On Women Saying No

I’m signed up to GirlBoss’s newsletter and my weekly email from Sophia Amoruso dropped in my inbox like clockwork. I like Sophia. She is bolschy, driven and badass. Her latest email, though, left me torn.

The power of no

In her email, Sophia talks about the power of saying no. In the context of the email, she’s talking about finding better focus and the rejecting the daily distractions that make procrastination easy and getting shit done all the harder.

Learning the power of “no.” Sure, saying yes can open doors for us, but once we’re focused on what we want to achieve, often “no” is much more powerful…It can help to start saying “I don’t do that” rather than “I can’t do that” when responding to requests from people, so they know that as a rule, you aren’t interested in a particular type of engagement. It can be liberating to go home at the end of the day and not do something. I’ve found that not drinking on weekdays can make me much more apt to decline social events that could distract me from my focus.

In self-care terms, I think Sophia is right. Learning to say no, to prioritise your own needs over others’ is a great skill and one we find difficult to master as a general rule. However, “just saying no” doesn’t always work.

Broken records

While the sentiment of this email initially comes across as empowering and encouraging, it’s kind of missing the point. Women have been saying no for years. We’ve been saying no to telesales calls and street marketers trying to sell us broadband. We’ve been saying no to men who won’t take no for an answer. No isn’t enough. And to tell us to “just say no” is patronising with a touch of victim blaming.

This fantastic article from Jessica Eaton highlights the problems with telling women to “just say no” and I can’t recommend enough that you read it. It’s wholly relatable to women who have been accosted and analyses the reactions we have.

There is no weight behind a woman’s initial No. In fact, most women won’t actually say No in the first instance because we have to weigh up the potential consequences of telling a man no. I’m sick to the back teeth of that. I don’t want to have to put another human’s feelings before my own safety, but many times I do.


Softening for protection

Clothing. Words. Facial expressions. Reactions. The routes I walk home. The time. My company. The number of strangers.

These are some of the considerations I make to minimise the chance that I encounter some form of harassment, or worse, on a regular basis. I don’t walk home alone late at night if I can help it. I consider how provocative I look. Whether my actions could be misconstrued. How I present myself to friends and strangers alike.

I soften my rejections of unwanted attention online too, to save myself from a potential, real danger. I’m angry that I have to weigh the pros and cons of telling someone to leave me the hell alone. That, in doing so, I may be putting myself at further risk – not unlike in the physical world.

I shouldn’t be worrying about the consequences of my actions in these cases. I’m furious that, out of fear, I must extinguish the rage. I must hold my tongue, stop myself from flying into a fit of keyboard-smashing fury, and sharing exactly how I feel about these unwanted and unnecessary messages or comments.

It’s not cute. It’s not flattering. It’s not even pathetic or worthy of sympathy. It’s just wrong.

furious baboon

There are so many potential dangers I think about when I reject someone in person. When interacting online, there are always communication barriers and issues in recognising tone, intent and a dozen other cues usually read through body language, vocal pitch and facial expression. However, when you’ve been given your seventh polite No Thanks – on or offline – take the hint.

What you may or may not realise is that through all the polite declines, your conversation has likely put the other participant through the emotional wringer. She may have been flattered at first in your interest. That flattery will soon turn to boredom, then disdain, and then anger. Anger at the fact that she cannot tell you to Fuck Off because you have the power to hurt her, even through a screen.

The threat you potentially pose is not enough for me to relent. You will not wear me down until I say yes. You will exhaust me, though, and force me into the position where I feel I have no choice but to put myself in jeopardy. The pain, anguish and fear such a decision creates as I tell you where to go is on you.

Your intentions may be pure, but your characterisation of those intentions is hugely intimidating. Take a step back and assess the conversation. If I’ve never shown interest before, why would I now? What you’re doing is trying to manipulate me. I won’t ever agree to that.

Take the rejection well, learn from it and promise yourself that you’ll not pursue your next target so relentlessly.

