What is “knowing” no?

Apologies for the cryptic title.  This post is another one for the gray area convo, again about consent and its parameters.  TW for rape and implied pressure from partners, as well as compulsory sexuality more generally.  Except for the paragraph after this one, this is mostly an abstract/exploratory post about relationship ethics and feeling like you have choices.

A few times now, I’ve encountered a personal account from someone who says they consented to something but, as they also acknowledge, they “didn’t really know that ‘no’ was an option.”  To me, feeling like you can’t say no would invalidate that as “real” consent, and originally, that’s what this post was going to be about.

But then I got to thinking — what does it mean to “know” you can say no?  I mean, most people have the word “no” in their vocabulary, technically speaking.  What blocks it out as a conceivable choice?  Or rather: what establishes it as “an option”?

I wrote a few days ago about social cost as a presence that shapes our decision-making, but I also think it’s worthwhile to think of “no as an option” as a kind of presence, as well.  In our culture, it’s not something that carries through all our interactions by default.  We have to bring it into being.  It has to be communicated.

So, what does that look like, in practice?  How can that be accomplished?  What actions increase the accessibility/availability of “no”?   In other words: what can we do to actively minimize social cost?  What strategies work, and what strategies fail?

I’m being weirdly formal-speak about this.  Sorry about that.  Let me try again:

What has it meant for you to “know” you can say no?  What tactics have people used (or could they have used) to make that option feel real to you?  And are there any tactics you could tell were an attempt but, regardless, didn’t work?

I know the obvious answer is just that these things are built on trust and communication, but I’m looking for answers that get more specific than that — since simply being straightforward doesn’t always cut it, and even if we set aside “clear-cut” individual cases of active manipulation and coercion and power imbalances, there’s still the influence of anxiety disorders/BPD/PTSD and growing up in an environment where refusing touch is socially-coded as rude (here’s just one of the posts Sara has written on that subject recently), which is an influence that carries into other relationships regardless of whether the other person is being deliberately cruel or not.  In other words, even if you don’t see refusal as rude, it’s your job to communicate that, given that may people have good reason to expect otherwise.

So how do you do that and make it work?

In my experience, someone being sweet and nice and trustworthy doesn’t necessarily resolve the whole issue, since that can make me feel all the more guilty about turning them down.  And may God eternally spare me from the words “unless that would make you feel uncomfortable.”  Good intentions may not pave the road to Hell, but they sure ain’t always enough.

Also, heh, uh, I’m realizing as I’m writing this that some of the people I’ve known in person who’ve seemed well-versed in consent and deliberately tried to “make people feel comfortable” were, uh, as it turns out, some of the nastiest and most entitled people I’ve known and didn’t always practice what they preached.  And now I get to deal with having negative associations with those behaviors.  So there’s that.

The more I think about it, the more this sense (of no-as-an-option) seems like an intuitive thing… which I’m taking as an indication that I should do more thinking about it.  Because, on the one hand, granted, I think it’s a largely subconscious assessment, but that’s also no help in telling me out to help create (instill? inspire?) that sense for the other people I interact with.  I want to believe there’s some power in my hands to affect this matter.

It’s also occurred to me that plenty of people have probably written on this subject extensively before, and I gotta say, I don’t want to have to wade through it all in search of something ace-friendly.

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30 responses to “What is “knowing” no?

  • Sara K.

    “What has it meant for you to “know” you can say know?”

    Is that second ‘know’ a typo?

  • luvtheheaven

    I think it’s easiest to feel like saying ‘no’ is an option when ‘no’ is shifted, in the conversation or whatever, to being the default. When it’s acknowledged that a yes means changing my plans, or a yes means doing something I’ve never done before, or the yes means I need to put in effort of some kind… that kind of thing.

    The problem with “unless you’d be uncomfortable with that” is that the “yes” was the default. It becomes a situation of assuming you’re not – or you *shouldn’t be* – uncomfortable with whatever the thing is.

    If someone is on a first date and leans forward for a kiss without any hesitation or worded warning that this is going to happen, it’s because they assume you want the kiss, by default. It’s a date, so kissing is expected at some point, if you want to say no to it then you’re going to have to put in the effort to jerk away or stop them with your words or whatever.

