How to say no (to things that aren’t sexy)

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

“Do you want another biscuit?”

“Ah, no I’m OK thanks. I’ve had five and I had a big lunch – I’m really full.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure thanks.”

“Go on – they’re delicious!”

“I know. I just…”

“G’wan.”

“OK, thanks.”

And then I sit and eat the biscuit and think ‘for fuck’s sake, I am a grown up. I should be able to decide whether I want a fucking biscuit.’ But then someone will pass the plate around again, and I’ll take another, because I don’t want to be rude. And by the end of the day I will be so sick of biscuits and so sad that these things I love very much (biscuits) have been ruined by the fact that I’ve had them politely shoveled into my face alongside the cup of tea that I don’t really like either.

This isn’t a metaphor for sex.

We’re getting better at talking about sexual consent. There are plenty of different ways to conceptualise it – the tea analogy being the obvious (and most recently viral) one. I’ve also seen lots of blogs and discussions around how we teach children about consent – the realisation that we tend to pressure children into physical contact with older relatives (Give Nanna a hug! Go on, you have to, she’s your Nanna!) came as quite a surprise to me. But as soon as you’re told about it you start to see it everywhere.

In bed, I pretty much know what I want now: it’s less a question of a guy asking me if I want his biscuits and more a question of both of us staring at a biscuit buffet, then deciding which ones we’d like to sample today. Sometimes shortbread, other times party rings. Sometimes he offers me a chocolate hob nob and I want it in the moment, then one or other of us quickly decides we don’t want a hob nob right now and we both eat crackers instead. I’m stretching it, aren’t I? Basically though sexual consent is about more than just having a safeword or having hard or soft limits regarding individual acts. There’s a great piece here by Meg John Barker on minimising pressure and communicating better in bed.

We suck at non-sexual consent

I almost – almost – titled this post ‘British people suck at non-sexual consent’, because so much of it is linked in my head to a vague sense of doing things out of politeness, until I realised that was arse. Basically humans are a bit rubbish at respecting people’s boundaries when we’re overexcited about a nice thing.

That nice thing might be biscuits, it might be the Wetherspoons ‘double up for a pound’ offer, it might be an invite to a party: whatever. If person A conceives of something as a ‘treat’ or a pleasure, and they offer it to person B, then they often assume that any refusal on the part of person B is – and should be – either ignored or twisted into a yes.

Example:

“Fancy another glass of wine?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t – I have tonnes of work to do tomorrow.”

“Go on!”

“Ah, OK. Just a small one though.”

And then that person comes back from the bar with a large glass of wine.

Well-meaning, sure. Easy mistake to make. You want to appear generous and giving, after all. I have definitely made the same mistake in the past, countless times. Not to mention all the times I’ve panicked and gone “oh, err… DOUBLE” when the bar staff ask, because I don’t ever want to look like I’m cheap. We often walk a line which involves trying to work out whether someone’s ‘no’ means:

  • ‘I’d love to but I don’t want to look like I’m putting you out’ or
  • ‘I genuinely don’t want this.’

They sometimes sound similar, and yet there’s a chasm of difference between them.

Anxiety and saying ‘no’

I recently spoke to some people about freelancing, with the aim of giving some tips and advice on how to do it. And afterwards, a lovely blogger approached me and said: ‘how do you deal with the anxiety thing, when combined with freelancing?’ The answer is: not very well, to be honest. And a lot of that revolves around my inability to say ‘no.’

I struggle to say a firm ‘no’ – I’ll go ‘oh wow that sounds interesting’ or ‘I’m quite busy right now’, but I very rarely give a flat-out no. I find it hard to turn things down in social situations too. People I know through Twitter often ask me to go for a drink with them. They’ll say ‘oh I’d love to meet you!’ and I mumble and dissemble and fail to say what I really should: please stop asking. Not because I don’t think you’re nice, or even because I won’t enjoy having a pint or two and chatting about fun stuff. But because if I meet you I will then have to meet someone else. And someone else. And any one of you might bring your friends (a couple of people have done this) or take a surreptitious photo of me (ditto) or accidentally let slip my name to someone (many). None of these people are bad people, by the way: they just don’t have the same boundaries as I do, or understand the exact reasons why I have those boundaries.

