Not saying “no” is a very, very long way from saying “yes”Posted: April 4, 2011
I had a total “of course, I GET it now” moment when I read this:
It basically asks two questions:
1. Why do some people find it impossible to say “no”, even if they really really mean “no”? And,
2. It frequently happens that a man rapes a woman, but she didn’t say “no”. Many feminists would say that it was rape if she didn’t say “yes”, but some other people maintain that if she didn’t say “no” then it wasn’t really rape.* What’s up with that?
I’ve known all my adult life that it is sometimes extremely hard to say “no”. I’ve been in situations where the combination of total shock and total terror I felt made it impossible for me to make a noise: it’s like my throat was frozen shut.
But there’s something even harder to explain: I’ve been in situations where something was done to me that shocked and horrified me, but I didn’t scream and I didn’t freeze either. I just went incredibly passive. In my head I was screaming at the person who was hurting me: “Why don’t you stop, can’t you see how terrible this is for me?” But I wasn’t able to make myself say that out loud. I just lay still and waited for it to be over. Afterwards I was utterly depressed and confused, I didn’t understand my own behaviour, the only thing I knew was that I hated myself and that everything that had happened was my fault. Because I didn’t say “no”.
The study found something that had never occured to me, but which made me say “Yes of course!” as soon as I read it: people just don’t say “no”. To anything. Ever. It’s something we are trained not to do and which we have no experience of doing. When someone says “would you like to go for coffee with me” or “could you babysit my kid tomorrow evening” or “a bunch of us are going to the pub, are you coming”, we don’t say “no” – if we did it would seem rude and aggressive. Instead we say “maybe” or “I’ll see” or “I’ll have to think about it” or “I’ll have to check if I’m free” or “sorry, I’m busy then, maybe some other time”.
This shows that the requirement for women to say “no” to unwanted sex amounts to requiring women to use vocabulary that is completely alien. It’s as if women were told that if we don’t want sex we have to stand on one leg and say “please don’t rape me” in fluent Hungarian.
Self-defense trainers know how difficult saying “no” is. The first thing I learned when I took a self-defense course was how to shout “NO!”, and the trainer didn’t just tell us to do that once, we practiced it over and over. At first none of us could bring ourselves to shout and so instead we said “no” quietly and self-consciously and then collapsed into nervous laughter. We needed practice and encouragement in order to overcome our inhibitions against saying the word “no”.
One thing I learned in self-defense class is that in a high-adrenaline situation you aren’t able to think clearly and logically about what the best course of action might be, instead your brain shuts down and you just instinctively do whatever you have trained to do, that is, you do whatever it is you have done over and over to the point that you can do it on autopilot. So for instance when we were taking turns pretending to attack our partner with a rubber knife, we didn’t hand the knife to our partner, because if we did that in training we might do it in an emergency situation as well. The instructor told us a story about a martial artist who got attacked while walking through a park: the martial artist expertly took the knife from the attacker and then handed it back to him, since that was what he’d done over and over in his training. With this in mind, it becomes obvious that since we never say “no” in our day-to-day lives, it would be difficult or impossible for us to say it in a high-stress situation. For many people the default behaviour in a situation such as rape is to freeze or go passive, since we have not had any training or practise in how to deal with this situation.
Realizing all of this was a big deal to me because for the first time I can tell myself, “it’s not my fault that I didn’t say no”, and I can back this up with solid research. (And then I think, it’s pathetic that I, a grown woman, need to reassure myself that it’s not my fault I was assaulted, but whatever.) It’s more clear to me than ever that the definition of rape must not include a requirement for saying “no”. Of course “no means no” still applies, but we need to go further than that and make it clear that sex without enthusiastic consent is rape.
The study went on to ask the question: given that we never give a clear “no” and instead give softer, vaguer answers, are people able to tell when the person they asked to do something doesn’t want to do it? The answer is a definite yes, we are actually very good at understanding when someone doesn’t want to do something. This points to the ugly truth which I and probably everyone else already knew: there are lots of men (a minority of men overall, but still lots of them, and they get around) who are happy to fuck women who they know perfectly well don’t want to be fucked. They do this because they know they can get away with it. They know it will not be called “rape”, they know that if the victim dares to speak up she will be called hysterical or unreasonable or confused or vengeful or people will say she has a reputation or is slutty or is an undercover agent for the CIA**. They know that if she talks to the police she will not be taken seriously. They know that most likely the victim won’t speak up at all, instead she’ll blame herself, become more at risk for depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and suicide, spend 6 months or two years or five years just trying to get her head straight again, she’ll get lower grades at school or drop out of school entirely or if she’s working she’ll find it harder to concentrate at work, and she might have to take time off and she might get passed over for promotions because of this, but she’ll do all this QUIETLY. The rapists know this. That’s why it’s so important, so crucial, to switch to a definition of rape to include all sex where there is not active, enthusiastic consent.
*But if someone was robbed or beaten up the cops wouldn’t ask them if they said “no please don’t rob or beat me.” Rape is the only crime where you have to explicitly say “no” or else it doesn’t count.
**Not even hyperbole, this is what people said about the two women who accused Julian Assange of rape and sexual assault. Google it.