercive sex–you know, the kind where someone manipulates someone into having sex with them as opposed to physically forcing them–the concern trolls come out in droves.

“You can’t expect men* to only ask once!” they prattle. “Women* just need to learn how to keep saying no! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If you don’t learn how to stand up for yourself you’ll get screwed over!”

The asterisks are there because these Very Concerned Individuals never seem to realize that sex doesn’t just happen between men and women. Neither do they realize that men aren’t the only ones who rape, and women aren’t the only ones who sometimes have trouble repeatedly saying no. But since these are the objections that they continually spew forth, these are the objections I will have to address.

Here’s an Imperfect Analogy™. If everyone were trained in self-defense, we would be able to prevent the majority of muggings and “stranger” rapes (except perhaps the ones involving weapons, but let’s ignore that for a moment). After all, just about anyone, regardless of body type and fitness level, can learn how to defend themselves with a trained instructor. Got a physical disability? Just get over it. Get panicky when you have to fight? You’re a pansy. There’s no need to discourage mugging and assault because people should just learn self-defense. And if you don’t learn self-defense, well, you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and it’s not our job to keep you from getting yourself mugged or assaulted.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all.

The ability to say “no” over and over despite wheedling, manipulation, and implied threat is not that different from the ability to disarm an attacker, target vulnerable body parts, or block a punch.

That is, the ability to defend yourself emotionally is not that different from the ability to defend yourself physically. We are not born knowing how to do either of those things.

Furthermore, just as some people have physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to fight off an attacker, some people–many people, in fact–have mental disorders that make it difficult for them to say “no” over and over. Just as some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back, some people are terrified by unceasing social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop–even if that means relenting to it.

This is not consent.

This. Is. Not. Consent.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down. Humans are psychologically wired to give in to social pressure. It makes sense, because acquiescing to the demands of others–especially others who are stronger than you–helps groups and societies run smoothly. The amount of research evidence for this is astounding, which is why I think everyone should be required to take a psychology 101 class. Stanley Milgram famously showed that most people are willing even to cause extreme pain to someone just because a person in a position of power is telling them to.

How is this relevant to (heterosexual) sexual encounters? Because men typically hold the reins. Men buy drinks and dinner, men invite women on dates, men initiate sex. Men are usually physically stronger. Women are likely to see their male partners as being in a position of power. And understand that this isn’t really a conscious thing–most women don’t think, “Gee, this guy has social and physical power over me, so I’d better do what he says.” It’s subtle. Subconscious. It sometimes makes “no” the hardest thing in the world to say.

And about buying drinks and dinner. This activates what psychologists call the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something nice for you–even if you didn’t ask for it–you may feel a strong urge to do something nice for them, especially if they’re asking you too. Lots of salespeople use this to their advantage, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that our dating system is set up this way.

Add to this a culture that claims, over and over, that a woman’s agency means little. Think of that “romantic” scene in The Amazing Spiderman, when Peter ropes Gwen in with his web and essentially forces her to kiss him. Think of the movie (500) Days of Summer, in which Tom uses a different type of coercion–he repeatedly badgers Summer for a relationship even though she’s told him many times that she’s not looking for one. Think of that Yale fraternity’s infamous chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Think of pickup artist (PUA) subculture, which literally teaches men how to coerce women into sex. Think of the expectation that a girl who’s asked to a high school prom by a guy sleeps with him afterwards.

Think of the irony of teaching women that they shouldn’t say no while demanding that they learn how to “take responsibility for themselves” by saying it.

And remember that many women–especially (and tragically) those who have already experienced sexual assault–make the assumption that “consenting” to sex is better than taking the risk of having it forced on you. If someone won’t take “no” for an answer, relenting may seem like the safer option. Remember that. Remember that this is not consent.

It’s absolutely true that women (and anyone else) can learn how to override their psychology and stand up to social pressure. But it’s true in the same way that it’s true that they can learn self-defense. It takes a long time–years, maybe–and lots of effort. It probably requires working with a professional or at least reading some useful books on the subject. You can’t just wake up one morning and “choose” to have a new personality.

And yet, that’s never what these concern trolls actually say. There is no advice about getting a therapist or improving your confidence. There is no acknowledgement that these things are difficult and take time. There is no compassion. There is only “Yeah well, she needs to learn how to say no. Not his fault she was such a pushover.”

That’s how I know that none of this is really about your supposed “concern” for these women. If you refuse to condemn people who use coercion and instead condemn people who allow themselves to be coerced, you are, to put it bluntly, on the wrong side.

In that case, here’s a challenge for you. Why is it so important to you that people be permitted by our social conventions to pressure, manipulate, and coerce each other into doing things–sometimes deeply personal and vulnerable things? Why do you insist that women can just magically “grow a backbone,” but that men can’t just stop coercing them?

And if the reason is that you think you’re being “realistic” and “pragmatic” because “things will never change anyway,” then I challenge you to direct fewer of your efforts at blaming victims of sexual assault, and more of them at actually fighting sexual assault.

