"The Good Ones Say No": Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

[Content note: sexual assault/coercion]

Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, recently livetweeted her son’s high school sex education class. (Here’s her article about it.) The results were…about what you’d expect, if you’ve been following the news about high school sex ed. Students were warned that condoms frequently fail (as in, 18% of the time) and that premarital sex can lead to drug abuse and imprisonment and (obviously) teenage pregnancy.

But the most disturbing thing in the whole livetweet, for me, was that bit about going for the girls who say no:

This is how purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin.

On one side of the coin is the idea that only “good” women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be “good.” Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only “good” as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in “good” women, what happens when a woman stops refusing?

So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.

And that’s why rape culture is the other side of the coin. If saying no is the only way a woman can be “good” and therefore desirable, if pushing past “no” is romantic and sexy, if sex is only morally acceptable if the woman didn’t really want it–then rape is acceptable. Not all rape, of course–most purity culture adherents would probably be horrified at stranger-in-the-bushes rape–but I would argue that accepting some rape is equivalent to accepting rape, because as soon as you accept that it is okay to violate someone’s consent in some cases, you will be able to justify violating someone’s consent in any case where you have a motivation to justify violating their consent.

Of course, people who endorse views like “the good ones say no” would be quite offended by what I just said. After all, they’d say, a woman need only say no until she is married to a man. Then she can magically undo years of sex-negative messaging and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life with her husband. More easily said than done.

But this has consequences far beyond wrecking individual people’s sex lives. The idea that “the good girls say no [until marriage]” implies that women frequently say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or wish they could say yes, or whatever. This is one of the beliefs that is most frequently used to justify sexual assault and coercion.

Of course, even if someone says no to sex that they actually want, that’s no excuse to pressure them into bringing their actions in line with their desires. If I say no to a party I’d really love to attend because I have to write a paper instead, it’s still wrong to pressure me to go. If I decline to go on a trip with you that I really wish I could go on but cannot afford, it’s still wildly inappropriate to just buy me the tickets and then expect to be paid back. Most adults understand that we can’t and shouldn’t always do what we want to do regardless of the consequences, and people who don’t understand this are people that I usually feel unsafe around.

And what of the unknown proportion of women who say no while hoping that their partners will ignore it and proceed anyway? Sexual predators claim that many, if not most women do this. (And many men have told me stories of how they dutifully took “no” for an answer, only to have the woman demean their masculinity and lose interest because of it. Needless to say, I still think they did the right thing and should keep doing it.) I don’t have statistics, but I can’t imagine this is very common. And regardless, there’s a simple solution–always believe someone who tells you “no.” If that’s not what they meant, they’ll quickly learn to say what they mean.

(And if not taking no for an answer is sexy for your and your partner, negotiate a kinky scene that’s consensually nonconsensual.)

More broadly, I think this is a small part of how we get that cultural message that resisting is sexy (when women do it). Think of how many romantic scenes in books and movies hinge on a woman saying no over and over until the man finally wears her down and she agrees–or he just straight-up physically forces her.

Some people say that this is sexy because there’s just something inherently sexy about chasing someone. (But only for men, for some reason.) I don’t know about that. More likely, as Emily Nagoski writes in her excellent book, Come As You Are, there is little about sexuality that isn’t learned.

And certainly it’s okay to find it sexy and to incorporate it into your life in a consensual way. In fact, one of the vignettes in Nagoski’s book features a couple trying to do exactly that. The problem is when women are taught that refusing is the only way to be sexy, and when men are taught that “chasing” a woman who refuses is the only sexy thing to do. And that’s exactly what the sex ed class that Dreger livetweeted tried to do. The speaker implies that women who don’t initially say no aren’t worth pursuing at all.

(Obviously, this particular class will not be the only way that these teens will get this message, and if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this because it’d be a drop in an otherwise-empty bucket. But it’s a drop in a very full bucket, and we have to empty the bucket drop by drop.)

When girls get the message that saying no makes them sexually/romantically appealing, they lose touch with their own boundaries and their own sense of what they want*. When boys get the message that girls who refuse are playing coy in order to attract them, they learn to ignore any intuitions they may have about respecting boundaries and not pressuring people. I hear from a lot of men who are so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of pressuring women into sex, but are nevertheless convinced that they must do it because it’s just what men should do. Why do we persist in teaching young people this convoluted and contradictory way of thinking about sex?

Most of the controversy about abstinence-only and otherwise sex-negative sex ed is that it teaches teens falsehoods about safer sex and STIs, and that’s true, and that’s scary and wrong. But there’s a lot more lurking in these lessons than medical misinformation.
~~~

*I just want to add something here for all the women who find it sexy to be pressured in certain ways but not in other ways or some of the time but not other times or at first but not once you pause and really think about it: there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re taught to ignore our own intuitions about what we want, and we’re taught that men know what we want better than we do. In some situations, you might truly be okay with someone pushing you to do things, whether it’s because you trust them or for any other reasons, and in other situations you might not be. My advice is to do the difficult work of figuring out what you want, not what other people think you want, and then go about getting that by being clear with your partners about it.

I’ve felt that flutter in my chest when I watch movie scenes that are totally not consensual and I sometimes wish that would happen to me, and then I remember that it has happened and it was never like it was in the movies and I never turned out to want it. Maybe someday it will happen like that, but in my own experience, these things are better negotiated and brought out into the open rather than assumed.

And guys who date women: you need to try to understand these dynamics if you’re going to date women ethically. What men often write off as women being “fickle” or “complicated” is actually just us trying to negotiate some peace treaty between all the competing messages we’ve been given about our bodies and our sexualities. Negotiating peace treaties, as you may know, can be messy, difficult, and time-consuming. That’s life. For the time being, that is. Until classes like the one Dreger attended never happen anymore, and the things said there are never said anymore.

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"The Good Ones Say No": Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
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5 thoughts on “"The Good Ones Say No": Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

  1. 1

    “The idea that “the good girls say no [until marriage]” implies that women frequently say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or wish they could say yes, or whatever”

    I think that’s blurring a line. To take a less emotive example, I am a diabetic and frequently say “no” to sugary foods. I don’t (obviously) really mean “yes”, and it would be wrong of anyone to coerce or force me into eating, but I do wish I could say yes.

    1. 1.1

      David: Well, it shouldn’t imply that, but practically speaking, it does. Men tell me all the time that I must only be saying no because I don’t want them to think I’m “easy.” I have to try to convince them that no, I’m saying no because I don’t want to.

  2. 2

    I’ve always been very good at knowing what I want and enforcing boundaries. When I say “no” that’s my last and final answer, and when I say “maybe later” I give clear parameters as to the curcsmstanxes that need to happen. The trouble is, men don’t believe me. When I say “no”, they hear “maybe” and push harder; and when I say “maybe later + parameters” they hear “yes – right now!” and push even harder.

    It’s rather exhausting to have to explain, to the thousandth guy for the millionth time (since I usually have to explain more than once) that I mean what I say and say what I mean. It’s also frustrating, annoying, and at times quite maddening.

    I eagerly await the day when female sexual autonomy is not only acknowledged as a real thing, but is also a thing that all women are assumed to have.

    Until then, I have this big heavy ruler to use on the hands guys who don’t quite get the message.

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