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

March 21, 2011

I just read a paper from the discipline of conversation analysis.  It dovetails nicely with what I wrote in Talking Past Each Other, and I’m going to go through some of the findings (I can’t redistribute the paper itself), and talk about some conclusions.  Long story short:  in conversation, “no” is disfavored, and people try to say no in ways that soften the rejection, often avoiding the word at all.  People issue rejections in softened language, and people hear rejections in softened language, and the notion that anything but a clear “no” can’t be understood is just nonsense.  First, the notion that rape results from miscommunication is just wrong.  Rape results from a refusal to heed, rather than an inability to understand, a rejection.  Second, while the authors of the paper say that this makes all rape prevention advice about communicating a clear “no” pointless, I have a different take.  Clear communication of “no” isn’t primarily going to avoid miscommunication — rather, it’s a meta-message.  Clear communication against the undercurrent that “no” is rude and should be softened is a sign of the willingness to fight, to yell, to report.

Kitzinger & Frith (1999)

The paper I just read is Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith, Just Say No? The Use of Conversation Analysis In Developing A Feminist Perspective On Sexual Refusal, Discourse & Society 1999 10:293.  Their methodology is a reanalysis of other date, including conversations in focus groups including 58 school and university students that they previously collected for other papers.  (The authors are at UK schools and from the language used their participants seemed to be predominantly Brits.)  Conversation analysis involves the painstaking cataloguing not only of the words used, but the way they are used — pauses (with lengths in tenths of second), overlapping speech, elongated syllables, verbal nods, rising tones and all.  Every um, ah, I guess and momentary silence that gets omitted from regular transcriptions is noted and used in conversation analysis.

Here’s what they find in a nutshell: 

Drawing on the conversation analytic literature, and on our own data, we claim that both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, and we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.

[p. 295, emphasis mine.] 

The women in their focus group told them that saying no to sex was so difficult that they “try to avoid ever having to do it.”  [p.296.]  The authors ask why, and run through the usual sexuality-specific answers, but then arrive at a more radical conclusion:  that the difficulty of saying “no” is not an aberration.  “No” is hard, and it’s particularly hard for women, but part of the normal conversational structure is that “no” is a “disfavored” response, to use a technical term from the field.    Citing literature, they note that “[a]cceptances generally involve (i) simple acceptance; and (ii) no delay” while “refusals very rarely involve ‘just saying no’.”  [p. 300.]  That’s not just sexual acceptance and refusal — those are conversational norms in the English language.  Here are examples, in the complex transcription style they used, a style called Jeffersonian Transcription.  The parens note pauses (very short or, where a number is given, in seconds or tenths thereof); the “.hh indicates a short inhale.

Example 3

Mark:    We were wondering if you wanted to come over Saturday, f ’r dinner.


Jane:    Well (.) .hh it’d be great but we promised Carol already.

               (Potter and Wetherell, 1987: 86)

Example 4

A:    Uh if you’d care to come and visit a little while this

         morning I’ll give you a cup of coffee.

B:     hehh Well that’s awfully sweet of you, I don’t think I can

         make it this morning. .hh uhm I’m running an ad in the

         paper and-and uh I have to stay near the phone.

         (Atkinson and Drew, 1979: 58)

 [p.301.]  Note that neither of these refusals involve the word “no.”  They are, to most of us, nonetheless clear.  They include a number of tactics that many of us recognize: delay; prefaces or hedges (uh, well …); palliatives like appreciation; and explanation.  The last is interesting: explanations usually go like this: “I would love to, but I can’t …”  The refuser situates the refusal in an inability, rather than an unwillingness, to accept.   “I’d love to, except that I don’t want to” is a wisecrack precisely because it plays on that norm — the sentence is structured to disguise the unwillingness but ends with a twist by stating it explicitly.  The authors note that “refusals are almost always accompanied by explanations or justifications”, citing literature.  [p.302.] 

So the authors conclude that as a general matter “just say no” is an odd instruction because, “[q]uite simply, that is not how refusals are normatively done.”  [p. 302.]  The women in their focus groups talked about issuing sexual refusals, and they said they did so in a manner that tracked the general disinclination to issue them directly:

 In general, the young women in our focus groups characterized explicit refusals of sex as having negative implications for them. Later in the same group discussion quoted earlier, Sara comments that ‘they’d probably think you were really arrogant if you turned round and said, “I’m not going to have sex with you though, alright” ’, and Liz agrees with her, saying, ‘you’d feel a right prat’. In another focus group, Rachel admits that ‘I’ve very rarely said to someone, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested at all” ’, and Megan agrees that to make such a clear and direct statement would make her ‘feel a complete charlie’. In sum, these young women’s talk about the rudeness and arrogance which would be attributed to them, and the foolishness they would feel, in saying clear and direct ‘no’s, indicates their awareness that such behaviour violates culturally accepted norms according to which refusals are dispreferred actions.

[p.303, emphasis mine.]   These women said they generally offered excuses that posited an inability rather than unwillingness to accept the offer because, in one woman’s words, “that would stop the boy from blaming you.”  [p.304.]

Since softened and couched refusals are how refusals are typically issued in conversation, that’s how they are usually heard, too.  Reviewing the research, the authors find that people understand refusals to all kinds of offers in pauses, deflections, conditionals or even weak acceptances with certain tones and pauses.  [p. 307-09.]  The authors then draw this conclusion about women communicating refusal:

[Y]oung women responding to unwanted sexual pressure are using absolutely normal conversational patterns for refusals: that is, according to the research literature (and our own data) on young women and sexual communication, they are communicating their refusals indirectly; their refusals rarely refer to their own lack of desire for sex and more often to external circumstances which make sex impossible; their refusals are often qualified (‘maybe later’), and are accompanied by compliments (‘I really like you, but . . .’) or by appreciations of the invitation (‘it’s very flattering of you to ask, but . . .’); and sometimes they refuse sex with the kind of ‘yes’s which are normatively understood as communicating refusal. These features are all part of what are commonly understood to be refusals.

[p.309, emphasis mine.].  That means that they are “communicating in ways which are usually understood to mean refusal in other contexts and it is not the adequacy of their communication that should be questioned, but rather their male partners’ claims not to understand[.]” [pp. 309-310, emphasis mine.]  In support of this proposition, they cite to some things men and boys have said in from other papers  [TRIGGER WARNING for the blockquote — pro-rape exhortations]:

responded with posters of their own including slogans such as ‘no means kick her in the teeth’, ‘no means on your knees bitch’, ‘no means tie her up’, ‘no means more beer’ and ‘no means she’s a dyke’ (cf. Mahood and Littlewood, 1997). Similar evidence comes from a recent study of 16-year-old boys who were asked ‘if you wanted to have sex and your partner did not, would you try to persuade them to have sex? How?’: the researchers comment that there was ‘clear evidence of aggression towards girls who were not prepared to be sexually accommodating’ and quote interview extracts in which boys say that in such situations they would ‘root the fucking bitch in the fucking arse’, ‘give her a stern talking to’, or just ‘shove it in’ (Moore and Rosenthal, 1992, cited in Moore and Rosenthal, 1993: 179). The problem of sexual coercion cannot be fixed by changing the way women talk.

[p.311, emphasis mine.]

O’Byrne, Hansen & Rapley (2008)

What Kitzinger & Frith say agrees with some research I’ve written about before, in Talking Past Each Other.  I focused on other things when I first wrote up O’Byrne et al., but here I’ll quote them on what their young men understand about refusing sex:

In a discussion of how they themselves would refuse unwanted sex (Extract 1) it is apparent that the participants are well aware that— despite the emphasis placed on it by the majority of ‘rape prevention’ programmes— effective sexual refusals need not contain the word ‘no’. Indeed it is evident that these young men share the understanding that explicit verbal refusals of sex per se are unnecessary to effectively communicate the withholding of consent to sex.

