Why don’t we learn how to say ‘no’ to sex?

Be fierce, be firm, be fearless

I don’t know how to say “no” to men. There, I’ve said it.

We spend years trying to pound into boys’ heads that “no” means no, and a woman’s consent is given by her and her alone.  I, as a woman and proud feminist, know and respect that with everything I have, but somehow, somewhere along the line, I missed out on the lesson on how to realistically withhold said consent.

I even wrote a piece on consent, seemingly making me qualified to express my right to the “no,” and yet here I sit, the morning after a party where I felt the need to sneak out in order to avoid the confrontation of telling a man  I had no interest in sleeping with him. I have come to the realization, I have no idea how I would have turned him down had he actually gotten up the ovaries to ask me upstairs.

The easy answer to this is the obvious one: “just say no.” But anybody who has even the slightest amount of social anxiety or tends to be a “people pleaser” can understand this encounter is up there with the most uncomfortable of them. How do you go about it without hurting his feelings? Why do you even really care about his feelings? What do you say if and when he will inevitably ask “why not?”

Where was the Sex Ed course on this part? Why don’t I know the answers to those questions in my sleep (or, more importantly, when I’m 4 drinks in)? Was I just absent to class that day or have we been blatantly overlooking this very important and very real aspect of the sexual-social scene among today’s young adults?

Luckily I had a girlfriend who was able to recognize my discomfort and aid me in my swift departure but I worry for the woman who isn’t fortunate enough to have such a wonderful sidekick.  We, as women, are taught to stick together and to watch each others’ backs. Which is great in theory (and often also in practice). However, when this theory falters and somebody dips out early or wants to stay late and the girl-squad is separated, it’s absolutely crucial for us to still have our safety.

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This girl deserves countless thanks (apparently in the form of moderately flattering photos) for being the best sidekick a girl could ask for.

The biggest component of this is obviously the perpetrator – rape wouldn’t happen without rapists – but a large step towards protecting ourselves from sexual assault is the agency and ability to express our own discomfort and disinterest. For this reason, it’s essential that we not only know how to use, but also feel comfortable with using the word “no.”

It’s easy to start down the mental path towards victim-blaming yourself: “I was sending mixed messages,” “I was dancing with him,” “I kissed him back,” “I didn’t exactly say no.”

Although I strongly advocate for a “‘yes’ means yes” campaign so as to enforce that the presence of authorization equates consent rather than the absence of denial, we could at least properly equip ourselves with a way out of that last, devastatingly self-harming train of thought.

I don’t ever want to feel like I can’t or don’t know how to say “no” to a sexual encounter again.  The feelings of helplessness and self-doubt that undeniably follow a situation where I am stripped of my ability to command my own body are not worth avoiding the discomfort of turning down some guy in a party. I don’t know why I suddenly felt an overwhelming inability to express my disinterest, especially when I, prior to this situation, had prided myself in being fiercely independent and confident in my rights as a woman.

smiles all around for self-advocacy!

Smiles for self-advocacy!

So to my fellow “yes” women out there, I have a brief message:

Your body and mind are yours alone to do with what you please. You always have the power and agency to unapologetically decide what happens to your body. Be fierce, be firm, be fearless.

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University of Wisconsin