Not saying “no” is a very, very long way from saying “yes”

I had a total “of course, I GET it now” moment when I read this:

Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer

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.

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20 Comments on “Not saying “no” is a very, very long way from saying “yes””

  1. Joey says:

    Great blog, can’t believe there are no comments! Good thing I found it (via YMY).

  2. Becky says:

    I experienced a number of incidents of unwanted sex as a teenager – usually when very drunk. I don’t remember some of them, but I do others and they still haunt me. I have always felt ashamed of myself for not saying no. For not screaming. For not getting myself out of those situations. The worst one was the one where I wasn’t drunk to the point of being half-concious. It was the worst and the one I feel worst about, because I feel like I should have been able to say no. I had been going to commit suicide, was very very depressed. The guy who pulled me back from jumping in front of a train had sex with me. I didn’t say no but I wasn’t in a place for that, you know? This was the last time, I never let myself get in that situation again, and it kills me that I don’t talk about it and feel ashamed. I feel so ashamed.

    Thank you for your post – this is the first time I have ever felt validated that maybe it wasn’t my fault. I mean I feel it at some conscious level but I also don’t feel like it’s true. Even when I told someone close about this I was told “he probably thought he was doing you a favour”. It took me years to open up about this to that person. Ouch.

  3. Amelia says:

    *Trigger Warning*

    When I was raped I had a very similar reaction to yours.

    When the rapist brought me to his bed against my will, I said I did not want to have sex but like many women have agreed to lesser sexual activity in hopes that it would end there. (It took a lot of time, healing, and retrospection to come to terms with that when you tell someone you just want to sleep on their couch and they pick you up and take you to their bed that *clearly* there is an implicit threat there because they have already ignored what you said and that being picked up in that context is very intimidating, threatening, and coercive. [To people who haven’t been assaulted it might not seem like a big deal but it was the first instance where he did whatever *he* wanted to me without regards to my autonomy]

    When I realized what was about to happen I became so shocked. Hadn’t I been clear enough earlier in outright saying “No sex, No sex” when he put me on his bed? I was clear with my body language to say no by laying on my stomach. Well he turned me around and raped me.

    I had the same reaction, I was so shocked and horrified that it was happening that I just became very passive and laid there hoping it would be over soon; trying to think of being anywhere but there in my head with someone I loved. I was so shocked by what had happened and so confused that I just slept there. In the morning when I woke up though I tried to sneak out but he was waiting for me. He had the audacity to walk me halfway to the train station and give me his umbrella in the rain. (this further made me feel confused, rapists don’t give you umbrellas so you don’t get wet in the rain do they? Now i know better but in that state of shock it confused me)

    I couldn’t even label what happened as rape for a long time. Even then I blamed myself for a long time. Most specifically I wondered how I could say I was raped when I didn’t say no or protest during the rape or even when I realized it was about to happen. In my traumatized mind and in rape culture saying an explicit no twice when someone puts you on their bed is not clear denial of sex. It became clear to me that people only believed you if you said no during the rape. (which i would add would have been pointless bc it was extremely clear from my words and actions that I didn’t want it and protesting would have probably just made him more aggressive)

    I was afraid of telling people because I thought they would think despite my “no”s earlier that because I agreed to lesser sexual activity (under the coercion of being physically picked up onto my bed against my will I might add so really not real consent) by not saying no again then when I just laid there that I “didn’t not say no”. It’s this ridiculous game of changing goalposts. This is why yes needs to be the standard. Otherwise people will believe the guy when he says well at first she resisted me but then she just laid there and didn’t do anything so it wasn’t really rape.

    Sorry for the long reply but it was very heartening to hear someone had the same reaction I had in similar circumstances. I’ve heard of freezing too but I wasn’t quite sure that was quite the reaction, probably the initial reaction but then I was just passive to try to get out of it with the least amount of bruises and least amount of time possible.

    • Amy says:

      After 2 years of contemplating whether it was my fault or not..this article opened my eyes. I was in my senior year in highschool and developped a crush on a guy whom I practically grew up with. The reason as to why I developped this crush was because he had randomnly showed up when I had gotten into a car accident. I simply thought it was faith and that it was meant to be. During my second year of college, I was still a virgin..I was 19 years old, and we began seeing eachother, going on dates etc. I did mention to him prior to going out that if we did go out, he could expect to not have sex with me for atleast 6 months or until I was ready to. After all, I honestly believed that sex was only for married people. After approximately 3 weeks of dating, which was during the month of June, we had planned to go out to a rodeo, which was occurring on my 20th birthday. During the day, we went fishing and hardly spoke to one another. It was ackward to say the least. He had gotten me a dozen roses for my birthday. We then headed to the rodeo. The plan was, since I was going to have a few drinks, to sleep over at his place since I wouldnt have been able to drive. During the entire night, I drank 5 cans of beer. I was very intoxicated, which I found was odd as it usually takes me alot more alcohol, atleast 10 cans to be as intoxicated as I was. I was also very tired, which was again odd. When we were ready to leave, his mother had picked us up and had braught us back to his house. I remember passing out on the couch and him telling me to go to his room. I was very intoxicated and pretty afraid as I had never slepted over at a guys house, nevermind his bed. I pretended to had fallen asleep on the couch, and he was literally taking my shirt off, and telling me to go to his room. I had finally gotten up and went to his room. As I was getting changed (in front of him) I somewhat ended up in his bed. I don’t remember how, but I remember him being on top of me, and I remember sensing his penis going in and out. I freaked out and literary tried to push him off telling him no I wasnt ready. He told me he was only ‘poking’ but i know deep down he was inserting it fully as it was painful. He got up and said that wasnt bad, and I remember mumbling ya. He got off of me and went to get a condom, then continued to have sex with me. After he was done, I faced the opposite way. Maybe about an hour later he tried to get me aroused by rubbing my clit until I told him to stop telling him it hurt. He didn’t and told me I was complaining for nothing. After maybe an hour later, when i was sobbering up, I had gotten out of his bed, gotten dressed and slept on the couch texting my best friend telling her I needed help to get out of the situation that I was in.. I texted her ‘I will explain later, but I need you to call me with an emergency forcing me to leave the situation’. I had told him that it was my mom calling stating that my dog was super sick and that I needed to go get medication for him which was in the next town. As soon as I left the situation, I had gone to the coffea shop in order to sober up and in order to gain enough strength to make it through the day as I hadn’t slept the whole night. Shockingly, he had followed me into the same coffea shop and after I had grabbed my coffea he dodged for a kiss..and that was the last time I saw him. He did call, we did talk, I pretty much cried the entire call, and he pretty much stated that it was my fault and called me a liar for telling him that I needed to grab some medication from my dog for which was in reality a lie.

      That summer, was by far the worst summer in my entire life. I am now 22 years old. It’s been two years now and I’m still unable to cope with it. I do pass by his house every day..as it is in my path and no alternate route is available. I have continued my studies at a university where I have been barely making it through. I did tell my doctor. I did speak with a social worker. But the only solution for which they could provide was anti depressants. Unfortunately, they are only give me the energy to make it through each day. They suggested that I go to a mental hospital, for which I would have to admit in and I refuse to as I know that my parents would find out. I feel as though they have given up on me. When I stumbled on this article, I felt relieved due to the fact that I didn’t fight him or that I didn’t keep saying no after he had gotten up to get a condom. I’ve been literary tormenting myself due to that fact accusing myself of not having been able to fight back for myself. I simply and in silence let him take a part of me that can never be recovered.

  4. Dominique Millette says:

    If women had absolutely equal power this would not happen. Men ignore what women want because we have had our power taken from us.

  5. […] Not saying no is a very, very long way from saying yes – this kind of follows on from the first one. It asks, why are people so reluctant to say no, and why do people think that if someone doesn’t explicitly say no, then it’s an automatic yes? Not saying no is not the same as saying yes! […]

  6. Lindsay says:

    I am 29, engaged with a 2 year old boy and I am struggling daily. I have questioned every day what to call my sexual experiences in my you g adult hood… I hate to be touched but I am a very very living person, I have wondered my whole life if what I went thru was rape but like u mentiond could never “legally” justifie it bc I never said no… this is truely destroying me from the inside out and I don’t know what to do 😦

  7. abigail says:

    i am so glad i found this article because something similar happened to me (although not that terrible but it was molesting ). i also feel ashamed, but now i see that i was reacting passive just like you did and didn’t say no.

  8. patti atkinson says:

    Hi Linsey,
    The feelings that you have are very understandable and real. I too was raped once at 18 and then again at 48. I too have had a hard time since during the act i did not say no. I made it very clear that i was not interested in sex however. The first one took me to a lake where we were supposed to meet friends only the did not show uo for two days after we were there. I could see the anger in his eyes when i said i would sleep in a seperate spot from him. He said he just wanted to lay next to me and feel my skin. By the time he started raping me what as no going to do- i had no where to run and he had a gun he said wasfor protection. I was a virgin and was and still am devastated.the second one i was not even dating and i thought was a good friend. I drank to much and he said he did not want to leaveme at the party where someone could take advantage of me. I told him that i just needed to sleepand went to sleep. I remember a few things. He took my shirt off and flipped me overi then remember it hurting. When i confronted him the next day he said it was not his fault that i could not remember. He also said you did not say no.i was drunk and asleep and could not say no. Rememberno is a legal term is all. It is all about pressing charges. These kinds of men who do this to women lack charecter and are not nice men. You were still raped and have the lingering scars to prove it. I hope that you have gotten some validation from a counselor,family,friends and your fiance. Do not keep it a secret. This is why it happens so often. Men bet on the fact that we do not pursue charges and theyunderstand that we have to say no.you did not give consent so yes it was rape. Also as women we have a hard time saying no.please take care of yourself and know that you are not alone. There are so many of us out there carring these big hurts thatwere not our fault.we must stand up and say that not saying no does not mean yes-

  9. MnM says:

    Guy perspective:

    I wish I had read this a few months ago. I don’t think I raped her, she did start out saying no no, and I kept kissing her for a bit.
    Then I asked her if she wanted me to stop. She shaked her head so I continued… She was very passive, which I did find odd.
    She looked at me funny when I asked her to get on top of me. I don’t know, I asked her if she wanted me to continue. She agreed, not as enthusiastically as others usually do. Then again, I had been drinking too much to worry about the details.

    There is more to that story… but where does one draw the line? `She later told me she had not planned to have sex that night but the emotions took over. I mean she came over to my place on a weeknight after a 3rd date at 10 pm.

    Another girl once asked me over to come over for sex, explicitly. I came over. Then she pushed me back. I asked her if I should leave and she would not answer. We cuddled for a bit and then had sex in the middle of the night. Is that rape too? She was not complaining in the morning!

    If girls don’t say No, a guy is not being forceful or aggressive ( let’s say passionate), where does one draw the line?

    • When she said no, you should’ve stopped kissing her. That’s actually a crime(sexual battery, I think). She was probably passive because, when you kept going after her initial no, she believed you wouldn’t stop after subsequent no’s. The second one, if she pushes you back, that’s a clear no. So yes, you’re a rapist.

  10. Eureka moment says:

    Aaah finally. Thank you for writing this whoever you are. I have had the exact same experience and I am so thankful to hear that someone in the world understands! Thank you for your courage in writing this.

  11. Lulu says:

    Thank you for this article. I am now in my 40s and since the age of 17 have been confused about a sexual encounter. This article has cleared it up for me completely. I can’t thank you enough.

  12. Hmm says:

    This is stupid, if you didn’t say know then it’s your fault

    • Megan says:

      No. Absolutely not. Stop shaming victims. Sometimes people are so fucking scared that they physically literally can not say no. Sometimes people don’t say no because they’ve been so conditioned by society to remain passive and not speak up for oneself. Regardless of whether you can pursue it in a court, it’s rape and it fucks the victim up, sometimes for the rest of their lives. have some compassion.

  13. Alicia says:

    I’m so grateful to find this posting. I have been struggling with my past sexual history for a while. There have been many times when I have not been able to say “no”, but wanted to. Instead, I would be screaming “no” inside my mind over and over, but couldn’t get the words out. I would freeze. Almost like stage-fright and I would lay completely still and let them have there way with me, so it would stop. We wouldn’t kiss or anything. I would just look out with a blank stare, tears rolling down my cheek and wait. Looking back it makes no sense. Why would I do that? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t stand up for myself? I was in an emotionally abusive relationship during that time, but I still don’t get it.

  14. Millymoo says:

    I’m being driven literally mad by what happened to me a few months ago. My long term partner, father to my children who has had a stressful 18months with work and has become increasingly abusive mainly verbally but also occasionally physically, I think possibly anally raped me or assaulted me?

    After a period of three to four months with no sex, he was very drunk one night and I had had a drink too. I went to bed he followed me. He kissed me then turned me over and for want of better words fucked me up the ass. We haven’t done any anal activity for years, I was very shocked and just lay there with him on my back taking out his aggression / frustration or just self gratification I’m not sure what it was all about. I didn’t say stop or no but I did cry and make pained noises probably too quietly to be heard by someone so drunk. He came up me and then fell asleep. I however did not sleep. He was very worried in the morning and acting guilty. He then had very affectionate sex with me a few nights later, my apology or so it seemed. I am on antidepressants and have told my GP and a counsellor who both asked if I asked him to stop and I have to say no I didn’t. As far as they seem concerned it feels as If it’s my fault or he did nothing wrong as I didn’t say stop. I can 100% say there was no consultation by him about what he wanted to do and no enthusiasm from me, just pain and disgust.

  15. […] Not saying “no” is a very, very long way from saying “yes” […]


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