[p. 175, emphasis mine.]  The authors review more conversation excerpts, and conclude:

It seems clear then that young men, in these focus groups at least, are capable of displaying not only that they are competent at the offering of refusals, but also of hearing forms of female conduct (e.g. ‘body language’, l. 263, 268; the ‘shortness’, l. 270 or ‘abruptness’ of conversation, l. 272) as ways in which women may clearly communicate their disinterest in sex. It is also clear that the men can hear both ‘little hints’ (l. 278) and ‘softened’ refusals as refusals—thus statements like ‘it’s getting late’ (l. 273) or ‘I’m working early in the morning’ (l. 276) are not taken at face value as comments by women on the time or their employment schedule—but rather as indicators that, in the moderator’s words, ‘sex is not on the cards’. Of note here is that in none of the examples given do the men indicate that the explicit use of the word ‘no’ is necessary for a woman’s refusal of a sexual invitation to be understood as such.

[p. 178, emphasis mine.]  These authors, working a hemisphere and almost a decade apart, reach the same conclusion: that in sex as in normal conversation, people typically use and understand softened and indirect refusals. 

Mythcommunication versus Predator Theory

If you read this blog, I’m going to tell you something you already know:  rapes don’t happen by accident.  We know that the vast majority of rapes are committed by the same relatively narrow sliver of the population, that they have multiple victims, that they avoid overt force, which is more likely to get them prosecuted, that they choose victims who can be bullied and isolated and that alcohol is their tool of choice. 

One might read this and conclude that it doesn’t matter how women communicate boundaries, because rapists don’t misunderstand, they choose to ignore.  That is pretty much Kitzinger’s takeaway, and I think from the perspective of moving the focus from what women do to what the rapists do that’s a useful thing to say.  However, I think there’s more to it. 

I’m no communications theorist, but communications are layered things.  As we’ve seen, the literal meaning of a message is only one aspect of the message, and the way it’s delivered can signal something entirely different.  Rapists are not missing the literal meaning, I think it’s clear.  What they’re doing is ignoring the literal message (refusal) and paying very close attention to the meta-message.  I tell my niece, “if a guy offers to buy you a drink and you say no, and he pesters you until you say okay, what he wants for his money is to find out if you can be talked out of no.”  The rapist doesn’t listen to refusals, he probes for signs of resistance in the meta-message, the difference between a target who doesn’t want to but can be pushed, and a target who doesn’t want to and will stand by that even if she has to be blunt.  It follows that the purpose of setting clear boundaries is not to be understood — that’s not a problem — but to be understood to be too hard a target.

(One might wonder what good that is, if the rapist just looks for other targets.  But rapists are clearly rational and opportunistic, and if they have fewer targets who they can rape without repercussions, they’ll either have to rape less or risk getting reported and maybe prosecuted. )

I have no perfect solution.  The only lasting answer is to change the culture.

158 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    March 21, 2011 7:11 pm

    Interestingly, though, if I remember correctly, Dr Timothy Perper ( demonstrated in “Sex Signals: The Biology of Love) that only very few men will – if untrained – correctly interpret female body language and verbal ambiguity with respect to !female interest!, I think in 1985.

    It seems a bit strange to me that they are assumed to be so much better at detecting non-explicit negatives, particularly given that not all “nos”, particularly if not nicely framed, are honest statements of disinterest – people also use those words strategically. I reckon what can be seen in the research is an ability to understand the social function of such a statement, but I doubt correct parsing of the subjective meaning of the statement is much more likely than in the positive case.

    Which, in turn, would mean that most men do apparently not risk a false positive interpretation and don’t move on after being told “no”, regardless of the wording and the word’s actual subjetive meaning. And which begs the question why a non-trivial subset of women still uses such a strategy? What are they testing for if most guys apparently won’t take chances with the possibility of false positives?

    • Mary permalink
      March 22, 2011 4:44 am

      Which, in turn, would mean that most men do apparently not risk a false positive interpretation and don’t move on after being told “no”, regardless of the wording and the word’s actual subjetive meaning. And which begs the question why a non-trivial subset of women still uses such a strategy? What are they testing for if most guys apparently won’t take chances with the possibility of false positives?

      The fact that a fair number of men will move on to abusing you if you state a direct no? I think most women have been in the situation of responding to a sexual offer too directly and getting, “Fucking dyke bitch!” or similar in response, even if the men in question then give up the pursuit.

      A bloke once walked up to me and my partner when we were looking at an underwear display and whispered, “I’d love to see you in that” in her ear. Being arsey thirty-somethings rather than nervous seventeen-year-olds, we turned around and shouted at him that he was a arsehole and that it was threatening and horrible and he should fucking sort himself out. He genuinely couldn’t understand what we were so pissed off about and told us that he was only trying to give her a compliment and ended up by telling us we were fucking stupid angry dykes ect (the “dyke” comment was a reaction to the fact that we were challenging him, not a reference to us actually being gay). He had convinced himself that walking up to a strange woman in the street in the dark, invading her personal space and telling her that you’d like to see her naked was a compliment, and not at all threatening. And if you compliment a woman and she responds with anything that can be perceived as aggression (and a direct no in most English-speaking cultures is aggressive), then she’s a bitch and you can tell her so.

      Women know that they risk that kind of response every time they give a direct no to a sexual advance from a man, even when the advance comes out of nowhere and is actually threatening. It starts when you’re a teenager. It’s a pretty big disincentive.

      • ginmar permalink
        March 22, 2011 10:55 am

        And then they whine that women are so complicated, who can know what women are thinking, why can’t women be more direct? But after the Shrodinger’s Rapist debacle—where zillions of guys lined up to tell women that they’re too uppity or cruel—–it just seems like too many guys have no clue about womens’ boundaries. And rather than care and subsequently seek out information, they assume the problem is women, and demand that women flatter and flirt with every guy who approaches them. The problem is not men, oh no. It’s women being repressed and not open to whatever excuse du jour that men dream up.

        It’s obviously not just the very bad guys, the rapists, doing this kind of catcalling/turning abusive crap. It’s guys who think they’re very nice and women are just bitchy, repressed, etc., etc.,

  2. March 22, 2011 12:37 am

    I found the information you put in your post to be rather refreshing. Could it be as simple as that women have been socially conditioned to avoid directly expressing refusal of sexual overtures? That is an interesting supposition to say the least and it definitely bears further investigation.

    Personally, I believe that if we found a way to reverse the social suppression of feminine sexuality, it would go a long way in preventing a lot of the “communication” problems that sometimes result in the genuine cases of mistaken sexual assault/rape (alcohol-impaired judgment issues aside). We all know that women enjoy and want sexual contact and experiences as much as men. But society places such a burden on both men and women to adhere to these roles as pursuer and pursued, that it causes no end of problems, as we all can evidently see. Furthermore, there are many men who are “turned off” by sexually aggressive women as they feel that it is “unseemly” and it places the woman in a role as a undesirable sexual partner. Breaking my fellow men of that mindset and breaking women out of that mold would address a significant number of issues regarding intergender communication.

    But placing that aside and going back to the discussion of rape, I hold to the idea that the vast majority of rapists (excluding cases where both individuals are intoxicated) suffer some degree of APD/sociopathy. These individuals do not see their victims as genuinely having “real feelings” or in extreme cases, even being “real people.” Even the act of rape is not about the victim; it’s about their desires, their needs, and their wants. Your heading supports that idea as well; not only do these people not want to hear “no” from their chosen victims; they also in more than a few cases, do not believe that the refusal is genuine.

    However, I feel that is is incorrect to frame a male who is persistent in trying to attract a female despite a failure to interpret the signals of refusal as a “rapist.” Many of the ideas surrounding courting are still holdovers from the post WWII era when a man “persisting in the face of unrequited love” was considered a noble and romantic fellow and not a “stalker” as he is seen today. Men didn’t make that stuff up; it was something that a man concluded after interaction with a woman. Women historically persisted in promoting the idea that “a good girl was not supposed to be too easy or too willing to be with a man.” What men got from that was that if you wanted to prove that you really wanted to be with a woman, you weren’t supposed to “give up” after the first, second, or even third rejection. Persistence was equated with devotion and wholesome desire. This goes back to women being groomed into repressing their sexual desires.

    And the sad part is that this still is common today. A fellow asks a girl out and she says “no” or otherwise rejects him, so he accepts the rejection and moves on; only to find out that she’s mad at him because he “gave up too early,” or “he didn’t chase her like he was supposed to have done.” More women need to learn how to either clearly and directly say “no or yes” and men need to learn the difference between “no I don’t want you at all” and “I’m just saying ‘no’ because I want to see how badly you really want me.”