    Whereas, if someone is on a first date and hesitantly, nervously asks, “Um, hey, how would you feel about maybe trying a kiss right now?”, it’s kind of clear that the situation is different. The “no” is the default, and they are already prepared for a “no” as an answer, hence their hesitation. You still might feel bad about turning them down, but it’d be a lot easier to do. You have to answer. You have to choose to say “yes”, or else it’s a no. If you reply with “Oh, so soon? The night’s not even over yet…” the hesitant asker in this situation will take that, immediately, as a “no”, because it’s clearly not an explicit yes.

    I think the other thing would be that offering more choices than just a yes or a no, or asking more open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions, helps make the equivalent of a “no” feel much easier to see as an option.

    I mean, take the hypothetical situation that you are sitting on the couch with your partner, watching a movie, and the movie only has a few minutes left. Your partner turns to you and says: “What do you think about heading up to my room after this is over?”, implying sex. You choices are… yes, I want to have sex with you tonight, or… what? There were no other options really given. In the back of your mind, you know there are other options. You and your partner could play a board game, or just spend some time talking about the film, or decide to part ways because one of you needs to get home if you expect to get a full night’s sleep before class/work tomorrow. Etc. But your partner didn’t seem to act like those other options were options at all. It felt like your partner assumed you were going to say yes to heading up to their room. And so saying no becomes so much more difficult.

    Whereas if, instead, your partner says “Would you like to head up to my room after this is over? Or we could play Scrabble again, that’d be a lot of fun. Or… well, what do you want to do?”, you suddenly can easily turn down the sex, because a) there’s another option and b) there are actually even more options than just those two, because your partner’s made it clear that your desires count a lot. If you don’t really think Scrabble will be all that much fun AND you’re not into the idea of sex, there probably IS something else you’d rather do. You might say, “Hey, I kind of wanted to try making this homemade chocolate pudding recipe I just saw online,” and your partner will probably be open to that option and cooking with you. You probably can even feel more comfortable in this case saying, “Oh, I’d love to __ with you but we probably should wait till our next date because I have work at 8:00am”, because your partner didn’t seem to think any one of the options they provided was a sure yes, unlike in the first example, where the “Yes, I want to go up to your room with you” was much more assumed.

    This is also where ongoing consent becomes an important concept, because a yes is very easily (incorrectly) “assumed” as the answer if a) the person has said yes to a certain sexual act on a past occasion or b) the person has said yes to one sexual act that is generally assumed to be a lead in to another act.

    It’s much easier to feel like “no” is an option if your partner doesn’t assume the yes. Your partner might prove they are not assuming that your previous yes meant anything about a future yes in a variety of ways. After doing anything sexual on one particular occasion, they can ask, genuinely curious, “How was the experience for you? What parts of it would you want to try again? How soon do you think you want to try that again? What should we not do again? What didn’t you like as much as you thought you might?” If someone is asking these questions from a kind, caring place where it is acceptable for you to respond, “You know what? X was not pleasant for me, but this other thing Y was nice, and I just realized I’m curious to try Z”, that’s when “no” is clearly an option, an option you can feel like you have.

    Just some thoughts on the issue. Sorry for the really long comment.

    • Coyote

      Man, don’t be sorry about long comments when they’re this thoughtful.

    • cinderace

      Sometimes no matter how hard Person A tries to ensure that Person B knows “no” is an option, like spelling out “No pressure to say yes; it’s fine if you don’t want to; I’m not set on doing this”, just knowing that Person A wants to do the thing makes Person B feel like it’s impossible to say no–the fact that A would like to do it makes B feel like they have to say yes so as not to disappoint A, and that outweighs everything else A has said. I’ve been both Person A and Person B in this situation, about really minor things like playing a board game or watching a certain TV show, and it sucks… But what you said about presenting options instead and not setting up a question to require a yes or no answer would definitely help situations like that to not happen.

      • luvtheheaven

        I have felt that way too. It’s such a tricky situation.

        It can still feel really hard to say no (if you’re Person B), or in some cases where you’re Person A, it can be really hard to get to a place where you are okay with a true “no”, like a “never”. I mean thinking small, minor things, if I’m 100% in love with a TV show, the idea that my brother would never be willing to even give watching it a chance… and I don’t mean just not tonight, but actually not ever, can be really hard to just accept sometimes. OR that once he did give it a chance, what? He doesn’t love it? How is that possible? But this TV series is my #1 favorite one? It’s hard to just let it go and let him watch his own TV shows and let this one just be one of my own, to accept that he doesn’t love the same thing that I love. It is only fair to be understanding and respectful that people are different, that not everyone is going to love the same thing, or even feel like spending time giving this particular TV show a chance. But it can still be difficult.

