The first of these is the very simple idea that saying no is hard.
In last year’s talk, Sam and I started with a great exercise that involved people asking each other for a kiss, and being required to say no. We then checked in with how it felt for people, both to say no and to hear no. The responses were powerful, especially for a controlled situation, with low stakes, where everyone already knew they were going to have to say, and hear, no. The foreknowledge and low stakes didn’t stop people from finding the refusal difficult, the rejection, disappointing.
Research performed around the turn of the millenium in Britain showed pretty clearly that saying no, even to ordinary things, is a disfavored behavior in our culture. A paper on conversational analysis, cited here by the fantastic Yes Means Yes blog, showed that even people turning down a non-sexual dinner invitation from a friend tended to soften their refusals, to pause, hesitate, hedge, placate, and explain rather than actually admitting that they didn’t want to.
It is built into our culture to avoid saying no; this makes imprecations to “just say no” nearly absurd. Think about how hard it can be to even hang up on a telemarketer or close the door on a fundraiser, let alone tell someone you like that you can’t meet them for lunch. Escalate that to telling someone you might want to sleep with at some point – or that you’ve had sex with a hundred times before! – that no, actually, you don’t want to have sex with them right now, and you begin to see the elaborate language we have built around refusal. We don’t want to seem prudish, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to put ourselves in danger, or appear arrogant by refusing before something is even offered.
Perhaps even more important, though, is the fact that for most of us, these softened hedged rejections are entirely clear. We know what these refusals sound like, and look like, and so pushing past them tends to be a matter of will rather than a missed communication. What this indicates, sadly, is what we already know if we think about it: very few rapes occur because of misunderstandings or lack of clear rejections. They occur because a small subset of men repeatedly look for cracks in those soft nos, and apply leverage until they can “wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.”
But those people are not whom I’m addressing, here. I’m looking at people in communities where, while there are certainly a fair share of predators, most people are trying very hard to do things right. People want to be “game” and try new things. People want to push past their own boundaries, and sometimes don’t even know what those boundaries are yet. People with well-established boundaries find their boundaries shifting depending on who they’re with, where they are, how many years have passed. And people are playing deliberately with power dynamics, where the person running the scene is highly responsible for their partner’s safety. It’s very easy to say, “Establish a safeword, negotiate in advance, know your limits,” and so on. It’s harder to know what to do when a scene becomes more intense than you signed up for, or when someone is suffering in silence out of pride, or when what you thought you negotiated turns out to be something else entirely, or when you are trying to deliberately push limits and go farther than you have before.
Add to this the social awkwardness that tends to permeate the geeky community (which overlaps mightily with kink and other alternative sexualities), and signals may not be as absolutely clear as was previously thought. “No” becomes not just difficult to say, but difficult to locate and identify in yourself.
Part of this talk will be about returning to the messages of the body, to get more clarity on what “No” feels like, and how to communicate it – and hear it – better.