    • Chantelle permalink
      March 22, 2011 9:32 am

      Demosthenes – I’m not sure you are actually grasping the argument of this post. It was not about womyn’s inability to express ourselves. In fact, it was the exact opposite. We are expressing ourselves in ways that are culturally appopriate and ways that men have been schooled in as well. It is the rapist’s refusal (in this case, men’s refusal) to accept the answer, which is why preventing rape cannot be achieved by asking womyn to change how they speak. In addition, in many societies, people (particularly men) are taught that a womyn’s “no” (regardless of how it is phrased) is a negotiation and never a firm no.

      There are no “communication problems” (whatever the fuck that means which is usually rape apologism) in aspects of sexual violence. Also, most rapists are not sociopaths. In my experience and as part of my work, I have seen that they are ordinary people who have been told that womyn should not be taken seriously. If a womyn says no (or however she says it), then a man needs to move the fuck along and not stick around to see if she really meant it.

      As for your last paragraph – no idea where you are going with that. One hopes you are not suggesting that a man should rape a womyn who says no, and then argue “sorry, I just thought it was your repressed sexual desires getting in my way. I was trying to free you from virginal patriarchal femininity”.

      • doctorkiwano permalink
        April 26, 2014 2:03 am

        If a womyn says no (or however she says it), then a man needs to move the fuck along and not stick around to see if she really meant it.

        There are tactful and correct ways to suss out the no-ness of an ambiguous no. E.g. if a wereman is told by a woman that she’s unavailable for a date because her dog just died and she’s really not feeling up for it, he has options other than pushing harder, or giving up on her entirely. He could tell her “That really sucks. Let me know when you’re feeling better, or if you want to talk about it at any point” and if nothing’s been heard after a week, follow-up asking briefly how things are going, and if she’s doing ok.

        Of course, when following up, it’s vitally important to do so in a way that makes further deferral, or even outright rejection possible (note how the ask mentioned above was explicitly stated to be brief–that’s because it gives more emotional room to reformulate a rejection in). It’s following up, not trying again.

        It’s probably also worth noting that the more immediate the communication, the more nonverbal cues exist to identify a non-explicit rejection earlier on.

        The historical social context in which rejections could be seen as “playing hard to get” and part of an extended chase also involved some pretty extensively codified etiquette, and a woman who percieved a wereman as neglecting these sorts of good manners (actually listening to her reasons, giving space in a follow-up, etc.) was entirely within her rights to slap him.

        Frankly, I agree that Demosthene’s comment stinks of rapist apologetics, but your response lacks nuance, and he’s likely to write you off as an ideological “bitch”, ignore your valid points, and continue being rapey. (And if he’s getting notifications from the site, he’ll get one for my reponse to you just the same as he’d get one for my response to him, so I may as well address both of you).

    • March 22, 2011 9:42 am

      Demosthenes, the structure of what you’ve written is that the problem that needs to be solved is unclarity in how men get laid. I reject that framing. The problem that needs to be solved is rape. If women don’t have a fear rape, if women can trust that their boundaries will be respected, the rest of the issues become a lot easier to solve.

    • drst permalink
      March 22, 2011 12:13 pm

      I hold to the idea that the vast majority of rapists (excluding cases where both individuals are intoxicated) suffer some degree of APD/sociopathy.

      No. It would be nice, I know, for the guys out there for this to be true, but it isn’t. Rapists are not monsters who are isolated and separate from “regular” men, not some sort of rare animal that is an exception and therefore doesn’t taint everyone. They are just people, mostly male, who are predators.

      I feel that is is incorrect to frame a male who is persistent in trying to attract a female despite a failure to interpret the signals of refusal as a “rapist.”

      I’m sorry your feelings are hurt, but men who refuse to accept a refusal are enabling rape culture by persisting instead of respecting a woman’s boundaries. This entire column is about the fact that men recognize a refusal even if the word “no” isn’t present, meaning men are perfectly capable of recognizing a refusal and moving on. When they don’t, they support a culture that protects rapists by suggesting the regular rules of interpersonal communication fail to apply to this one scenario and therefore most men who have pressured or coerced a woman into sex aren’t those monstrous rapists. Except, whoops, they are.

      Men didn’t make that stuff up; it was something that a man concluded after interaction with a woman. Women historically persisted in promoting the idea that “a good girl was not supposed to be too easy or too willing to be with a man.” What men got from that was that if you wanted to prove that you really wanted to be with a woman, you weren’t supposed to “give up” after the first, second, or even third rejection.

      Are you kidding me? Women do not promote any of this. This is patriarchy in action – controlling female sexual activity in order to serve the needs of men. It is embedded in our culture because it serves men. Do NOT place “blame” for this cultural trope on women. It’s been keeping us locked up for centuries. And the idea that men are supposed to ignore rejections isn’t about romance, it’s about the belief that all women should be available to a man whenever he wants them, for whatever he wants, at any time. Unless a woman is owned by another man, i.e. married, she has no business saying no, so the man just keeps going until she gives in. It’s not about courtship or social practices; it’s about the same thing it always is – women don’t have the power to say no and have it taken seriously.

      More women need to learn how to either clearly and directly say “no or yes”

      That is exactly the opposite of what the entire post was saying. Way to utterly miss the point, jackass.

      • k not K permalink
        March 23, 2011 8:01 am

        I agree with nearly every part of your comment. Demosthenes’ writing style was obfuscatory, but trying to argue that rapists are all clearly a tiny minority of sociopaths, so it’s unfair to call a man who is just “failing to understand” a refusal a sociopath/rapist was pretty damned ridiculous of him. Propping up rape culture by suggesting that men are just terrible at communication – which was exactly what this post seeks to DISprove – yikes.

        However, I wanted to note that saying the idea of playing coy is clearly patriarchy in action and therefore comes from “men” isn’t accurate imho. On the contrary, women who tear down and shame other women as “sluts” or “bitches” have always been rewarded by the existing system. So, many of us participate in the policing of other women’s sexuality. Shaming women who don’t play hard to get, is a part of that. In fact I used to do it myself quite a bit in order to glory in being the “good girl”, until I realized that behavior was making ME the enforcer of the patriarchy.

        It doesn’t help women to deny our gender’s part in keeping the pecking order the way it is, as tearing down other women to build ourselves up is something we women desperately need to talk about. And end.

      • March 23, 2011 10:28 am

        Knot K : On the contrary, women who tear down and shame other women as “sluts” or “bitches” have always been rewarded by the existing system.

        Yes…the existing system being patriarchy. Women help enforce it, yes, but the idea of a woman needing to act all coy and virginal does originally come from men. I guarantee you, women didn’t sit around in the olden days and decide that we should all completely suppress our sexuality and tell every single guy we’re not interested in the vague hope that one of them would pursue us anyway until we randomly changed our minds. It’s really hard to get laid that way. 😛

      • doctorkiwano permalink
        April 26, 2014 2:08 am

        Rapists are not monsters who are isolated and separate from “regular” men, not some sort of rare animal that is an exception and therefore doesn’t taint everyone. They are just people, mostly male, who are predators.

        As a hunter, I resent this characterization of predators as being like rapists. I may participate in ecological processes by killing other animals in the wilderness and eating them (aka predation), but I respect the boundaries of other humans thankyouverymuch.

      • Amy permalink
        July 14, 2014 9:24 pm

        Thank you. I was recently raped by a (now ex) friend who did not listen to my refusals, even the polite ones that said the no word- “no, I have to go”. He said I should have said no and I asked him why he didn’t stop when I did say x, y z. He had no real answer but I remember him smirking and saying ‘you can’t blame him for being persistent.’ Persistent. I want to spit that word out.

        In the end he conceded that what I said, my actions, were signs he should have stopped.

        He did interpret them correctly, and I have no doubt he did on the night, too.

        I know this post is old but I wanted to thank you, and the original poster, for these words. They will help me in my recovery.

    • Marle permalink
      March 22, 2011 1:07 pm

      Demosthenes, it seems that the “problem” of women saying “no” when they want a man to pursue them but the man takes the no at face value and goes away is a problem that won’t last long. If a woman sees men she’s interested in back off when she says no, then it won’t take her too long to learn that she shouldn’t say no if she means yes. If you want women to never say no when we mean yes, then encourage young men to always take no for no. Women want relationships too and if we can’t get them without being straightforward then we will be straightforward. Besides men, do you really want a women who won’t say what she means and you constantly have to second-guess her?