        When it came to my own relationship with turning down sex with my wonderful boyfriend who went out of his way to make it clear that “no” was an option, I still found myself feeling like I was broken if I actually wanted to say “no, never”. So regardless of everything else, the compulsory sexuality of society had made me put ‘yes as the default’ in my head already, and saying no, even just to myself — actually acknowledging consciously that “I don’t want to do this” — was really, really hard. I felt like no *wasn’t* an option because all I had heard, my whole life, is that eventually everyone has sex, and that everyone loves sex. I had never heard of an option of someone not ever having sex, unless they were doing it as a major sacrifice that took effort, or unless they had been forced into celibacy by unfortunate circumstances. Even once I first heard of asexuality and how plenty of asexuals don’t like sex and the concept of how potentially being a virgin for one’s entire life would not be the end of the world, my entire lifetime of being told the options are being “Ready” for sex or “not ready *yet*” was really hard to unlearn.

  • epochryphal

    Super agree with luvtheheaven’s comment about no as default.

    To add to loud-about-consent people actually being shitty:

    There’s a point of oversaturation, of asking so many, many times, about the tiniest things, nitpicking your consent when you’ve clearly given it–and then you have to say “yes already!” multiple times and it becomes…default. Automatic.

    Because they’re withholding what you want, to get you used to saying “yes, yes, c’mon” and then slipping things in later that you (okay, I) auto-respond to without thinking, expecting it to be like the others. And pausing that, “wait oops what I didn’t mean to–can you say that again” is a huge burden.

    Ughhhhhh “over-asking” about consent is Such a thing and it’s taken me ages to unpack. It gets all statistically weighted if everything is yeses at first.

    Nowadays I’m practicing saying no, like actually practicing, with therapist and partner, easy things and harder things. It helps.

    • Coyote

      That’s a really insidious thing to have done to you. I’m glad you’re getting in the practice you need. <3

      In my case, Dude #1 was a guy who talked a good game but kind of oversold himself as Good Compassionate Human Being, which I found kind of dodgy even before he did such things as: say the n-word (he's White), say that I'll change my mind someday (about being ace), and sent my dear friend he was dating at the time a "so no sex? :(" text when he found out that she was very sick. Eugh.

      Dude #2 is the ex-friend I've talked about on here, who apologized for touching my head without my permission and seemed to understand the premise of consent… but was horrible about nonphysical boundaries (ex. I hate when people tell me to "calm down"… and telling him that didn't go over well).

      • Sara K.

        I have generally found (not specifically in sexual contexts, but in general) that guys who present themselves as ‘nice’ guys often turn out to be pretty irritating, and that guys who present themselves as ‘jerks’ are generally easier to work with in the long run. I think it might because the guys who present themselves as jerks have a greater sense of self-awareness, so if you point out that they are, in fact, acting like jerks, they don’t get offended, and might actually do something to improve their behavior. But when I point out that a ‘nice’ guy acted like a jerk? He won’t accept that he acted like a jerk, because he is a ‘nice’ guy, he couldn’t have done that. They perform niceness rather than actually *being* nice.

        Of course, there are humble guys who genuinely are nice, but, being humble, they will never present themselve as being ‘nice’, they will simply act like a nice person. I think my father falls into that last category – I don’t think he has ever referred to himself as being a ‘nice’ person. He phrases it as ‘I have a mild personality’.

        For some reason, this little mental categorization I have of men doesn’t work so well for women. I think something about cultural gender roles discourages women from performing ‘niceness’ in the same way that men sometimes perform it.

        • epochryphal

          Mm. Yep. Gender.

          It gets really confounded when someone is 1. non-binary but-kind-of-dude, you should use ‘he’ pronouns but not everyone else, fluidy and how-can-you-not-tell-current-gender-feels, no-male-privilege-that’s-misgendering-if-YOU-say-it, refusing to be parsed or to explain, most-oppressed and no way could be hurting you ever…

          …and 2, a survivor so of course consent is paramount (poly and kinky so extra of course), the mere idea of imperfect consent is triggering and oh-god-(you-made-me-)a-rapist, the cycle of abuse is a myth that hurts survivors don’t support that idea.

          : ) Complications.

          • queenieofaces

            Before you got to #2, I was pretty sure you were describing someone I knew. :I Like, I had a moment of “oh frick, what if [person] SOMEHOW made it to where epochryphal is and is still preying on queer aces like I have always feared and my not disclosing has hurt a ton of folks.”

            So, uh.

