No, and why women don’t say it more.

A friend of mine posted a blog post a week or so ago entitled, “Why women can’t say NO, even to Creepy Guys.” The post is in the form of a conversation between Ellen and an unidentified feminist male, and it’s an interest read in its own right. It also got me thinking about saying “no” to men.

Ellen suggests – rightly, I would say – that women are both trained not to say “no,” that we’re always considering the worst possibility when a man approaches us, and that (and this is her personal thought, not one necessarily applicable to all women) she doesn’t like to say no because she doesn’t like to hurt feelings.

It got me thinking, “Why don’t I just say, ‘No,’ to unwanted male attention, to men that approach me?”

“Because they don’t listen,” my brain screamed back.

When I was 17 I went to Chicago with my mother and sister. We went to Dick’s Last Resort – a very amusing restaurant with very snarky waitstaff. It was fun until a college student decided he needed to talk to me.

Not a problem in itself, right? And my sister and mother were right there, right?

Well, said college student (whose name I have long since forgotten – probably intentionally) was at least 6’3″ and muscular. Tall, blonde, muscular and Swedish. Much bigger than I was even in my three inch heels (they were comfortable boots, just for the record) that made me about 6’0″. I obliged him and probably my mom by conversing, although I wasn’t feeling particularly talkative. I wasn’t particularly interested – he was kind of odd, didn’t talk about anything I cared about and had really gross hair*.

My mom and sister were drinking. They didn’t pick up on how uncomfortable this man was making me, so when he asked to dance and I said, “no,” they heckled me to say yes. In fact, no matter how many times I said no he ignored me and physically pulled me to the dance floor. I could not get my wrist free from the vice grip of his hand. To resist any more than I did would have required behaving like a rag doll, and, as I didn’t perceive any immediate danger, I chose to wait for a better opportunity.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I said no. At least 3 when sitting down, at least 2 on the way to the dance floor. And not quiet, passive nos. Strong, forceful nos. “No, I don’t want to dance.” “No, I said I don’t want to dance.”

He pulled me all the way to the dance floor – a considerable distance given the layout of the room and tables. I was literally forced to dance against my will. Literally powerless – short of biting or kicking where I knew it would hurt him.

Thankfully the kind of dancing he tried to do was more of a swing dance – not pulling me even more uncomfortably close. It turns out when someone spins you it’s really easy to break their grip and walk very quickly away. And as I pulled my hand away I remember saying, “I told you I didn’t want to dance.” I can walk pretty fast when I want to (or when I forget that normal people don’t walk at 5mph+ per hour).

I’m not sure I can convey to anyone how disturbing this experience was. Suffice it to say that I daydreamed for at least a year of being some sort of martial arts master that could’ve flipped that man on his back before he could drag me a foot away from my chair. If you’ve never had your personal autonomy so completely disrupted, I don’t know that I can make you understand.

This certainly wasn’t the first or last time my “no” was ignored by a man. It is, however, the most forceful memory I have of such an occurrence and one of few memories where something actually occurred with physical force.

My reason for telling this story is to illustrate how men react to “no” from women in many situations related to romantic or sexual overtures.

“No” doesn’t work. Telling men, “I have a boyfriend,” or “I have plans” even when you are lying works infinitely better. Usually these answers (or the follow-up answers like “I won’t cheat on my boyfriend”) work. There’s not a lot you can say to that kind of answer.

“No” is responded to with needling or heckling and sometimes outright ignorance. They pretend like you’re trying to play with them or ignore your wishes completely. It’s maddening to have one’s personal autonomy so messed with. Even more maddening because I know I’m so treated because of my gender.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating for using excuses when men make passes at you. It certainly works better than just plain old, honest, “no,” but I wish I could just be honest. I like honesty. Love it, actually.

If only:
“Let’s go out sometime”
“No”

Wasn’t followed by:
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Oh come on…” etc. etc. etc.

Seriously, why do I need to say more than no? Why more than “because I don’t want to”? Why can’t men accept that?

I’m not going to advocate for women to start being more honest. I want to advocate for men and anyone in the position of instigator to start listening and accepting answers. When a woman says, “No,” leave her the hell alone. I don’t care how hot you think she is. Back the fuck off. Same, of course, goes to any women who suck at accepting rejection.