      • March 23, 2011 10:45 am

        This is what I always tell people!

        And don’t you love how apparently (according to the “but sometimes women play hard to get!” faction) it’s better to go ahead and rape a woman than to respect her boundaries and possibly make her feel a little rejected? So, I guess these noble, noble men are out there raping women on the off chance that their victim will feel flattered?

        Also, admittedly, I move in different circles from average (my friends are all kinky, artsy, bi, etc.) – plus I’m in my thirties – but at this point in my life I don’t know a single person who says no to sex when they really mean yes. I suspect it happens a lot less than rape apologists would like to think.

        Jesus. I shouldn’t read these boards in the morning…I always want to go right back to bed and pull the covers over my head.

      • bookworm permalink
        July 21, 2012 7:34 pm

        Exactly. And my parents also taught us all that it was acceptable to say “I’m not sure yet what I want” as well.

      • Ian Thorpe permalink
        December 29, 2012 12:24 pm

        Wtf, bookworm? This article is not about people who don’t know what they want. It’s about men who ignore the word “no” and pretend that they just couldn’t understand it. Whether they’re liars or just self-absorbed and arrogant, not knowing what they want is not an issue for them.

    • Neg-Pos-Lurker permalink
      March 22, 2011 1:45 pm

      If a man cares more about getting laid then not raping someone it means he doesn’t mind raping someone, and this is what causes rape – people willing to commit rape to achieve their ends.

      If you’re more concerned about their comfort, than about the women they ‘accidentally’* assault, you’re the problem.
      And unsurprisingly so, since you made it clear on your blog that you blame women for ‘getting themselves raped’ to the point of complaining that there aren’t more consequences for a rape victim (other than the rape itself). Don’t be shy to enlighten us here with your ‘logical and reasonable’ ideas – and when you get banned drop by, it’s gonna be fun!

      *Actually not so – there’s a whole post about it above your incoherent rant, you might wanna read it.

    • Grainne permalink
      July 12, 2011 3:06 pm

      Demosthenes, most of this has been said, but there is a fundamental difference between:
      1. a situation of a woman not wanting to fuck a man she’s only just met, or precisely when a man wants her to, and perhaps being hurt if he immediately loses romantic interest in her,
      2. a situation of men refusing to take ‘no’ to sex for an answer and raping women.

      How are you not getting this?

    • Dawn permalink
      January 25, 2013 9:36 am What happens when you say definitely no outright, with no question of ambiguitiy. Number of men who heed it: 0. No apparently means in the world men inhabit “keep asking and encroaching, use force if it doesn’t change”.

      • notbuyingit permalink
        July 4, 2014 8:42 pm

        Thomas: “Rapists understand perfectly all the myriad ways people of both genders say no. They just ignore it and pretend they didn’t understand, so they can say later that the no wasn’t clear, and so it wasn’t THEIR fault”.

        Demosthenes: “You’re so right! Women need to learn how to say no more clearly. It’s their fault for being socialised into not being clear. Then, people like me – who are absolutely not rapists, no, no, but romantic persistent heros in the vein of 1940s war stories – wouldn’t be confused into ignoring the little dears’ confusing signals.”


    • doctorkiwano permalink
      April 26, 2014 2:46 am

      Y’know, ambiguously worded rejections are commonplace in all sorts of social settings. Not just dating, but applying for jobs, buying/selling things, hell, even inviting friends for a visit, or trying to bum a ride somewhere. Sometimes the etiquette varies on how aggressively you deal with such responses, but generally speaking, if you’re not sure whether or not a response is a rejection, or an extension of the process, take a small step back instead of pushing harder. Give them room to walk away, and don’t take another step back towards them until they’ve taken a step towards you first. If they’re taking a while, though if they don’t seem to be stepping towards you, or leaving entirely after a good long while, you can ask them what’s up (*without* stepping back closer in).

      As an example, consider that you’ve got some friends heading out camping, and you want to come along, but need to bum a ride. You ask your best friend out of the lot, and he tells you that he already promised the space to some other friend, but that other friend might be unable to go up because of work. How would you deal with this ambiguous response? Maybe you ask when the other friend will know by, so you can decide whether or not to start looking in to other rides. Maybe you wait until you start to worry about being able to score a ride with anyone else, and ask if there’s any news. What you probably don’t do, is start insisting that because you’re going for sure, and that other friend isn’t, that you should get the ride, or otherwise go trying to change that answer, ate least not if you want to keep your friends.

      Roughly speaking, you *respect* your friends, by listening to them, and accepting the decisions they’ve made, even if you’re not entirely sure what those decisions mean for you.

      Now go and take this same approach when a woman tells you she’s unavailable for a date for some reason where you can’t tell whether she’s rejecting you, or just playing hard to get. Listen to what she told you, maybe follow up in a way that leaves her lots of room to clarify a rejection, but don’t go trying to force the point.

      It’s called manners, and in this past you’re bringing up as an excuse for not listening, people would kill each other in the streets for not showing them (seriously, look up all that history around duelling).

      You can resolve ambiguity without forging on down the road to rape, so there’s really no place for your excuses in decent society.

  3. Joe permalink
    March 22, 2011 10:58 am

    I’ve had the opposite problem. I can’t tell when they want me because they don’t make it clear. So one time in college I was surprised when a female friend hopped into my bed and said, “let’s snuggle but keep our clothes on”. I complied. In the weeks that followed she distanced herself from me, and I only heard later through her best friend that she had wanted me to seduce her. She concluded that I had rejected her. Nothing could be futher from the truth. I wanted her, but I didn’t pressure her because I had internalized “no means no”. But now I’m with a woman who says what she wants clearly, and expects m to do the same. It’s all about defining and respecting boundaries.

    • March 22, 2011 3:01 pm

      I’ve been the girl who didn’t clearly say what she wanted, and then didn’t get it 🙂 We grow up eventually.

    • k not K permalink
      March 23, 2011 8:06 am

      So, you have one anecdote about a woman who sent mixed signals, and one anecdote about a woman who is able to articulate her boundaries and wants clearly.

      And your conclusion is that you “can’t tell what THEY want because THEY don’t make it clear”?

      Hmm. Sounds like you’ve had one friend who had some slightly messed-up ideas about how sexuality works, for sure. That experience must have been frustrating. But tarring all of us with that brush is an overreaction, don’t you think?

      • Mary permalink
        March 23, 2011 11:57 am

        To be fair to Joe, I read it the other way around – he had encountered women who did say one thing when they wanted something else, but didn’t want to be part of that dynamic so he ended up with someone who was able and willing to say what she wanted. Which is pretty sensible, really!

      • May 26, 2011 10:31 pm

        More kudos to Joe for sharing his experience, which brings up the valuable, oft-overlooked point that rape culture is not a battle of the sexes, contrary to how it is too often portrayed in mainstream media. Yes, Joe, many women uphold patriarchy just as many men do.

        Dare I go so far as to say most women and most men? Yes, most. That is what defines a patriarchal culture. Your college story is one such example. Important to remember that we are all at different places in different times in our journey of understanding ourselves and our ability to communicate with one another. It sounds like you’ve attracted a woman with a healthy awareness of her own sexuality due to your ability to respect all women, so it pays off in the long run, wouldn’t you say?

        Important to include men’s voices in the conversation, knotK, in hopes of changing the entire culture, not just half of it.

    • Latramontane permalink
      January 1, 2013 9:24 pm

      Failing to seduce someone who is playing hard-to-get doesn’t harm them; rape does. Thank you for doing the right thing by taking her refusal at face value.

  4. Emily permalink
    April 6, 2011 4:38 pm

    Just anecdotally, I have had said “I’m not having sex with you tonight” to at least 3 different guys during my growing up years and had very positive reactions. I can’t know if it mattered; likely they were people who respected boundaries generally. But I do think there are guys out there who are willing to rape only if they can convince themselves it’s not “rape” and if you name it clearly and loudly enough they will stop. Of course, others will not. That’s a slightly different variation on Thomas’s point that what one communicates with a blunt/forcefull “no” is not her/his refusal, but that she/he is going to make it more difficult for the rapist to get away with it.

