What’s In A No?
Sometimes even the simplest things can be scary. I think that for a lot of people, “No” is one of the scariest words there is.
We sometimes avoid putting ourselves in situations where there is even a small risk of hearing no, closing doors for ourselves before we even know if they'll open for us or not. I bet if you think back, you can remember a time when you’ve avoided asking someone something because you were just too scared of the answer being negative, or anything other than exactly what you wanted. In my life, I’ve avoided suggesting plans, asking for numbers, offering a hug, millions of things, all because that moment of perceived rejection seemed like it would just be too hard and demoralizing to deal with.
But this way of thinking sure hits a massive wall particularly when it comes to sexual consent.
The basis of consent is about discovering the desires and limits -- whatever they are and are not -- of potential or current partner(s), as well as sharing your own desires and limits, and then seeing where and how those things do and don't mesh together.
The very best way to find out what another person is comfortable doing is by asking them clearly and directly, and being answered just as clearly and directly. However, in an extremely counter-productive twist, we're often the most worried about asking questions when we're in sexual situations, where asking is so essential.
There's a lot of cultural pressure surrounding sex: the exact, apparently "right " ways to have it, who you should have it with, and what it means when you do. In movies or TV, it is rare to see real verbal back and forth between partners, especially around consent, which creates the perception that questions are not a normal, necessary part of sex. (They are in real life.)
All this cultural baggage is difficult and can create dangerous impressions for the inexperienced. All these expectations, both real and imagined, can also cause a great deal of stress and fear. It can feel awkward to voice questions or thoughts out loud, especially when you're new to it. But talking during sex is a vital - and for most people, normal - part of a safe and sexy love and sexual life.
Fear of rejection.
Clear and freely given consent is the bedrock that every healthy sexual interaction or relationship just must be built on. Asking and communicating with words, instead of trying to read for some kind of physical bat signal, is always the best way to go. But this butts up against our collective reluctance to risk rejection. It can feel very vulnerable to lay our cards on the table. Some might even think that the best way to avoid rejection is to just never ask for permission. If you think this way and act accordingly you will at best be a very poor sexual partner and at worst can deeply harm someone in a way you can’t take back.
This tension between needing communication, but being scared of what we might hear, often causes us to avoid voicing our questions and desires.
Why does this seem so intimidating? Why is hearing no so scary, anyway? And what does it really mean when someone doesn’t want the same things we do?
Understanding that your self-worth isn’t defined by sex.
Before I had ever had sex I really believed that if I found someone who would have sex with me, it would solve all my self-esteem problems. It worked, for about five minutes. Then I thought: if I could just have the right kind of sex or good enough sex (whatever that meant at the time) I wouldn’t feel so shitty about my body and myself. It took me a long time to realize that no matter how much sex I had, what kind it was, or who I had it with, it would never be enough to make me feel good about who I was. Sex just can't do that all by itself.
Any kind of hanky-panky should and can be fun, but don’t try and use it as a substitute for true self-confidence; it just doesn’t have the power. You will feel happier, and ultimately be a plain-old better person to have sex with, when you separate your self-worth from what you do in the bedroom (or car, or spooky haunted house, whatever).
For me, the best thing was when I realized that what I did sexually didn’t really have anything to do with: how cool I was, my worth as a person, how much I was loved, or how attractive I was. I think it helps to remind yourself every once and while exactly what no means, because once you fully understand it, it gets a whole lot less scary.
What No Does And Does Not Mean
When talking about consent, it’s common to hear the mantra “No means no.” But how many of us really believe that no ONLY means no?
For a lot of people, no can feel like it means a whole lot of other more negative things: “I don’t like you,” “You are bad/unattractive,” “You are creepy.”
For whatever reason, we attach these meanings to a very simple idea: that the person just doesn’t want something at that moment. When we ask someone if they want to do something sexual (kissing, stripping, oral sex, intercourse, whatever) we sometimes believe their answer has great implications on us as people; that it says something about our value or worth. This isn’t only false, but it is also essentially unfair to add our own, secret meanings to other people's simple statements of preference. Unless the person you are trying to romance is the Riddler (in which case I can’t help you), it is unlikely they are trying to leave a trail of verbal clues you must decode to find their real meaning. Let the person talking decide their own words and meaning don’t do it for them.
If you ask someone if they want to see a movie with you, and they say no, you generally don’t take that to mean they hate all movies; or that they would never want to see a movie with you. It is much more likely they have other plans, or simply don’t want to see The Expendables 5 for the fourth time.
Of course, sex is not the same as going to the movies: it's a whole lot more loaded for most people. But the point is that when it comes to hearing no in a sexual situation, we often assign outlandish meanings to normal, simple sentences and words. These connotations usually come from us, not from the person, who obviously knows what they mean. When we assign these huge universal meanings to intimate personal interactions, we raise the stakes of everything sky high, often way higher than they actually are in reality.
If you load every question with hidden meaning you’re going to emotionally wear yourself down and out; or worse, act like a jerk because your feelings are hurt. When it all comes down to it, no really does just mean no.
How to Handle No Like a Pro
So they’ve said no. You took the plunge and asked if someone wanted something, and they don’t. Dang.