We’re all vulnerable and we’ll all make mistakes, especially by misinterpreting others. Reflecting, assessing and learning from our pasts gives us the opportunity to do it right next time.

Just Say No

Like Jessica Eaton pointed out – telling people to Just Say No is victim-blamey and uncomfortable. It suggests women aren’t pained, emotionally drained, and often physically hurt by saying No. No has become irrelevant. Consent has lost its weight. The conversation needs to change. Why aren’t we asking men why they still keep asking? Why aren’t we questioning men about their shameless pawing and relentless badgering of women? Why aren’t we shaming men for not respecting women’s decisions?

This tired, misogynistic stereotype of the Woman Chaser is so overcooked by Hollywood it’s nothing but ash. It’s not romantic to be chased. It’s not flattering to be harassed. It’s not a sign of love that you won’t give up – it’s uncomfortable. Wearing a woman down until she says yes is not enthusiastic. It’s barely consent.

unamused owl

We need to get rid of this hurtful narrative – it’s teaching women to want to be chased, and promoting harassment as love to men. We all deserve better. We deserve to be treated with respect. We deserve to be listened to in the first instance. We deserve respect as women and as humans, not as someone else’s girlfriend/wife/property.

Learning to say no, for ourselves, is one thing. Learning to listen and respect a woman’s No is vital. Both are valuable lessons and both are necessary steps forward if women are to share space with men as equals.

Let’s Talk Consent

Before we get started, I’d just like to point out that this is a post about consent (obviously). It’s going to cover consent violations, including one of my own, but I’m going to do my absolute best to steer clear of any potentially triggering phrases or sexually based examples as much as possible. Please keep in mind though that, unfortunately, a lot of consent violations are sexual in nature. I’ll be as implicit as I can, but if you think this post might be triggering for you – don’t read it. Look after yourself first, please x

Right, so, consent. It’s something of a buzzword across all forms of media just now. Everyone’s talking about it, whether in relation to violation, enthusiasm or the “grey area” that exists around it. I thought I’d skip passing judgements on the bad guys (because I think we’re probably all in agreement that they’re bad) and focus on this tricksome issue of consent.

As a young woman who has been to clubs and bars in Scotland and abroad, I have first hand experience of consent violations. For the most part, these have been sexual in nature, but not always.

A few summers ago, I was leaving a club with a friend. That summer I had decided not to drink. My mental health had taken a hit and I was sure that excessive drinking would only be detrimental so I decided to have a dry summer. Granted, there were one or two occasions where I had a gin and tonic or two, but for the most part I stuck to my resolve (which, if you’ve been around Edinburgh during the Fringe, you’ll know to be no easy feat). A friend and I had gone out dancing and, on our way out of the club, I had my stomach grabbed by a man who I would guess to be in his thirties.

I cannot fully articulate how violated I felt in that moment. It still elicits an incredibly visceral reaction from me thinking about it today. It makes me want to shower in scalding hot water. It makes my skin crawl. It makes me feel vulnerable. This man not only grabbed the stomach of a 19 year old girl, but he did so and laughed.

At that time, I was 10 stone. I was wearing high waisted jeans and a crop top that displayed – at most – half an inch of midriff. Not that it should matter. But, for this man, it was enough of an invite to put his hands on my body and exploit my insecurities and vulnerabilities. Had I been drunk, I would probably not even remember this. But I was sober as a judge. I don’t exactly remember what happened next because I was enraged and embarrassed, but I know I was pulled up the stairs fast enough to stop me from swinging for the man or get into a yelling match.

This particular instance stands out for me because it was not inherently sexual in nature. Young women have been conditioned to brush off or defend against sexual harassment from men in a variety of settings, including the workplace, the street and clubs.

“Don’t wear this, don’t say that. Ladies sit with their knees together. Flirting has consequences. That tone will get you in trouble. Be one of the boys to keep them on your side. Put up with the sexual harassment or deal with hostility. Don’t ever expect respect.”