    • Johnson permalink
      April 7, 2011 5:00 am

      Someone recently told me “no” and after I’d eased off then eased back on again, because I wanted to, she said “no, I’m not going to have sex with you”.

      I thought to myself “s***, what am I doing still trying to persist? I want to but this is not right”.

      So I endured an internal dilemna and we cuddled while my self confidence choked for air and my insecurites invited their friends to share cake and many games of badminton, which are all, of course, my own problem.

      I found this post fascinating as it rang those fantastic bells of nostalgia and truth in my ears.

      • May 26, 2011 10:40 pm

        (giggle) on the cake and the badminton, what a fantastic line! May I borrow it? I do hope you will soon find a woman who will reward your respect, if the cuddle bunny has not already.

  5. lemonade permalink
    April 6, 2011 7:04 pm

    A couple of people have brought up the “what if she’s being coy/sneaky?” line, and the “female body language is teh difficult” line. I hang out in some geeky circles and we’re mostly college students, so my social circle has a lot of awkwardness and difficulty around knowing whether sexual actions are okay or not. Especially in my adolescence, I was extremely crap at articulating my desires. The way around this, if one wishes to both avoid raping and achieve sexy times, is *keep talking.* “You made a noise, what did it mean?” is a valid question. “I’m sorry, I did not understand what you just said, could you rephrase?” is also entirely permitted.

    Even in casual/less explicitly sexualized environments, unless one is confident that touching is okay, it is a good idea to ask. “Would you like a hug?” and “Is it okay if I give you headscritches?” aren’t, in my social group, questions that will make people think you are creepy or a dork. These things will convince people that you are intelligent, polite, and affectionate, which may bode well for you when they consider with whom they’d like to romantically interact.

  6. Lydia permalink
    April 13, 2011 1:15 pm

    I think its pretty typical for women to “soften” their refusal/lack of interest in sex with a particular man. Partly, it’s empathetic desire to NOT hurt a man;s feelings (while still being true to one’s own)–but, men should recognize it’s ALSO out of reasonable fear that “a man who feels rejected is potentially a DANGEROUS man”. That his reaction will be “So you think you are too goof for me, bitch?!” and will try to get back at you in some way.

    I have survived both the “sterotype” of ape (total stranger who was overtly violent–choked and beat me but no weapon) and aquainence rape (woke from sleep with ‘friend’ on top of me). Police failed to follow up on stranger assault (& he had bragged that I was #19 of hsi victims). I didn’t go to cops after aquaintance rape since I knew full well I was UNlikely to be taken seriously because1/I knew him 2. I allowed him to sleep on my couch–he’d lost his apt 3.he was Black and I am white—didn’t want to deal with the whole “white woman accuses black man” trip since I do anti-racism activism. I DID warn other women who knew this man (asking them NOT to use my name if they tood other women to be careful). Unfortunately, someone used my name & it was a NIGHTMARE of being stalked by rapist & his friends, being constatnly accused of being a liar and a racist in my community and having my trust seriously undermined. When you KNOW the rapist you begin to wonder HOW do you figuer out WHO is trustworthy???? All this so a guy could get laid because as the “friend” rapsitsaid “I gotta have it!” If only men had any idea how forcing a woman just so they can get laid has long-term painful consequences for the woman. It’s been 10 years since the “friend” rape and UNlike being raped by a violent stranger, I am NOT the same….

    • Autumn permalink
      October 21, 2011 6:50 pm

      I too have experienced rape, and mine was by an ex-boyfriend. While I struggled to push him off me, and whimpered “please don’t”….he only heard what he wanted, and replied with “please give it to you?” Even when I said “no” he ignored me and had apparently convinced himself that it was going to happen no matter what. Because we had slept together while dating–nobody believed me, even my family. He was a few years older than me, and the people I reached to for help seemed to think that I was just feeling regret for sleeping with him–and the rape “story” was nothing more than an immature girl trying to seek some sort of revenge. This was 12 years ago, and it still hurts.

  7. June 12, 2011 6:33 pm

    I do not understand why is so hard to understand. When i was a freshman in college I had a woman nearly naked in my bed. She told me that she did not want to be, in her words, “devirginized” that night. I respected her wishes and we did not have intercourse. We never had sex and we are good friends today.

    I have never been offended at rejection. I have also never needed to be flat out told no. The fact that I was not told yes is enough for me. That it is not good enough for some other guys who feel that they are entitled to be with whomever they want is a concept that is alien to me.

    • January 15, 2013 1:50 am


      I’m just coming to this post now (nearly 2 years after your response), so there’s probably no way you’ll ever see my reply but I just want to thank you. Thank you for being a decent human being. And while it makes me a little sad that I am thanking someone for not being an a@#hole, I think it’s still important to recognize the good guys.

      • January 15, 2013 10:17 am

        I subscribe to the posts I respond to so I did see it. Thank you for the kind words.

  8. JPaper permalink
    July 5, 2011 10:47 am

    Bloody hell, this is interesting. Thanks!

  9. July 5, 2011 4:00 pm

    For me it was a boyfriend, and it was fooling around that he took further than I expected. It was never about what I communicated or didn’t communicate; to this day I don’t know if I would have said yes or no, but he didn’t bother to ask. Because he didn’t care what my answer would have been.

    It was the first time I had been naked with a man. I wasn’t ready for that but/and I was so nervous and anxious in the situation that I didn’t have breath to speak. If he was any kind of decent he would have picked up on that.

  10. Sian. permalink
    September 14, 2011 9:24 am

    It’s bizarre that we still have people who think if women can just communicate better and not be coy the man will back off. This assumption that a rapist is telling the truth that they didn’t understand is at best naive and obtuse. Rape is not a mistake, it’s not ‘oops, I didn’t realise, my bad!’.

    Some rapists also have consensual sex, but when they commit rape they don’t want sex with women (or men) who want sex with them. The whole point of rape is that the rapist wants to take power from the victim. They want them to not want it.

    Depending on the type of rapist, they’ll be more excited by either the victim’s reaction to overt violence or the victim’s reaction to being coerced and manipulated into a position they have no idea how to get out of.

    The ‘no’ (explicit or implicit) is what the rapist is looking for before they go ahead and do it.

    I don’t get why some people insist on acting like this is all some awkward social faux pas like bringing red wine to a dinner party where the host is serving fish.

  11. February 7, 2012 6:07 am

    Outstanding article – thanks so much! Will repost it.

  12. March 11, 2012 10:04 pm

    By the way this article is worded, it sounds like this article is saying that people with Asperger’s are inherently rapists.

    • March 12, 2012 10:10 am

      Just the opposite. My conclusion is that rape is _not_ caused by miscommunication. Consistent with Predator Theory, the rapists are _not_ missing cues, but instead understand cues perfectly well and simply decide to rape. I have no reason to believe that people with Aspergers are over-represented (or underrepresented, for that matter) among rapists or among serial rapists.

    • June 28, 2013 11:40 am

      Having a background in therapy I’ll note that many children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disoders do have issues with understanding social cues… which is why they are taught, through behavioral methods, to seek explicit verbal reactions from individuals with whom they are interacting and to assume a lack of interest if that verbal reaction is not obtained.

      • Wordy Librarian permalink
        October 25, 2013 4:23 am

        I know this is incredibly old, but I wanted to thank you for your input! I’ll be completely honest. I am completely ignorant about autism and aspergers other than the most basic of generalities that they sometimes have issues interpreting social cues, and obviously that they’re people and I wouldn’t want to insult any of them or hurt their feelings, deliberately or out of ignorance. I’m a brilliant expert, I know. :-/

        The point is that a lot of the conversations I’ve seen about rape involve discussion of communication, interpreting social cues, etc. And not just conversations about rape! This topic comes up a lot in advice articles for men as well, and in the comments. I know that rapists are not misreading cues, but rather acting in a predatory manner on the cues they read correctly. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always wondered about how the discussion about rape and social cues affected people with disorders that involve difficulty reading social cues. I never quite figured out how to ask without wording it wrong and somehow implying that I think people with these disorders are likely to be rapists – which I want to say at all!