            The fact that this is apparently A Theme (and I’ve spoken to other ace folks who’ve run into people with the same characteristics) makes me super anxious. *sigh*

          • captainglittertoes

            In the case of my past relationship, I was with someone who was non-binary but genderfluid and sometimes femme-identified (not dudely identified, for the most part), but there were similar dynamics around “I’m a survivor so I can’t be a rapist. I’m triggered and hurt that you said I’m controlling, and we can’t talk about this anymore because I’m too upset,” etc.

            I was probably a slightly-more-dudely-leaning-sometimes person (also gender fluid, and not really dudely), but my attempts to discuss their abuse of me and assault had an added layer of projection on my end, because they were projecting their (female) abusive ex’s behavior onto mine, and I took it as my becoming the abusive dudebro that so triggered me (it was early in my coming out process).

            Not to mention the fact that while we were sleeping together, I felt both sides of the sex pressure coin: lay there and be passive because you’re supposed to always agree to sex AND initiate sex and please your partner because you’re supposed to always want sex. Just the rape-y sides of both genders’ traditional sex expectations, mind you.

            So, yeah. Gender can be even more complicated and even more of a hot mess, is what I’m saying.

          • captainglittertoes

            Not to say that masculinity/male privilege never manifest in non-binary people. (I mostly don’t have it.) Just saying it was even more complicated here.

          • epochryphal

            Yeahhhh. Triggers as end-of-conversation never talk about that topic again, every time you bring up anything whatsoever.

            And then shit, feeling like an awful person for beginning to doubt all of those triggers are real, clearly I am in fact privileged and oppressive and maybe abusive after all and must reexamine my life and center even more around their trauma and oppression.

          • captainglittertoes

            Augh too reall! Even if all those triggers are real, I know they weren’t triggered all the time.

            And if I don’t spend all my social time with them, clearly I hate them and never loved them and was just playing them for sex (?!).

          • epochryphal

            RIGHT and then there was the whole, well I support you processing grey-ace stuff but can you not use ‘he’ for me online it sends the wrong message :(.

            Like. I still fret about pronouns to use, and assumptions of non-/maleness and nb-ness and it’s goddamn impossible. And now I bet that was on purpose.

          • captainglittertoes

            I’m not sure what the context is/was for that person, but it is important to use the right pronouns in the right spaces, no matter what.

          • epochryphal

            Yes. Absolutely.

            hm. I will try to clarify.

            This person, always had me use ‘he’ in all spaces, correct other people to use that, etc. Most of the people I knew were also told to use ‘he.’ In a very few places it was ‘she’ because outness and family and such, but that never intersected and at all times I was to use ‘he’ (while acknowledging genderqueerness and fluidity ofc). It was a radical usage bc person was always perceived as very femme and cis, it was about dissonance with perception.

            Then, a really bad incident, lots of dissociation and anxiety, questions of consent. I wrote it into a prose piece as processing, put it online. Used ‘he’ in it ofc. Was clearly not about a cis guy.

            Here came the objection, that using ‘he’ was sending the wrong message of male privilege in a situation that was more nuanced, couldn’t I use ‘they’ instead and have it be the same, better?

            It changed how it felt. Made it more distant, disconnected from the person it was about. Changed the gender dynamic sense that I felt too.

            These days I dunno. I wonder. Bet person (who still uses ‘he’ in most all spaces) would ask me to use ‘they’ in convos about consent and possible/probable abuse, because it’s less damning, less charged. That motive is gross. And then again I don’t know for sure and could never prove.

            I do not know who has the right of way here or what pronoun to use anymore. I was only asked for that one prose piece but I feel it extending inside me to be every time I question our relationship, and it does not match how I have internalized it. Neither ‘they’ nor ‘he’ without greater context seems to work.

            And that feels insidious and perhaps intentional. Especially since the entire thing was this person as a radical fighting to defend my gender and pronouns as well. Concern about misgendering / mispronouning has preempted me from talking at all.

          • captainglittertoes

            Wow, that is really fucked. :( Also, was that his main response to a piece like that? Cuz, ya know, my first response would be like, wtf shit I’m so sorry about this situation how can I fix it and take responsibility? Oh, and I get this might have some tough implications, but I’d prefer you use they when we’re talking about consent because it’s really triggering for me in this context. Or something. But like, you know, owning his shit.

  • queenieofaces

    Okay, so, a rough sketch of what my current consent framework with my girlfriend (which works super well and is generally awesome and I should probably write a post on) looks like:

    – Check in constantly (in practice, at least once every 5 minutes). I know that some people are like, “No, that ruins that mood,” but honestly I’m not comfortable doing anything without checking in. Communicate before, during, and after.