Putting the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical. It is selfish. It prioritizes your desires over the needs of others.

No means no. A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.

"Women just need to learn to say no."

16 thoughts on “"Women just need to learn to say no."

  1. 1

    Sexual assault continues to be the only crime that is treated in this manner. And that’s unsurprising when you have people running for office suggesting that some girls “rape easy.” There is a pervading fear that women are using sexuality to control men, that the very existence of male pantsfeelings immediately implicates the subject of those thoughts in an attempt to somehow get one over on the man with the erection. Even in the case of rape, it’s like some people genuinely feel that the woman (most of the time it’s a woman, though obligatory recognition that men get raped, too) purposefully got coerced into sex or forced into it in order to ruin a man’s life, presumably for entertainment.

    Rape culture never stops baffling and sickening me.

    1. 1.1

      Even in the case of rape, it’s like some people genuinely feel that the woman (most of the time it’s a woman, though obligatory recognition that men get raped, too) purposefully got coerced into sex or forced into it in order to ruin a man’s life, presumably for entertainment.

      This one always boggles my mind? WHY? Why would anyone want to do that? Do these people understand nothing about human psychology at all?

      1. Projection? It’s what those people imagine they would do if they had the power they perceive women to have? It’s a bit of a frightening though, but I suppose possible. Or perhaps they’re so afraid of being taken advantage of that they come up with insane nightmare scenarios to justify not wanting to feel like they’re not entirely in control of all things always?

        Honestly, I have no idea why somebody would not only think that other people would do that, but that it was commonplace.

  2. 2

    As someone who has been trained in self-defense and trained to teach others, there is a place where your analogy falls down in a way that STRENGTHENS the case you’re making. Because no matter how much you train, how much you take on the burden for your self-defense rather than insist that other people not assault you, no matter how awesome you are at protecting yourself?

    There’s always someone else better.

    If only a potential rape victim does A-B-C? Rapist will do D. Potential rape victim does A-Z? Rapist will do AA-ZZ. There’s no reasonable way to blame a rape victim for not being good enough at self-defense, because there is always some other way for a rapist to get in.

    1. 2.1

      Mhm, that’s true, but also applicable to coercive sex. Some people are really, really good at manipulation. They will make saying no seem like the worse option. That’s still not consent, obviously.

  3. 3

    “Being afraid to say no is not consent.”

    I’m going to interject, as a cismale, that I am extremely offended by the other implication that these rape apologists are making — that since I can’t possibly control myself and am entirely under the control of my biological urges, it’s the responsibility of the woman to say no.

    It’s *my* responsibility to be clear that my partner is unambiguously saying yes with no coercion or manipulation on my part, regardless of the length of the relationship — 20 minutes or 20 years. The question I should be asking is not “is it yes yet”, but “is it *still* yes”.

    All this stuff about “men’s urges” is just a fancy way of letting men off the hook for not acting like responsible and compassionate adults. “You can’t expect men to only ask once” are words that would only be uttered by a rape apologist.

    1. C

      YES! And yet I’ve talked with several guys who insult their own sex by maintaining that guys can’t control their ‘urges.’ This isn’t exactly the same thing, but I remember once talking to a (male) friend about a man I was seeing. When he discovered we weren’t sleeping together, he said that my date had to be sleeping with other women, because it was totally impossible that my date could just not be sleeping with anyone at the moment.


    2. 3.2

      omg, can we be friends? can we clone you and send your clones out into the world? <3 i read this fucking rad post fully expecting the comment section to be full of rape apologists, but here you are being awesome. you'd think more guys would be offended by the implication that they're all wererapists waiting for a full moon, but you're probably the only guy i've seen actually say so on internet. and you're awesome.

  4. 6

    I realize I’m horribly late to the party, but there’s something I noticed that hasn’t been mentioned here, and I thought I should, since there may be other people than me who just found this blog.
    Anyway, my point is, if a man* doesn’t listen to a woman* the first time she says no? He’s not likely to listen the second, third, fourth or nth time either. If a guy can justify to himself ignoring a clear “no” it’s not going to matter how many times you say it. I’ve had it happen to me that – after telling a guy to stop trying to put his penis in my vagina something like 15 times (I didn’t count, I want more occupied with angling my hips to keep him from penetrating me) – I was told that “[my] mouth was saying ‘no’, but [my] pussy was saying yes”.
    Anyway, I just thought I should mention that.

  5. 8

    “A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.”
    Coercion permeates U.S. culture. From advertising to public relations to chronic militarism to bullying to family dysfunction. Rape culture is but one manifestation of our immersion coercive conduct and its normalization.
    How plainly better it would be to encourage humane cooperation over psychopathic competition.
    If it is not broadly believed that one’s body is one’s own; and that an assault against one is an assault against all, we are doomed.

  6. 10

    I wouldn’t go as even as far as to say that one little “no” is enough.

    The lack of an assertive consent is enough. No “no” needed.

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