        It’s more that… (I’m flailing at verbalizing this idea so please be gentle when interpreting) I feel like sneak-rapists rely partially on this confusion that maybe they didn’t understand the cues their targets were sending. They aren’t confused, but they hope their target will freeze up in fear of hurting the feelings of someone who genuinely wasn’t trying to hurt them. They’re using their victims’ own decency as a weapon against them. And I almost feel like they’re using people with genuine social issues, whether the source is lack of knowledge or a medical disorder, as a smokescreen for their methods when ignoring early boundaries and when trying to avoid potential repercussions. Contributing to confusion about all kinds of disorders that affect social interaction and to poor understanding of social awkwardness in general. Like hurting their victim and kicking people with social issues in the side for funsies on the way.

        I completely digressed from the point I meant to make originally. Thank you for making it clear that people with autistic disorders are taught to seek verbal cues. I know that, for me, the value of saying a loud and explicit NO is that it removes my own uncertainty about whether I could have been misunderstood. I can now comfortably tell the “but social is hard” breed of rape apologists to stop being so insulting – anyone can understand and respect no and that lack of no does not mean yes.

  13. August 1, 2012 11:16 pm

    I wanted to thank you for this post. it has made me realize that by allowing myself to be “talked out of no”, i have encouraged my partners to think that their actions/strategies were valid. also that i really need to work on knowing what i really do want 🙂 doesn’t mean the sex was bad, just, that’s not how it should be. i definitely did not hear enough of this sort of talk growing up.

  14. chaos permalink
    September 11, 2012 11:12 pm

    The main thing it highlighted for me was that I suddenly realized that once upon a time, I believed that if I wanted to have sex with a woman, it was my job to talk her into it (and that at some point my belief about this changed without my noticing). Like, there wasn’t even a question of engaging with someone who was interested in having sex with me of her own accord; there were not and would never be such people, such people weren’t even a mental construct in my head. Access to sex was *entirely* a matter of *overcoming resistance*.

    I suspect this is the model that most men are trained in and absorb, especially as teenagers. So yeah, hi there rape culture. If you’re trained that overcoming resistance to get sex is your job, then you are *doing your job* when you persist past all polite refusals. You’re also trained that you’ll be a bad person if you overcome some levels and types of resistance, but those don’t show up super often, and apparently some people get really special-tactics about making it so it’s a lot of trouble and hard to justify displaying them. And of course you’re angry when a woman acts like you’re doing something wrong by trying to get her to fuck you, because you were *just doing your fucking job*, now weren’t you? And if you do encounter those special levels and types of resistance, well, you’re also trained that you’re supposed to be strong, resolute, powerful and possessed of an enormous sexual appetite. So maybe since you’re so accustomed to overcoming resistance as your entire approach, you just roll with that.

    But of course the comments aren’t lying about how some women are in fact testing you with refusals and enjoy a display of effort, get off on you working for it. And yes, that’s totally in service of patriarchy. And I have to say that as someone who has undergone this rape culture training, the idea of mistakenly backing off of one of those and having her see me as less of a man for it *burns*. But, y’know, fuck it, walk-aways aren’t what she wants so if she gets enough of them, maybe she’ll learn to communicate better.

    I think we really, really, really need to retrain men and boys that talking women into sex is not their job.

  15. Nic permalink
    September 14, 2012 1:00 pm

    Thank you so much for writing about this. I’ve been prodding at my memory of a decade-old situation for some time, like a sore tooth – was it my fault for not being clear? was it just an unfortunate miscommunication? was he at fault, even though I never said “no”? even though I participated in the end? – and your commentary on the subject, as well as the links to research studies have really helped me clarify my own thoughts a little bit more.

    I didn’t say “No,” but then I was never asked any question…which is perhaps something to add to all the other reasons for using softer language (it feels like the height of arrogance to give such a blunt answer to something that hasn’t been and may never be asked).

    I did however, walk away from his gropes multiple times until I got too tired (I have CFS), stay unresponsive when he kissed me, and refuse his offer to walk me home three times before giving up and letting him. I stopped well away from my university house’s front door to say goodnight, only to find him already keying the code into the pad (thanks to his “eidetic” memory of watching me key it in earlier in the day). I stopped at the door of my room and tried to say goodnight again, and he took the key out of my hands, unlocked the door and sat on my bed. I sat down (being too tired to stay upright any longer) and said, “Well it’s late – you’d probably better go back to your room, then” and he said “No, I’m fine” and unzipped his trousers. And I gave up and went along with it because I was tired, and I couldn’t figure out what else to do. It didn’t involve any penetration, and it’s not horrific like so many other people’s stories, but it’s still something that affects my self-perception and social confidence.

    • Flax permalink
      December 20, 2012 7:12 pm

      A simple “Goodnight,” is one of the clearest dismissals in the English language.

      You offered plainly obvious resistance to this man’s advances and he made a deliberate choice to ignore you–exactly as it’s been described in this article. It is his fault. His.

      I’m sorry.

    • Owlet permalink
      December 24, 2012 6:59 am

      I had a similar experience when I had my first kiss. I was not interested him, i happened at my own home, I was 13 or 14 and he was almost two years older. We were in my room. My brother and three or four of his friends were all there, playing computer and console games, and the assailant was one of the guys. He was groping my ass constantly while I laid on my bed playing video games, with him sitting at the other end of my bed. He always drew away his hand if someone looked to our direction. I didn’t say anything because I froze everytime he touched me, and I tried to ignore him by just focusing on my game. Later on I also thought that it was good I didn’t tell him off, since I was surrounded by my brother’s friends (whom I also considered to be some of the only people who I liked being around and vice versa. I was a social outcast and schizoid to begin with.)

      By that point I had absolutely no interest in dating or anything like that. (I have recently come to terms with the fact that I am, in fact, asexual.)

      When it got late (and my parents came back home) the guys started leaving, including my brother since his room was in the garage building. The groper however did not leave, but started following me. I ignored him, kept turning away, and even went to the family dog to pet her and all the while he just kept coming after me, standing behind me waiting for me to get up. I didn’t want to say anything because my parents were home, preparing to go to sleep in the next room. Eventually I got up and tried to go to my room so I could go to bed, but he grabbed me by the arms and turned me towards him and I froze. He forced a kiss on me, and it was disgusting. It was the first experience I had with a boy, and the only one for nearly five years. It may have what installed into me the disgust I have for kissing in general.

      He knew I was moving away the next morning too. He sent me a text saying he was sorry “if he hurt me somehow.” I don’t remember answering that text. I just sort of pretended nothing happened for almost a decade, and I’ve heard a few creepy stories about his exploits soon after that event too. I know that he still thinks that it is possible for a woman to “ask for it”.
      He too, acted as if nothing had happened.

      It took me a decade to start processing what had happened, and I feel extremely guilty over feeling bad about such a minor thing, because I know so many people who have had it worse. Besides, I didn’t say no. I didn’t say anything at all.

      • Owlet permalink
        December 24, 2012 7:01 am

        Ps. The reason I moved away was to change to a different school for my next level of education, because I’ve been bullied, beaten and harassed, even sexually, by my peers troughout pretty much my whole life.

  16. December 5, 2012 10:38 am

    I have never been great at social rules and sometimes have difficulties reading social interaction. This may explain why I have often been blunt with a lot of men in the past, and luckily never experienced any physical violence from it. One thing that I learnt is that a lot of young attractive women tend to couch rejection is soothing words not because they are worried of verbal abuse but due to the fact that many men refuse to listen to their rejection. In fact, my experience is that the blunter I am with guys, the more they will tend to pursue you as if they believe that they are in their own romcom. Hence, I sometimes think that some women find other ways to reject guys in order to make it more long lasting and effective. The best example I can think of are women dancing around each other to avoid men grinding against them.

  17. December 18, 2012 8:26 pm

    Unfortunately this whole discussion chooses to ignore by and large the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious underpinnings and frameworks that our societies are based on in this hemisphere. No one has really been willing to look at how effectively repressed and controlled female sexuality has been for thousands of years through coercion and violence. Until we start dealing with this fact, no progress can be made. We all have to stop believing in a mythical god character monitoring billions of people for what they do sexually. We have to stop listening to and following people who claim to represent these imaginary gods and who claim to know how these gods want us to conduct ourselves sexually. If this happened, these clearly patriarchal structures will begin to die. When we can accomplish this as a race of people, these different social practices will change the idea that Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions have promulgated for centuries. The idea that without equivocation every man has the power over every woman through some divine provenance will die once our social practice is elevated beyond mythical religious social constructs.

