Words Mean Things: No
This edition brought to you by sexism!
We often hear the refrain “no means no” when it comes to discussing rape and sexual harassment and how women should protect themselves. The “no means no” refrain is directed more at men, as an attempt to stress that when a woman says no, it doesn’t mean yes. It means no.
It seems like a really simple concept. Yet the phrase exists precisely because it’s a concept that seems to be out of the grasp of so many people.
A Personal Experience
I experienced the fact “no means no” is often willfully ignored at a music festival a few weekends ago.
We could argue I was at a music festival, so perhaps the guys were a little intoxicated. Maybe they were high. But they are also steeped in a culture of masculinity and misogyny, one that tells them certain myths about women and men. Such as when a woman says “no,” it doesn’t really mean no.
I had five guys—count them, five—refuse to take no for an answer. They were from different countries around the world, spoke different languages, and yet somehow, still, none of them understood “no means no.”
They also asked me at many different times of day. I was accosted at one in the afternoon, midnight, seven in the morning. It did not matter the time of day, or what I was wearing.
I was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. I had my hair in a ponytail. In short, I wasn’t wearing “festival gear” designed to attract attention–it doesn’t really matter what you wear. In one case, it was about seven in the morning and I had just finished showering; I was wearing what amounted to my pajamas—a baggy tee and loose harem pants, along with my rain jacket, since the sky was threatening.
So time of day, place, attire, and even language and culture don’t seem to matter much when it comes to this. It’s universal.
Putting an End to It
I was very lucky in all five situations. The men asked for a kiss in all five instances, and nothing more. I did feel threatened in almost all of the scenarios, some more so than others. They pressed for a kiss and nothing more. But I didn’t know at the time if it would stop there. Knowing what I do, having been raised to “protect myself,” listening to stories from survivors of rape, abuse, and harassment, I know it very often does not stop there. And, in many cases, it doesn’t seem to matter what you do.
What can a woman do in these situations? Ideally, we should be able to say no, and that will be the end of it, because no means no. And yet it so very often isn’t.
As I stood there in any one of these instances, I had some options before me. I could say no. Or I could insist no and stand my ground as firmly as I could. I could walk away and hope I wasn’t followed, grabbed, or otherwise physically assaulted. Another options would be to give in and give them a kiss and hope to hell they didn’t press further. As a final option, I could attempt to “reason” my way out of the situation.
At first, I tried reasoning. “I have a boyfriend!” I said. So what? My boyfriend wasn’t there. “What if you had a girlfriend? Would you really want her to act in such a way when you weren’t there? No, you wouldn’t, so …”
This did. Not. Work. I wouldn’t say it exactly encouraged them, but it definitely didn’t seem to make a dent in requests for a kiss. (Although one of the men in question did become somewhat more paranoid when I mentioned I had a boyfriend.)
At one point, I did give in. After repeatedly arguing with the guy, chasing myself in circles, I finally just gave him a kiss and told him to fuck off. Perhaps surprisingly (and happily for me), he did. I fully admit it could have turned out a lot worse for me. For many women, it does.
“Giving in” rarely works in getting a guy to back off. Once they’ve broken you that far, they will begin to push further, believing they can simply wear you down and get as far as they like. Give ‘em an inch, they want a mile. I don’t recommend this option ever. It might seem like it will work or be the easiest out in the heat of the moment, but it so very rarely is and can lead to some very bad outcomes.
By the time I was at my fifth encounter, which happened at seven in the morning while I was in some sloppy clothes, I was pretty done with this. When the guy accosted me and then asked for a kiss, I just walked away.
Walking away isn’t an option in every scenario, unfortunately. And walking away can be even more dangerous than saying no or giving in. I walked very quickly away from the guy and I made sure I walked through populated areas, just in case I was followed. He could have easily overpowered me and probably outrun me as well. If he’d wanted to, he likely could have caught me and physically assaulted me.
He didn’t. I was lucky once again.
He did yell at me as I walked away, so I can tell you he wasn’t happy about my reaction. I’m lucky all I had to take was verbal abuse—although I shouldn’t have had to withstand that even.
Why Don’t Guys Understand No Means No?
In principle, the idea of needing to say “no means no” is utterly ridiculous. But, as demonstrated by this five instances, we have to say it more often than we’d like. And yet guys don’t seem to get it. Why?
It’s not that they’re stupid.
Men are often told women play games. Women say no, but we really mean yes. If they keep pushing, we’ll actually crumble. We’re just “playing hard to get.” If they keep chasing and pushing, we will eventually say yes, not because we’re so exasperated and have no idea how to get them to go away, but because that’s what we want them to do.
This is a very common notion. There’s also a notion women are truly unfaithful and simmering sexpots; we’re all whores underneath. We want to be flattered, but we’ll play coy to preserve a feminine veneer.
Unfortunately, almost nothing could be further from the truth. Yet the myth persists.
Sexism … against Men
There’s actually a second layer of sexist commentary here: machoism. What may be driving men’s behavior in these scenarios isn’t necessarily particular beliefs about women, per se, but beliefs about how masculinity should be performed.
When I say, “I have a boyfriend,” the guy hitting on me isn’t thinking about how I, as a woman, am so loyal. He’s not necessarily thinking much about me at all, except for what a conquest I, as a “taken” woman, would be. If he can get into my pants, he’s proven his masculinity; he’s more of a man than my boyfriend, who can’t even keep me loyal.
In this scenario, this isn’t just a problem of men not understanding women or not understanding that “no means no.” It’s not even a simplistic myth about women and femininity. There are notions of masculinity at work which encourage men to purposefully misunderstand and willfully ignore women when we say no.
If I say I no and the man hitting on me stops, respectfully accepts that I did not want his attentions, how is he construed in our sociocultural paradigm? He’s a wuss, he’s a sissy, he’s pussy-whipped and willing to be bossed around by women. Masculinity dictates that he cannot just acquiesce when I say no. If he does, he’s not a man.
In the face of this notion of masculinity, being polite and respectful of women is just not on. That’s a problem—but it’s a problem with what we teach men about how to be a man, how to perform masculinity.
What Can We Do?
If we want men to stop acting this way, if we want them to actually respect women and believe them, then it’s time to revise what we teach about the performance of masculinity. A man who knows no means no is much more of a man than the fool who keeps pushing.
Because no means no.