But this was something entirely new. This was a man, yes objectifying me, but finding it completely acceptable to put his hands on my belly and pinch my visible and covered skin between his fingers while laughing. It was invasive and it was far too intimate.

To this day, I think about that incident. It’s a driving factor for a lot of my conversations around feminism and my belief that we need to drill home the importance of consent and body autonomy and goddamn respect for women.

Why consent matters

Because humans have the basic right to choose. It’s that simple. This applies to all thing – law, shopping, GDPR (can you tell I work in marketing?), sex.

To be a little less facetious, consent is a hugely important part of human interaction. Consent helps identify boundaries in interpersonal relationships and is an agreement to do something. This agreement is usually verbal, but can also be granted through non-verbal cues, although this can cause issues with miscommunication.

A great quote I picked up from a website while doing some cursory research for this post summed up consent quite nicely:

Consent allows people to have more control over their decisions and their bodies, which makes people feel more comfortable in social encounters.

At the end of the day, consent is there to ensure the safety, wellbeing and happiness of everyone. By appreciating and looking for people’s consent, we create a culture that understands and respects the views, wants and needs of others while they do not infringe on our own experiences.

What is consent?

According to Merriam Webster online, consent is defined as:

v. to give assent or approval

Definitions of consent in particular situations do vary, though. The law is a great example of this. In America, for instance, individual states have identified different ages of consent to marry.

There are various phrases thrown around in various circles to refer to acts of giving consent, each with a slightly different situational meaning.

Informed consent

Most often found in medical situations (but also works for relationships – consider cheating), informed consent can only be given by an individual after they have reached a sufficient understanding of relevant information that would affect them. For a surgery, for example, informed consent is given after a patient fully understands what is going to happen.

Implied consent

This is an area where much of current debate around consent violations sit. Implied consent is consent which is not expressly granted, but instead implied by actions, circumstances or – as is often the case with the many victim blaming scenarios, inaction.

Explicit consent

Consent of this type has been expressly granted, verbally or written. This type of consent is still fallible, but certainly more likely to result in a happy outcome (as long as such explicit consent has not been coerced in some way).

Active consent

Some would argue this is a duplication: consent is itself an active thing.

Passive consent

The flipside to active consent, most would argue that consent cannot be passive, because to be passive means you have not consented.

Enthusiastic consent

Unless someone shows enthusiasm about a proposal, you cannot assume consent has been given. As my boyfriend pointed out – you don’t tend to go to a restaurant without everyone agreeing and being happy with the choice (there are, of course, fussy eaters and exceptions to this rule, but for simplicity’s sake, it’s a good analogy). Why should any sort of intimacy be treated differently from going to dinner?

Thoughts on consent

Jameela Jamil (goddess, actress and writer) wrote a great piece following the Aziz Ansari shitstorm that has been dividing the internet more than that blue/gold dress that had us all topsy turvy.

Anyway, Jameela is all about enthusiastic consent, and wraps my thoughts in a very neat bow with far more finesse than I ever could:

CONSENT SHOULDN’T BE THE GOLD STANDARD. That should be the basic foundation. Built upon that foundation should be fun, mutual passion, equal arousal, interest and enthusiasm. And it is any man or woman’s right at ANY time to stop, for whatever reason.

Preach it lady!

Final thoughts

Consent should not be so hard to understand. Someone broke it down for those of us who are tea drinkers in a rather nifty analogy video which, if you haven’t seen, is worth a watch (if only to make you thirsty).

We really need to change our approach to consent conversations. Starting with highlighting that no one will get it right 100% of the time. People will continue to miscommunicate as long as communication exists. That shouldn’t stop us from trying though.

Consent matters.

Give people the chance to choose for themselves. With a better understanding and ability to negotiate mutual consent, we might actually build a better society, including how we respond to victims of consent violations.

Wouldn’t that be something?

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