Now where do you go from there? Here are some ways you can react or prepare without making the situation uncomfortable or destructive for yourself or others:
DO: Let your partner know, before you are in a sexual situation, that they should never feel bad for saying they don’t want to do something: that saying no, not now, not yet, or not that way, is always okay.
DO NOT: Feel guilty for saying no yourself. If the person you’re with is worth much of anything, they will want you to speak out when you are uncomfortable.
DO: Keep in mind that saying no can be even scarier than hearing it. Let the other person see you aren’t upset with them, and that it really is okay for them to tell you no.
DO NOT: Pout or throw some other kind of passive-aggressive temper tantrum. Maybe you are disappointed they don’t want to try something new with you, or it’s just something you’ve been looking forward to. Maybe you are worried or sad. It is okay to experience any feelings that come up, but it is not okay to use those feelings to make someone feel guilty, because that can influence them into doing things they do not want to do so that you'll leave them alone and stop acting this way. Do not let your own feelings make your partner feel bad for what they do or do not want. It is important for your partner to understand that it is safe for them to refuse.
DO: Ask them what they DO want. If you suggested something and they turned you down, maybe they have something else in mind. They might feel like doing something new, or even completely different. Maybe they want to deescalate the situation and do something nonsexual. See what’s up and ask them.
DO NOT: Pester. Don’t keep asking for the same thing multiple times when you’ve been given your answer. While it is true that a person can turn down an offer, only to later change their minds, it is best to let them take the reins if they have a change of heart. A good rule of thumb is that unless the situation you’re in has changed, their answer most likely hasn’t.
DO: Tell them to inform you if they change their minds. This way they know it wasn’t a one time only offer, and you don’t need to remind them again.
DO NOT: Expect perfection. Sometimes interactions are going to be a little awkward, embrace it! What you wanted is off the table for now, so a few uncomfortable pauses while you mentally adjust is not uncommon. It is okay. Most ways of being intimate, including sex, feel awkward or clumsy sometimes: that's just part of how intimacy goes.
DO: Figure out if they are specifically disinterested in what you asked, or if they’re generally uncomfortable with the situation. The surest way to find out is to -- you guessed it! -- ask them.
DO NOT: Interrogate. You might feel like if you only knew the reason behind a no, you could fix it so they won’t have a problem. However, in the heat of the moment it might be hard for the other person to calmly assess why they do or do not want something. If someone is uncomfortable with being sexual or with certain sexual actions, let them have those feelings and don’t cause undue stress by forcing them to give you some perfect explanation why. No one owes you an explanation for why they don’t want something; it is up to you as a caring partner to simply accept and respect their wishes.
DO: Immediately accept that the other person has made their choice. Even if it was something you were really looking forward to it is important to internally accept the situation and the other person as they are.
DO NOT: Try and push, convince, bribe, trick, or threaten anyone into changing their answer. If you don't know, for sure, these are NOT things you will do sexually with someone, step back from potential sexuial situations until you are sure.
DO: Remember that no matter how important doing something seems, it is never more important than being a respectful, gentle and sensitive person and partner.
DO NOT: Bemoan how disappointed you are. It might seem like a harmless joke, or even a compliment, but in sensitive situations even jokes can cause feelings of guilt, obligation or shame.
DO: Be thankful they are comfortable enough in your relationship that they are being honest with you.
DO: Take a breath. Whatever is happening is not the end of the world.
There isn’t any list that could be long enough to name all the ways to be caring or cruel during sex. Just remember that no sexual activity (even that one you really really want) is worth acting like a jerk over.
No Is Part Of Life
There are people out there who think that sex is about what they want, and doing the bare minimum to get their own wants and needs met. They never got, or somehow missed, the message that in real life people have their own ideas and thoughts, and that sometimes means not getting exactly what they want. They also clearly missed the message that once sex is about you and someone else, then it isn't just about your own wants and needs anymore. I suspect people like this are the ones that started the rumor that sex is somehow radically different from the rest of life. That you should want certain things, and if you don’t get them, you should feel bad, or even make someone else feel bad. These people certainly don’t make good partners and you do not want to be one of them, because in reality sex isn’t something that can be won, and hearing no is not losing.
We go about our lives each and every day risking no's in a thousands tiny ways. probably some ways we don't even think about. We call the salon to see if we can make an appointment, even though we know there is no guarantee they'll have an open spot or the one we want most. We ask our friends if they want to hang out, despite the risk that they might have other plans. We ask strangers if they know the time, having no idea if they have a watch. We take these little risks, even though they can be stressful, because we ultimately know that the answer isn’t a reflection on us as people.
The upside to all this uncertainty being that the more you take those risks, the easier it becomes. We want the positives that may come from asking -- which is why we ask in the first place -- but want to avoid any crushing sense of insecurity that comes with rejection. So as a first step, how about we get rid of the idea that hearing a no when you want to kiss someone (or lick, or fondle, you get the picture), is any more a commentary on you as an individual as not getting that appointment at the salon? Because really, it usually isn't.
So, ask away. You don't have to be scared of what the answer is, because in sex there aren’t really any wrong answers, and I promise, no one worth asking is grading you.