It’s not just as ‘GOTN’ that this freaks me out – if I get a text from a close friend inviting me to the pub, occasionally my reaction borders on the seriously fucking weird. It’s a nice thing, and something I’d usually enjoy, with someone I love: and yet I’ll sob and shake and panic because now I have to go to the pub and I’ll never get all my work done and oh God what if they hate me for saying no.

That’s all my own fault: it’s something I’m working on. But it’s tricky to work on it when I know that often a ‘no’ is going to be met not with an ‘OK then’ but ‘go on!’ It takes a lot of effort to spit the word out: we’re accustomed to saying ‘yes’ – we’re trained to say yes. So when we manage to get round the tongue-twister of ‘I’m sorry but I’m busy’ or ‘I’m not sure I really can right now’, we don’t want to have to gather the courage once again to give a firmer ‘no’ the second time round.

Perhaps this is me. Perhaps I am the only one who feels like this. And perhaps – no, not perhaps, definitely – I do this same thing myself. Out of a fear of friends feeling like I don’t love them enough, I will often ask more than once. Say ‘but you’re the funnest one! You have to come out!’ then hate myself ten minutes later because I’ve done that thing I hate.

Safewords for not-sex

In Japan, the word ‘chotto’ often acts as ‘no.’ The actual word for ‘no’ – iie – is rarely used if someone offers you a biscuit or a top-up on your wine. Instead they say ‘chotto’, which means ‘a little.’ Like ‘it’s a little difficult for me to have more wine because I’m working tomorrow’, where everything other than the ‘little’ is implied. I like it: it’s a nice way to say ‘no’ without having to utter the word. And if we had a word like that I’d retreat into it at every available opportunity: the stark and simple strength of a flat-out ‘no’ being softened by a gentler word.

Am I saying we should have one of these? No. Because while it’d give people like me, who are terrified of offending their mates, a decent way to say ‘no’, we’re still stuck in the same boat. Not everyone in Japan accepts a ‘chotto’ as a final answer, after all: it just broadly replaces what ‘no’ would otherwise do, and we’re back to square one.

“Go on, you know you want to.”

So what am I after? I don’t know. I’m only really beginning to accept that this stuff can be hard, and the idea of coming up with a set of rigid rules or codewords feels silly in the same way as those people who think having a tickbox ‘consent’ app is a good way to go in the bedroom. I just wanted to acknowledge that even outside the bedroom, we’re not always brilliant at recognising what a human wants and needs. When I’m shagging someone, I don’t ever want to have to say ‘NO!’ – capital letters, shouted loudly, and with crossed-arms and ‘end the sex now’ body language. I want for our consent to be something that grows out of mutual trust and respect. Understanding rather than pressuring – an open question (‘what do you like?’) rather than a closed one (‘can I do this?’).

And I want real-life consent to be like that too. For it to become easier to walk that line between being generous and being pushy, and navigate the options between ‘that’d be lovely’ and ‘Fuck off with your biscuits.’

I don’t have a solution. I’m bad at it. But maybe realising just how bad I am at it is a decent place to start.

