Why It Can Be Hard to Say No
The #MeToo movement, discussion of consent, and controversies such as the Aziz Ansari story in 2018 have triggered many debates. In Ansari’s case, a woman went to his home after dinner on their first date. Things escalated quickly, and after making some verbal and non-verbal requests to slow down or stop, she eventually left and cried the whole way home. Many thought that she should have taken responsibility and just left sooner. Others assert that there was no consent because he kept pushing for more, ignoring her requests, until she felt pressured to give in. And unfortunately, many people have been in a similar scenario.
A Common Experience
Many women, non-binary folks, and men have shared similar stories. They tried to speak up to no avail; didn’t feel safe to insist on their “no”s; ended up doing something they didn’t want to do, that didn’t feel good; or maybe didn’t have the proper language and tools to say no. How is it that so many people can relate?
Even folks who can stand up for themselves normally can sometimes lose their voices in sexual or intimate settings. Someone can agree in the moment, only to feel awful and violated later. All of these issues can be attributed, at least in part, to sexual and mental health.
For each person, the reasons will be different or involve a complex web of factors—some completely out of their control. What each person can do is assess their own situations and anticipate what might play out in a similar situation to hopefully lead to happier, better outcomes in the future.
Socialization and Expectations
Women, in particular, are socialized to please. They are taught to be good, not rock the proverbial boat, and to keep the peace. For many women, it’s so ingrained that they don’t even notice when they hold themselves back in order to accommodate someone else. They may ignore their own internal voices because they prioritize the needs of others, and they've been taught to think that they're responsible and ought to feel guilty for others’ discomforts or disappointments.
The importance of sexual desirability as proof of a woman’s “value” is reinforced in ads, films, women’s magazines, and more. All of them feature tips on how to win over men with slight variations on a theme.
It’s universal, and really very healthy, to be desired—and this isn’t just a cis, hetero-normative desire. But, still, this social pressure can cloud judgment, impacting people's ability to say “no” for the reward of (temporary) sexual self-esteem. And this desire can feel magnified and warped when there’s a power imbalance. It’s messy, complicated, and scary.
One in three women—a stat that is even higher among Black women, Indigenous women, women of colour, and transwomen—as well as one in six men, will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. If someone has a history of violence or fear that violence might be the result of saying no, or even asking for something different, they might be even more inclined to acquiesce.
Many were told that there was something “wrong” with them or with their sexual health in the past—such as a sexually transmitted infection defining sexual health. This can lead someone to believe that they don’t “deserve” love or healthy, safe relationships, and they might be prepared to take what they can get.
Families often shape communication skills. Unfortunately, from an early age, many people are told that their opinions aren't valid, or that what they want is less important than others’ wants. And that can make it harder to trust or listen to inner desires later on.
From that, people may have unfortunately learned to push their feelings down, and smother them to cope, which can make listening to those feelings—or even finding them—in the moment much more difficult. Those feelings can linger or resurface later, often in unclear, confusing, and scary ways. It can be a lot.
Many believe in the idea of sexual agency, that individuals should be able to take charge of their sexuality and pleasure—and that’s good and healthy. Sometimes, however, it can feel awkward or uncomfortable, or someone can change their minds about what they want to do in the moment due to internal or external pressures. It’s common to get caught up trying to analyze what’s going on, what they want, whether it will impact their sexual health or not, what they “should” do, what their partner wants—essentially removing themselves from experiencing the event, while an internal debate rages on. Sometimes all of the thoughts and their associated feelings of guilt, desire for connection, fear of rejection, need for pleasure, longing for connection, search for validation, sexual health concerns, and more can be simply overwhelming.
Honouring Intuition and Communication Skills
It's easy to say that someone should just leave or say no. But what about just slowing down? Or wanting something different but not knowing how to bring it up? If it's not an outright no, it can be harder to discern what to say, and how to say it. Those skills certainly aren't taught in school, among friends, or for most people, at home. In my workshops and private practice, many women say that they don’t even know what they want, much less know how to communicate it. And in moments of pressure or even panic, there can be a mental block—a whole bunch of white noise—preventing people from hearing what their intuition or gut is saying.
Sometimes people might freeze if they don’t have much time to think about what they want. Or they might be shocked when a partner pushes their head or hand into their groin, and they're unable to think of what to do or say. Sometimes they get worn down when a partner pressures them, badgers them repeatedly, or tells them that they started something that they need to finish.
Assessing Your Own Vulnerabilities
The first step to moving forward is by taking a good look at ourselves and which factors play out in our lives. Even in long-term healthy relationships, many people disclose that they endure bad or painful sex to protect their partner or because they aren’t equipped with the tools to speak up without ruining the moment or relationship as a result.
Reflect on your past encounters and think about what got in the way to your achieving a fabulous erotic experience. See if you can remember an inner voice that was trying to speak up, but you couldn’t hear clearly. Being aware of your patterns and vulnerabilities is a first step towards making change. Talk to your partner, a friend, or therapist about these things to help you move through them and build your confidence. There are resources, and groups, out there.
In addition, talk to your kids or young people in your life about the gray areas of expression as well as the problems with not gaining explicit consent, ignoring cues, or putting pressure on someone to change their mind. In addition, if you suspect that your partner may be enduring or acquiescing rather than enjoying sex, encourage them to listen to their desires and reassure them that there is safety for them to speak up. Consent is easy in theory; however, it is important to recognize that in practice it is not always as simple and straightforward as we would like.