    – Don’t assume that previous yeses will remain yeses indefinitely. My boundaries tend to change from day-to-day, which is really irritating, to be honest. I have some things that are always okay, some things that are never okay, and then a small group of things that really depend on the context and how I’m feeling. Fortunately, girlfriend is really good about being like, “So, will X be okay today?” and then I can answer yes/no/I dunno but we can try, and then modify responses as we go.

    – Don’t default to yes. Generally, phrasing stuff in such a way that yes is the default just doesn’t work well for me–for example, “So I can do X, yeah?” instead of “Can I do X?” or (even better) “How would you feel about doing X?”

    – Show that you’ll actually respect a no. Like, I became 99% more comfortable with girlfriend after the first time I was like, “Wow, no, that is not a good touch today,” and she immediately backed off and was like, “Okay, here, lemme get you tea, let’s talk about this, we can avoid that entirely in the future.”

    – Just communicate a ton. One of my friends joked that the amount of relationship negotiation my girlfriend and I do is better suited to brokering a peace treaty than navigating a relationship, but it works for us, sooooooooooo I’m not complaining.

    • captainglittertoes

      Yeah, any yes/no questions are interpreted by my PTSD as coercion. I need open-ended ones.

      And if my ex had actually been supportive when I said no or stopped, instead of stopping what we were doing and freaking out about the “space” I was taking from them and what it meant for our relationship, it would have meant that I was safe. Instead, it felt like a guilt trip each time.

      (They did have their own trauma, but even outside of their triggered moments, they failed to recognize this as controlling behavior. In our relationship, their trauma meant that it was an excuse for their actions, while my trauma was… also an excuse for their actions. Like, that wasn’t an assault, you just have PTSD.)

    • Coyote

      Thanks for the list! This item in particular…

      “for example, ‘So I can do X, yeah?’ instead of ‘Can I do X?’ or (even better) ‘How would you feel about doing X?’ ”

      …I’m glad you added, since an initial draft of this post had me discussing something like that.

      See, I’m a cuddly person, and I sometimes would like to ask people if they’d like a hug — but if we don’t know each other well and are in the early acquaintance/friendship stages, I can expect that “Can I hug you?” would pressure them toward a yes or make them feel bad about saying no. So instead I’ve been trying to get in the habit of saying something more like “How do you feel about hugs?”

      I’m not sure exactly why, but opening it up to more than a yes-or-no question feels like it might make things easier on someone, even if it’s not an absolute fix.

    • Dragon

      Fox and I have something similar to Queenie, although to a less fastidious extent. We kind of have established by now what is always or almost always ok, which we tend to not require explicit consent for (which avoids the over-asking that people were talking about earlier). Then we have stuff which needs an explicit question. But the major thing is that anything can be stopped at any time, and we’ve both shown by repeated example that we’ll respect a no. There’s no point in carrying on with something that demonstrably isn’t pleasant for the other person, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t stop (I am so ace).

  • epochryphal

    Yeah not having a no mean freak-out oh-god when-was-no, this is really important to their identity and necessary in all their relationships and before it was ok so what happened what are you doing.

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  • Libris

    I had a lot of issues saying no to anything when I was first dating my wife (still do have issues at times, but much less), and I think the four things that helped me most know that ‘no’ was an option ran like this:

    – her explicit acknowledgement and understanding that I had problems saying no, and her reiteration that that was a survival tactic which was not needed here (as well as her kindness while I dealt with working out that hey, I could actually trust this person)

    – her habit of telling me ‘it’s okay if you don’t want to’ or variations on that when asking a question (this was also helped by her general practice of saying precisely what she means without making me guess at subtext or ‘real’ meanings)

    – her general attitude of always respecting when I said no and never guilting me about it

    – her observation of my body language and checking in when I seemed uncomfortable with something, even if I hadn’t said I was or didn’t know I was – this might sound annoying to some people, but it really helped me understand that she actually cared about my well-being, rather than just wanting me to say the right things.

    I realise that that does depend a fair amount on pre-existing trust, or at least the willingness to learn how to trust someone (not meaning to imply that other people aren’t willing, just that for a fair amount of time I was at ‘I am learning how to trust you’ due to not really knowing how to go about that), and I do very much support the ideas upthread about making ‘no’ the default in questions, or at least leaving them open-ended.

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