Sorry this one was a bit rambly. If you want more interesting stuff on sexual consent, go and read Bish’s excellent piece on consensual handshakes: he runs this as a workshop too which I’ve been to and which was spectacular. Also this thing about consent culture from Pervocracy

23 Comments

  • ValeryNorth says:

    The only thing I’ve got is I tack on, “sorry” after the first no. and then a grumpy face/tone of voice for the second. Basically, I’ve had to learn to be rude. If I think it’ll give the “no” more weight I’ll offer a reason, but sometimes if you offer a reason it’s taken as an invitation to undermine/work around the reason…

    Then for the “I don’t want to look like I’m putting you out” version, I’ll make it a conditional: “well, only if…” it’s going spare/it’s not too much trouble/you insist/etc

  • oh this is such an issue for everyone, i cannot think of a person who does not have this issue. i think it causes people to have all sorts of issues with personal and business relationships. i am pretty good at giving a firm no, in some situations i am not. recognizing that you are not good at this (or anything) is always a good place to start…

  • Vida says:

    Ireland suffers from this too. We have the ‘do you want a cup of tea, go on go on go on’ ritual you might know from Father Ted and that apparently harks back to the Famine and ensuring that your neighbour really did have enough potatoes to go round.

    But it’s also about pushy mammies thinking they know what’s best – and because no-one ever says what they really mean. The passive aggression of it drives me, with my American genes, insane.

    I feel the solution is to take people at face value resolutely. If they say no and really mean yes, they will soon learn that they need to ask for a biscuit if they actually want a biscuit, and not wait for someone else to interpret for them. If you think about it, the alternative is fucking ridiculous. You can look at it as minding consent, but you can also see it terms of refusing to enable the bullshit of not being able to say yes, which is as debilitating as the bullshit of not being able to say know. We need to start saying what me mean and stop pussyfooting around each other like gobshites, don’t we?

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah yes – the ‘go on go on’ thing. Definitely recognise that, and am frustrated that it’s been so tied in my head with the idea of being polite. Politeness is respecting a ‘no’, not forcing a yes.

      ‘we need to start saying what we mean and stop pussyfooting around each other like gobshites’ is a bloody lovely way of putting it. I will endeavour to stop pussyfooting around things like a gobshite =)

    • Vida says:

      Freudian, Freudian, ‘not being able to say know’ – heh.

  • My no’s tend to go like this:

    “No, thank you.”
    “No.”
    “You can fuck right off. NO.”

    This doesn’t work well in all situations … but it does get my no across!

    xx Dee

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    I expect we can all sympathise with this one, or know someone who has the same problem. Learning to say ‘no’ firmly but politely is an important life skill. But so is accepting someone else’s ‘no’ for what it is, and making someone an offer in a way that makes clear ‘no’ is an acceptable response.

    I know someone who has a chronic problem with saying yes to everything, even when she really can’t do it. When I ask if she wants to do something, I try to be explicit that it’s only if she’s free and actually wants to do it, and that ‘no’ is a perfectly fine answer.

    For my part, although I’m sure I’ve sometimes said yes to things I shouldn’t have, I’m more usually the opposite – ‘no’ tends to be my instinctive response. I’ve sometimes said things like “No, that’s fine,” in response to (e.g.) an offer of biscuits, then thought about it, and gone, “no, wait a minute, yes I would actually!”. Which is not quite the same thing as what you’re describing, but must be just as annoying.

  • Vida says:

    I have in the past said to people ‘ok, well, I’m going to take your no at face value and leave it up to you to take a bisciut if you really want one’. Then I feel I’ve covered all bases without harrassing people :)

  • Ian says:

    GotN

    Thanks for an interesting post – I know exactly what you mean and have probably spent equal times on each side of the question/answer divide. As you say, sometimes you’re trying to second guess someone who might just be ‘being polite’.

    And now I’m wondering if I offer biscuits/chocolate as a way to say “I care that you’re okay and have what you need.” when my partner is perfectly capable of getting them, and might not choose if not offered. Hmm.