  18. December 27, 2012 5:05 pm

    Great post… I’m a bit of a latecomer to it, but I also wanted to point out that just not hearing the “no” in an explained-refusal is not the only way that interpretation can be problematic. It’s also super frustrating when a guy will try to argue with you, or find a way to change circumstances so that your reason doesn’t apply anymore. Being in an established relationship, I am never saying “no” for eternity, and I often give explanations as a matter of being helpful – they are not simply polite bullshit – but these explanations need to be taken as the most easily articulated aspect of a complex of circumstances, not the one-and-only barrier to having sex right now.

    “I have to get ready for X in an hour” is typically shorthand for “I have to get ready for X in an hour, so my mind is already elsewhere, and even if I finish my preparations early I wouldn’t want the kind of distracted, rushed sex that would be possible right now, so regardless of how circumstances may change or could be changed by you, sex is not an option until after X.” Just because my explanation doesn’t 100% preclude sex, doesn’t mean I am “not telling the real reason,” it just means that sex is far from my top priority at that moment and I am not obligated to use up time and mental energy explaining all the details in a way that, quite frankly, would make me feel like I am berating the guy for asking.

  19. December 28, 2012 3:52 pm

    I would like to point out one exception – if the ‘rapist’ has a neurodevelopmental disability that is likely to affect their understanding of nonverbal and nonliteral communication (such as autism, or general cognitive disability). I have heard of people accusing developmentally disabled men of sexual aggression when, on closer examination, it’s clear the situation was merely a misunderstanding due to the man’s disability and the woman’s expectation of normal ability. But the vast majority of accused rapists have no such excuse.

    • Kaz permalink
      January 9, 2013 6:47 am

      Ha, I was actually coming here to talk about an autistic perspective on this, since autism gets used *very frequently* to excuse sexual harrassment – frequently used by neurotypical folk to excuse the behaviour of people where there’s no real reason to assume they’re not neurotypical. (I’m not saying this is what you’re talking about, just that in almost every single case of sexual harrassment by a guy I’ve seen discussed online “but what if he’s autistic?!” is brought up. Quite frankly, there aren’t *that* many of us out there, and I have to cast doubt on the idea that we are overrepresented as harrassers, or as rapists. As victims, sadly, is another matter.) I hope you don’t mind if I use your comment as a jumping-off point.

      I’m on the autistic spectrum myself, and I do have some literal language issues – including with indirect refusals as they are described in the post – which were worse when I was younger. I’ve spent quite a bit of time mulling this post over and seeing how it fits in with my personal experience, and why despite this background I’ve always felt that the “but indirectness!” excuse is a load of bullshit.

      So first off, the paper is totally right to point out that this is how we communicate refusal in our society everywhere, not just with respect to sex. Saying “no, I don’t want to” is not done in situations where it might hurt someone’s feelings. As a result, having difficulty processing these refusals becomes a serious social issue in all areas of life. Also as a result, this is one of the areas of social skills where you’re most likely to receive feedback in the form of backlash that you’re screwing up. That “I’d love to, but…” frequently means “I don’t actually want to” and you don’t say the latter explicitly was one of the first social things I did figure out! Not only is there a lot of incentive for autistic people to develop a better understanding of how refusals function, if someone really does have that much difficulty with the concept it will be noticeable.

      (The difficulties I experience are more in line with figuring out the difference between refusals communicating inability and refusals communicating lack of interest, and figuring out how to communicate my refusals so that other people can tell the difference. I made pretty much no friends my first year at uni because I couldn’t tell that people were reading my inability-refusals for coming along to social events as disinterest-refusals. Moreover, relevant to this post, when trying to work out the intent behind other people’s refusals I tend to err on the side of disinterest because I don’t want to make people uncomfortable! ESPECIALLY when it comes to something fraught and with the potential of hurting people if I get it wrong. I think sexual consent is a pretty good example of that, don’t you?)

      Moreover – touching on something K said – the thing about these indirect refusals is, even if you interpret them literally, they are still refusals. The issue, as said, is the intent behind them – but even if you don’t read “I’d love to, but I have to work early tomorrow” as “I don’t really want to,” it still communicates “I am not going to do this thing you ask of me.” In order to turn that into acceptance, you have to dig away at either the reasons or that they form an inability first – and *that*, autistic or no, requires some degree of entitlement, a feeling that you know better than the other person how they work and how they should manage their life.

      When I first walked away from this post, I mulled over the question “why is it that I cannot imagine behaving in the way these men did even when I *did* have the issues with indirect refusals that they’re using as an excuse?” And the thing is that I’m likely to take inability-refusals at face value, am relatively unlikely to offer advice about how to overcome the inability unless it’s solicited, and am *definitely* not going to try to tell them their reasons don’t constitute inability. Which is actually partly because I’m autistic – I take statements like “I can’t because X” literally, I know down to my bones that people are different and what works for me might not work for them, and I’ve had enough problems with NT people digging at *me* when I say I can’t do something because it’s not how they experience the world and they don’t believe me that I don’t want to do that to anyone else. Another part of it is probably that I lack male privilege.

      Speaking of which, something I really wish got brought up more in place of “but what if the perpetrators are autistic or have another cognitive disability?” – what if the victims are? Statistically much more likely to be the case, as being disabled (especially developmentally + being female – oy vey, the statistics) can make you vulnerable to sexual violence in some really horrifying ways. I always find it bitterly amusing when people try to excuse perpetrators violating very basic social rules with “but what if they’re autistic” while at the same time telling the victims they should have done X difficult social thing!! that even NT people have trouble with. (E.g. “just saying no” – as the post describes this is itself a pretty big breach of social norms. Intentionally breaking the rules is hard, and can be REALLY hard when you’re autistic and don’t properly understand the rules in the first place and therefore maybe cling to the few bits of them that you do. Like indirect refusal.)

      I apologise for the wall of text, but I wanted to go into detail because the “but what if the perpetrator is autistic?” thing comes up *so often*, is so very wrong, and tends to totally ignore the possibility that it might be the other way around.

      • Sian permalink
        January 9, 2013 5:31 pm

        Brilliant response, and I absolutely agree that not enough is said about vulnerabilities that victims and survivors are dealing with.

      • Percivaldragon permalink
        January 9, 2013 11:21 pm

        That was a wonderful articulation of the Autism = violent/rapist/an ass fallacy. Thank you.

      • Wordy Librarian permalink
        October 25, 2013 5:12 am

        I know this is quite old, but as I already flailed away in a post above on the same topic… You just explained brilliantly, from an autistic perspective and with the appropriate knowledge of the topic, what I’ve been trying to put into words. I’m not autistic, and I am aware that I’m rather ignorant about autism and all of its varieties. Just seeing the language you used is helpful because I’m never sure if I’m being polite with my vague guesses at the appropriate terms. (I’ve got some issues with being terrified I’ll hurt someone’s feelings accidentally out of sheer babbling awkwardness.) I wouldn’t want to make assumptions about how anyone with autism would feel, but when someone brings up autism it always strikes me as really insulting to act like they’re standing up for autistic people who, I’m pretty sure, are managing to get along in society without being rapists and harassers. I know there’s got to be some difficulties with having autism or it wouldn’t be considered a disorder, but it seems a bit extreme and damaging to assume that people with autism can barely be distinguished from rapists.

        Thank you for eloquently and clearly confirming what I suspected but couldn’t quite pin down!

    • Dawn permalink
      January 25, 2013 9:44 am

      I’m autistic, I’ve never raped someone because I know anything other than “Yes, I’d love to have sex with you” is a no. The trope that autistic men can’t understand a soft no, is bollocks.

      • TKK permalink
        April 17, 2014 11:23 pm

        exactly, the ONE type of guy I’ve NEVER had difficulties with are the Aspergers/Autism spectrum ones. Because they KNOW that they aren’t good at reading “signals” and will wait for a direct YES before proceeding… and will make a direct inquiry rather than trying to steer a situation into happening.

      • TKK permalink
        April 17, 2014 11:24 pm

        It’s only the Perfectly Normal guys who will take my saying something like “There can NEVER be a sexual or romantic relationship between us…” to mean “try harder to the point of being creepy or scary.”