Now you can but-not-all-men-are-like-that until the cows come home, but you should probably know this: a lot more men are like that than you think. A lot more. PZ Myers once said at CONvergence that only a small portion of men are like this – disrespectful of women, lacking in basic manners, unable to accept a woman’s autonomy, misogynist, etc. – but that’s unfortunately not as true as I think we all imagine/hope it to be. I have been heckled, needled, treated differently, treated less than respectfully too many times to count by men, and by too many different men in too many places for it to be as rare as so many people seem to think. If my own experience isn’t enough, I’ve read too many accounts, heard too many accounts, witnessed too many accounts.

So next time you ask someone out do two things: make it clear what you want – I’ve rejected more than one man who honestly wanted to befriend me because I could’ve gauge the situation – and accept whatever answer is given. Unless it’s a friend of yours you don’t have any business grilling them on their answer.

No actually does mean, “No.” We’re not talking about serving food in certain countries.

*trivial, yes, but something I remember more vividly than many other things. It was emo hair for men, but plastered down with hair gel or something. And blonde.

18 responses to “No, and why women don’t say it more.

  1. While I agree that no means no, something to keep in mind is that the culture of dating and the perceptions of what is acceptable and even encourage different from culture to culture and specifically region to region in the U.S. With many men encouraged to “play the game,” that is they pursue a challenging mate – it is not a surprise that sometimes we push through certain comfort zones and tread into unwelcome territory. Personally, I think men should take a step backwards and think about these things and how they would feel if they were constantly bombarded with unwanted attention from someone they didn’t particularly care for.

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  3. Speaking as someone who was raised and socialized as a man, I can actually say that I think that a lot of guys are actually taught (primarily by their peers, but ultimately by the media) that women don’t actually mean “no” when they say it, and are in fact really just playing “hard to get.”
    I’m not sure where that impression comes from; my guess it was created originally by some self-deluded creep who was in denial about what a horrible person he was, but it is all kinds of fucked up.

    • Well, look at basically any romantic comedy and that’s exactly what happens. Its also complicated by the fact that plenty of women have also internalized these messages and they play hard to get. (And im not blaming women here; as a woman myself, this is a concept I’ve struggled with.) Everyone can parrot “no means no” but it isn’t going to mean anything until there’s a cultural shift, because all around us are examples of “no doesn’t REALLY mean no,” and that’s dangerous. We all need to stop looking for a “no” to tell us to stop, and start waiting for a “yes” to tell us to proceed.

      • My point wasn’t “no means no.” I was writing about why we don’t say, “no,” even when that’s what we mean. The problem with waiting for a yes is that a lot of people push us until we say yes out of complete and utter exasperation at their unwillingness to accept “no.”

        If no means no, then yes can always mean yes. If no doesn’t mean no, yes is a lot more questionable as well.

    • Here, have a sticker. It says, “I often completely miss the point.” Put it on your forehead.

      I know there are men who listen to women or *gasp* bother to read body language that says, “stay/get the hell away from me.” (I’m even dating one! Wow!) My point, aside from the point that a lot of men don’t accept “no,” when said honestly, plainly and without excuses, is that men have a tendency to underestimate the number of other men that act like this.

      And considering a lot of those “positive” cases would consist of very little to no interaction between men and women, there’s not much to “report.” I can tell you from personal experience only that I can think of only one time a man backed off immediately, and it’s because I said I was 17 (which I was) not because I said “no.” That’s not to say there haven’t been other cases when men read my body language properly and just stayed away.

      • I’m very sorry you’ve had negative experiences with men.

        I’m just asking for fair representation here when you posit that the speaker you heard was wrong in their statistic, shrink your sample size to your experience and those you’ve read, and then ask you to account for the bias that only the negative would be reported/published/what have you.

        My point is you either can’t make your original point because you are limiting the scope past the original statement, thereby changing the conditions under which it was made, or you need to acknowledge your own bias.

        Or, you know, provide a greater sample size while you’re passing out internet stickers and attaching them to foreheads. Either way, I got the information I was looking for from you, have a good rest of your life. :-)

        • I’m pretty sure my own bias was pretty clear given that I was writing about a personal anecdote.

          As for the “speaker I heard” – PZ said that in personal conversation with me. I didn’t hear him speak about it and there was no statistic. He literally said, “Not that many men are like that” in conversation. I disputed it. My point stands – men are more likely to underestimate the amount of other men that don’t treat women like humans. They also seem to have a tendency to underestimate how often women put up with not being treated like human beings.

          As far as I know no one has undertaken a study on this – why don’t you go right ahead and do that and get me a bigger sample size.

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