“Yes means yes, no means no
However we dress, wherever we go”
I have a problem with this slogan.
Me, a feminist, regularly accused (by arses, it must be admitted) of being one of the man-hating ilk of such, having a problem with a classic feminist slogan?
Yep, I do. Here’s why:
The basic implication behind that slogan, is that women are being posed the question, which they then answer or not - with yes or no. Men ask “do you want sex?” and women say “yes please” or “no thank you”.
Now I’m not going to slag the slogan off: it’s a classic feminist slogan and it was educational and revolutionary and it’s still relevant. It needs to be said - no really does mean no. Men had been used to saying that no really meant yes, that no from a woman, was a joke, something that didn’t need to be taken seriously, just a preamble to yes. Jane Austen wrote about it in that glorious scene in Pride and Prejudice, where Mr Collins tells Elizabeth Bennett that he is not going to take her “no” to his marriage proposal seriously, because he knows that elegant ladies say no when they mean yes. The assumption that women’s No can be disregarded and over-ruled by men, is so strongly built into our cultural ideas, that it needs re-challenging time and time again and so the slogan is still valid in that context.
The mindless latching on to the slogan by the media, is not a positive thing for the understanding of sexual dynamics between men and women. Firstly, the premise that the man asks the question and the woman answers, taps into the age-old idiotic idea that men’s sexuality is active and women’s is passive - we wait to be asked the question. Secondly, the media have completely dropped the first bit of the slogan: “yes means yes”. The absence of “no” does not equate to the presence of “yes”. When women do not say no, that does not mean they are saying yes and the absence of yes, is as much lack of consent as the presence of no. It is also more common than the presence of no, which is why the media do not want to engage with it.
For many people, “no means no” has come to mean that a woman has to say “No!” loudly and clearly, before a man penetrating her body when she doesn’t want him to, can rightfully be called rape.
And there’s a problem with that. A big one. Women are socialised not to say no, ever. Actually, men are socialised not to say no as well, just not as strongly as women are. All of us use hedging language when people ask us to do things we don’t want to do. If you don’t believe me, try saying just “No” next time a colleagues asks you if you fancy going for a coffee or if you have time to look at something s/he’s working on. You won’t be able to do it. You’ll say “I’d love to, but …” or “I don’t have time just now, but…” etc. If you do manage to get the big, bald “No” out there, your colleague will think you are incredibly rude and aggressive - and you will feel incredibly rude and aggressive.
Also, women are socialised to accept the boundaries that they put down, being over-ridden. Men constantly interrupt us, talk over us, ignore what we’ve said, ignore the signals we send out to them. We’re used to it. So we have learned that saying “No” isn’t actually an effective means of getting men to take notice of what we want. Saying no, just offends men and sounds like a challenge, not a boundary-setting, so it may well be quite a dangerous thing to say in a tense situation where somebody who has probably already broken lots of other boundaries to get to that point, wants to do something the smaller, physically weaker person doesn’t want them to.
There’s some interesting research, which interviews young men on the subject of how they would turn down unwanted sex, which I've posted at the bottom of this post, because Blogger seems to insist on doing it that way. (Otherwise I'd post it just here.)
For those who can’t be bothered to wade through it (though I recommend it, it’s a good read) it shows how even men, who are socialised to be assertive and expect their boundaries to be respected and expect their voices to be listened to, use hedging language when it comes to sexual encounters. They just don’t come out with a bald, straight “no” they make polite excuses - they’ve got an early start tomorrow, they’re working on a presentation, blah.
How much more likely is it that women, who have been taught that setting clear verbal boundaries is aggressive and rude, will come out with a massive No when they are in a vulnerable situation with a man who they are not sure is going to respect that No? If even men can’t bring themselves to do that, when they are in no danger of violence, when they are bigger and stronger than the woman who wants to have sex with them, when they have been taught that they have the right to have their boundaries respected, why on earth do we all expect women to do it and why do we pretend that if they haven’t done it, then it’s not really rape?
Because here’s another thing that research shows. It shows that men are perfectly capable of understanding every single non-verbal cue a woman gives about her willingness or otherwise, to have sex. Normal men don’t need to be told “No” to understand that they don’t have the right to penetrate a woman’s body. They know that the absence of no, isn’t the same as the presence of yes. They know that unless a woman is actively showing you she wants you inside her, then you shouldn’t, um, get inside her. The least you should do, is check she wants you there. How difficult is it to ask “OK?”
And yet the whole of public discourse on this subject, assumes that there is absolutely no onus on men whatsoever, to ensure that the woman whose body they are about to enter, welcomes that entry. The whole of public discourse talks about the need women have, to ensure that they tell men they are unwelcome and never talks about the need men have, to ensure they are actually welcome.
The problem with that, is that if you tell someone who is bigger and stronger than you, who may already have ignored other boundaries, that he is unwelcome in your body, then you are placing him in a position, where both of you know, that what he is doing is categorically rape and that is a serious crime. And if a man knows that he has been recognised as a rapist, if he is so ruthless that he is prepared to enter the body of another human being when he knows s/he doesn’t want him to, then what other violence is he capable of? How many women are going to risk bringing this out into the open and maybe upping the ante and suffering worse violence than rape at the hands of this man?
Not many. And that’s why “No means no” is a bit of a problem. Yes, no means no, but allowing the public discourse to be about women’s “no” instead of men’s duty of care to ensure “yes”, reinforces the idea that men have the right to penetrate women unless women actively stop them from doing so, instead of needing to ensure that women actively invite them to do so. It reinforces the idea that the onus is on women not to get raped, rather than on men not to rape.
Who benefits from this framing of the public discourse?
Rapists of course.
So every time someone asks “Did she say no?” about a rape victim, they are unintentionally (or not) supporting the status quo which makes it so easy for rapists to rape women and get away with it. If you don't want to be part of the problem, don't ask if a rape victim said no - ask if she said yes. Ask if she invited him in. The very least a normal man expects to hear from a woman is not silence, which he can pretend is acquiescence, it is “yes”, or "yes, yes, yes, yes, yes..."
Any man who says that a woman not saying no, is by definition one who has consented, is a man to avoid in my book.