  20. Foxy Lady Ayame permalink
    May 3, 2013 7:06 am

    Reblogged this on compass on my field trip.

  21. Tim permalink
    June 8, 2013 5:28 am

    I do wonder if we’re attacking a bit of a straw man here by focusing on the actual use of the word “no”. The examples cited in the lead articles are of affirmative answers that clearly and literally convey refusal, whereas I think the issue is more that some women just don’t feel comfortable refusing *period*. I have female friends who have openly admitted this to me and I really don’t understand it, e.g. one who is actually a lesbian but occasionally has sex with men because she “feels obligated”. I make no comment as to whether this constitutes the majority of “miscommunication” cases, but I think this is the situation people are talking about.

    • Virginia permalink
      June 12, 2013 9:47 am

      But what do your ladyfriends *mean* when they say they have trouble refusing, Tim? They’ve all heard “Just say ‘no'” so many times, I wonder if that’s not what they think refusing has to sound like. As this article points out (and several commenters have admitted), “soft refusals” are generally an effective form of communication, but most people don’t think of soft refusals as refusals when it comes to sex. They say, “Oh, she made some excuses, sure, but she didn’t mean them.” And women think that of themselves, too. See Nic’s post above for example: She said, “Well, it’s late, you should get back to your room.” That’s a clear “no” to sex. But she didn’t see it that way, because that’s not how she’s been taught it’s proper to reject someone sexually. She’s been taught to “just say ‘no.'” And then he went ahead and initiated sex against her clearly-stated wishes and she felt obligated to go along with it. That’s rape. I would guess that your lesbian friend has been raped, too.

      This is the situation we’re talking about. We tell women they’re not being clear because they’re not saying “no,” but they *are* being clear. And men are initiating sex with them–raping them–anyway. Your friends ought to read this article so they can stop blaming themselves.

    • June 25, 2013 9:59 am

      I told my boss once that if he didn’t take his hands off me, I’d kick his balls up between his ears.

      But I was smiling sweetly at the time. He did, however, take me seriously. And no repercussions followed.

      Would I have had the ‘nads to do that, if I had really needed the job? I was broke, but I had no house or car payments, or any dependents, and I’m pretty self-sufficient. And the guy was basically a nice guy, just with iffy social skills (I’m not even sure he got it – this was in the seventies – that back-rubs are *not* a nice job perq).

      So many variables – I’m perfectly fine with people (guys) speaking to me in public… if I’m not interested/otherwise occupied, I’ll half-smile and nod and turn away… obviously, some people disagree. I also have no trouble saying “No”… but I’m thought of by some as one scary bitch, apparently, so I don’t know that I support advising all women to tar themselves with the same brush, when, as has been pointed out, men can manage a soft no just fine in other social contexts.

      Perhaps we should initiate as a graduation requirement, a short course in “How to know when you’re being an asshole.”

      Interesting perspectives here, at any rate.

  22. PookyBear permalink
    August 13, 2013 2:33 pm

    Bit late to the party, but I was just rereading this post after it was linked to in the comment section of another blog, and it reminded me of how pervasive this situation is, not only that some men will use people’s socialization against saying “no” outright against them, but that even a very clearly articulated “no” doesn’t have to be taken seriously by certain men who feel entitled to your time and attention.

    A little background: I used to be something of a shy, socially awkward woman who was physically pained by the idea of having to give someone a flat-out “no” for fear of being seen as “rude” or a “bitch,” no matter how uncomfortable the man’s attention was making me. But in the past few years I have really worked on being able to just look a man in the eye and tell him to get lost. It was hard for me, but I did get there. As long as I am in a safe place with people around me, I have no compunctions about telling a guy, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off. If I am alone, I will generally ignore the attention as much as possible, and if I can I will remove myself from the area to somewhere safer, since telling a guy directly to fuck off when I don’t have anyone around to back me up could lead to some unpleasant outcomes. So far I have been lucky that nothing has escalated to a point I cannot handle. I hope it stays that way.

    The thing about it, though, is that even a very clearly stated “no,” or even a “fuck off, you rapey douchehat” is most of the time insufficient to make the person go the hell away. I cannot count the number of times a creepy jackhole has approached me with some inappropriate bullshit, only to have me look at them and say, unequivocally and unsmilingly, “Go away.” Do they go away? Almost never. They will stand there and argue with me, call me a rude bitch, tell me they were just flattering me so why can’t I lighten up, and so forth and so on; I’m sure pretty much every other woman on earth has similar stories. On several occasions I have had to threaten them with calling security, or threaten them with violence before they will get the message. None of these people seem to have the slightest idea why I would possibly be angry with them, or why I might want them out of my space. Mind-boggling, but there it is.

    And the much scarier part of it is, oftentimes it doesn’t matter if you’re clearly with a significant other, or in a group of friends that includes men. Just one example of many: My longtime boyfriend and I were at a club we go to at least once a week. We know many of the regulars, all the bartenders and bouncers, as well as the owner. We both spotted a man entering the club with two friends, and we both immediately recognized, just by his body language, that he was going to be a problem. And we were not disappointed. First he approached a friend of ours and tried to dance with her (she was there with her BF, but he was in the restroom). She laughed him off and tried to move away, and the dude kept trying to get close to her. I could tell she didn’t want to straight up tell him to go away, but just as my BF and I were going to “rescue” her, the girl’s (very large, very intimidating) BF came back and told the jerk to fuck off. My BF made a wry comment that I was probably next, and, laughing dolefully, I agreed this was probably true. Sure enough, right on schedule, my BF and I were walking back to the dance floor from the bar, and the guy fell in behind us. I moved as far away from him as possible, and my BF moved between me and him. And still, when we got to our table, the guy came up and actually looked at my BF and asked him, “Can I borrow your old lady?” I snorted in disbelief, my BF gave the guy a look of utter, dripping contempt (which he is very good at, by the way) and said, “How about you ask her?” The guy looks at me with a dopey, expectant smile on his face. I say, very clearly, “How about you fuck right off?” And did the guy fuck right off? Immediately! Oh wait, no he didn’t. He stood there kinda laughing and saying, “Come on, don’t be like that,” and all that kind of shit. And my BF was standing RIGHT THERE, also repeatedly telling him to piss off. And even though my BF is 5’6 tops, he is very muscular and scary-looking (he’s an Army veteran, and many years ago he served prison time for killing a guy that jumped him and his then-wife while they were walking home from a club one night). The guy straight up would not leave until we were both up in his face, making “fuck off” gestures and threatening him with security. When at long last he did get lost, he immediately went to the other side of the club and started the same crap with another woman. At which point my BF and I went to one of the bouncers and had the guy thrown out. Christ. So I guess my point is, even when I feel I’m in a safe space (a club where I know everyone), with a person who is clearly my significant other who is also telling the person to leave, even when I am OBVIOUSLY NOT INTERESTED AT ALL, “no” evidently still does not mean “no.” The sense of entitlement of some of these people just takes my breath away, and I have no idea how we can begin to combat it.

    Now I’ve gone and depressed myself. Crap. 😦

  23. unfiltered4life permalink
    October 1, 2013 10:13 am

    Reblogged this on My Sister Calls Me A Fairy Godmother.

  24. Janetty permalink
    October 8, 2013 9:16 am

    How refreshing. Thank you for posting this.

    I would add though, that it’s not just about identifying easy targets for coercion. In my experience there are some men who enjoy or even prefer coerced sex (as opposed to those who choose to delude themselves that it is welcome). Thus, if you have said a direct and explicit “No”, to someone who you both know is stronger than you, then you risk not just a confrontation but a humiliating and traumatic experience (ie mutually acknowledged forced rape), whereas if you have been at all ambiguous, you can at least avoid some of the indignity and distress of that situation, even if you end up having to do the sex anyway.

    I’d also refer you to the Gricean Maxims of conversation and his Cooperative Principle (HP Grice, ’75), and some of the literature around that, which explains not only the reasons for and ubiquity of indirect communication, but also demonstrates that it *is* understood. Even if certain men, when they get caught, try to pretend otherwise.

  25. February 21, 2014 11:48 am

    Reblogged this on V-Day Warriors .

  26. March 24, 2014 12:54 pm

    Reblogged this on clareminnies and commented:
    Important study.

  27. September 13, 2014 8:58 pm

    Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay.
    I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.


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