Welcome to our guide to ‘No’. Instead of the usual bullet points and links we’ve written a kind of summary of the whole podcast here.
It’s not a transcript but a speedily written summary of the kinds of things we were talking about. So it’s somewhere between a blog post and a transcript. We hope you like both.
It’s important whenever we are addressing this or any other issue that we don’t put all the responsibility on an individual who needs to say no. So here we talk about how to make it easier for someone else to say no, how we can hear nos, what no looks and sounds like (when actually people often don’t say ‘no’) and the cultural messages around the word ‘no’ as well as how we might respond as individuals.
We’ve been taught that it’s a rejection of us rather than just someone saying no to a specific thing. This is particularly so when it comes to sex because there’s this idea that sex is such a big and essential part of our being. So it’s easy to feel entirely rejected because so much of our identity can be suffused with the idea of our sexuality, sexual attractiveness and competence. This is also hard to do because we live in a culture that really primes us to be self-critical. So if we hear a no then it’s immediately something that we perceive to be a rejection of us.
The first thing to recognise is that the ‘no’ is relational. It’s relating to a specific thing going on in a specific dynamic at a particular time. That’s not to say that it can’t be hard to say or hard to hear, but looking at it that way would probably make it easier than feeling like it’s a rejection.
Because of this it is not only a hard word to hear but also a hard word to say because we know that the other person or people may find it to be a massive rejection of them. So often these are two sides of the same coin. This means that often there is actually a big pressure to not use the word ‘no’ when we really want to and do a lot of emotional labour to protect the other person from a perceived rejection rather than just asking for a particular thing not to happen.
This means that actually people rarely use the word ‘no’ in sex or indeed in any other interactions. Research shows that in any social interaction people say that they wouldn’t use the word no. They are more likely to say ‘not tonight’ or ‘maybe later’ or ‘I’m a bit tired’. Yet in the same research everyone recognised that these responses also counted as ‘no’. Which is why it’s dangerous when we are teaching people about consent that we say ‘no means no and yes means yes’ because a) it’s a big ask for people to use those words (see above) but also b) this may give people licence to continue doing a thing, or trying to persuade a person to do a thing, until they hear the word ‘no’.
What we really need to do is to change the non-consensual culture we live in where we all face pressure to not say no (or for nos not to be heard) and how this can permeate down into organisations, workplaces, communities, friendship groups and relationships. We can start by trying to make small changes in those arenas when there is less pressure and less at stake. For example, in how we might manage a book group or, for when we (Meg-John & Justin) go down the pub.
For example we could say “how is everyone feeling about another pint?” rather than “would you like another pint?” or more simply “pint?” It’s also really easy to get into scripts around this (just as there are scripts with most other things). We talk about pub scripts and how we can get drawn in to taking part in the pub script rather than really thinking about what it is that we want. Mine and MJ’s pub scripts (particularly when we are out with mates) are that we drink pints of beer and that we have rounds and we always stay for that one beer too many. If we were tuning into what we wanted (and if everyone else was helping us to do this rather than just to get swept away with the pub script) then this would make it easier for us to drink what we wanted and enjoy the drinks we do want more without feeling like we are killjoys.
(We then talk a lot about how Justin enjoys pints of bitter and his own pub scripts)
This is very similar to how we like to explore consent – which you can see more of in this video.
So if we realise that ‘no’ is relational and situational rather than a rejection of our entire selves that can help. However it can also help if we are tuning into what it is we think someone else might want and to help them with that as much as possible. One way of doing this would be to give options. If it was in a pub this might be ‘pint/half/shandy/soft drink/toastie/nothing/home’. With sex it could be many other different things. So instead of a one time transaction of ‘do you want to do this?/no I don’t want to’ it could just be giving people a series of options and then someone picking their preferences. In this case it’s more consensual and no one has to say or hear a no.
Because so much of the pressure around not saying no is relational, situational and cultural it can be really hard to pay attention to what it is that we actually want. If we are finding saying no to other people difficult we could start with ourselves and think about whether we treat ourselves non-consensually or not. Perhaps think about your last couple of days and consider all the things that you made yourself do that you ended up not finding valuable, or useful or enjoyable. Did you give yourself a minute or two to think about your options, to allow yourself to say no to you?
Often we can swing from being super hard on ourselves all day, treating ourselves non-consensually, that we can then just give up on treating ourselves nicely at all because it’s all so exhausting. MJ talks about this brilliantly in their book ‘Rewriting The Rules’ about how we can swing from being hard on ourselves to being soft on ourselves. Neither of these are examples of good self-consent.
So how to say no?
First thing is really reaching into yourself and learning to feel into your body when you may not want to do a thing. Think about how you react to being asked to do something – how does it feel in your body. This might be a really difficult thing to do so to buy yourself some time so you could have a phrase to use “let me just think about this for a minute”. The people around you can also help you with this by giving you options and asking people to give you a bit of time and space to think about what you want. You could use scales of -10 ———- 0 ———- 10+ to communicate where you are. Or you could think about percentages for different options.
If you are really not used to this and struggle to really tune into your body in this way you could just default to a ‘no’ until you really feel like you are an enthusiastic +8 or +9.
Seeing a ‘no’ as useful information rather than a rejection. If you’re not for them then they’re not for you. Do you really want someone to pretend to want to go out with you or to have sex with you? Or would you rather find out, maybe be a bit disappointed, but then move on and find someone, or a situation, where someone is giving you a strong yes.
It’s also important to be aware of the inevitable power dynamics between people in a relationship or in a situation. The person with the most power should be taking more responsibility to make sure that the other person can say no.
Hearing a no can be easier if you can give yourself a bit of time to process it. As we’ve discussed it can be really hard to hear a no and you may need time to process it, but your first response on hearing a no shouldn’t be about that. So what you could try is to have a stock response like ‘that’s fine’, ‘that’s totally cool, thanks for letting me know’, or ‘would you like to have a cup of tea’. This gives the other person the validation of having said their no but it also just gives you a bit of time to deal with the difficult feelings that first come up on hearing a no.
It’s also okay to just feel the feelings – remember that difficult feelings are called that for a reason. Just allowing your body to feel that rather than getting into a self-critical story is really difficult to do (see everything we said about the self-critical culture). As Pema Chodron says, try to drop the story.
If you liked this you will love our book Enjoy Sex (How, When and IF You Want To). Unlike other sex advice books our is all about consent – because that’s the key to enjoying sex more.