    The one line I disagree on is an intellectual/emotional thing; “That’s all my own fault: it’s something I’m working on.” Emotionally I often feel that way (and yes, in that exact case, I often hate social situations but feel obliged) but I’m trying to overcome it. Because it’s not my *fault*. Intellectually I know it’s because of me, but that doesn’t make it something I’ve chosen to do because I’m being difficult. I feel that I should acknowledge responsibility without accepting blame.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Good point – I definitely have a tendency to accept blame too easily, but at the same time with something like this I don’t want to put the blame on other people when certainly part of the issue is that I am so bad at saying no. Sometimes people really are nobheads and disrespectful around nos – other times it’s a combination of different factors that lead to a fuck-up where I’m trying, but failing, to say ‘no’ properly. Responsibility rather than blame is a nice way to put it. Thanks!

  • Jo says:

    I heard someone say recently (perhaps on a podcast?) that she was trying to eliminate all the shoulds from her life — those things we feel we should say yes to but have absolutely zero desire to do. I just thought: that sounds like a noble effort, but incredibly difficult — because saying no IS hard for folks who have a strong internal (likely because of social conditioning) sense of obligation.

  • When I was growing up, my Mom use to say “no is a complete sentence”. I use to hate that phrase but as a grown-up, I am very happy that she set that example because I have never really had a problem saying No. Thanks Mom!!

  • I was raised in one of those Evangelical American homes where saying “no” counted as a “confrontation,” and a “confrontation” counted as being “rude,” and being “rude” was a sin.
    Thus my prodigious therapy bill.
    Seriously, I struggle with it on an HOURLY basis. This post was exactly what I needed today. You’re sort of the best, and if anybody ever asks me if I’m willing to part with that opinion, I’ll give them a definitive “No,” because you’re worth it.
    Mwah!

  • Thirty years of dealing with clients in the translation business teaches you how to say no with various degrees of firmness. Not a problem I have, but understand it in others. No quick fix. “No thank you, I don’t think I will,” is usually enough followed by a “Which part of ‘no thank you’ didn’t you understand,” said with a laugh if it didn’t work. The laugh prevents offence being caused and that should end the situation.

  • f-y says:

    I am passionately teaching my son that no means no. It doesn’t mean “try again in a minute” (if circumstances haven’t changed), it doesn’t mean “maybe”, it doesn’t mean “try and persuade/bargain with me”. If I mean those things, I’ll use those phrases. No means no. I use this in everyday situations like biscuits etc at the moment, in the hope that as he gets older it will be a given in his sexual encounters.

  • Kitty says:

    I can’t help but think that if “saying no” is perceived as being rude, then screw it, be rude.

    If friends are going to take umbrage at you for that, then really, they aren’t your friends. Screw them too, and the self-entitlement they rode in on. Life’s too short to fill it with people who are going to bear a grudge at you for not complying to their every whim, let them eat their own bloody biscuits.

  • Charles says:

    Not saying no is a problem too. Does “like to but can’t until later” mean what it says or is it a confusing no? That type of response when it is a no invites the unwanted further invitation and I find it somewhat confusing. Please, in Nancy Reagan’s immortal words, just say no :) Surely it is not rude, just clear, and it can be phrased nicely.

  • I was taught the “chotto” deflection in a Japanese class. Specifically, if someone suggests something that you’re not keen on, you’d say “Sore wa chotto…”, meaning “Hmm, that’s a little…”, which is understood as a polite “No thanks”. There is definitely a tendency to be oblique and indirect.

    There’s also a thing at parties where you show generosity by topping up someone’s drink (beer, at the parties I’ve been to). Glasses are small (like 6-8 ounces) so there are lots of opportunities to top someone up. If there’s any space in the glass at all, you might get topped up. Solution? When you’ve had enough, stop drinking and making space for top-ups. A full glass is a passive but effective no. On the other hand, if someone is pouring and you want to take them up on the offer but your glass is full, take a sip, then accept the top-up.

    As for exchanges in English, when it gets to the point where I feel like I’m being pushed, what I find to be effective is a firm “No thanks!” or “Nope!”, delivered with a genuine smile and cheery tone that says I’m entirely happy with my decision. That may be the key – start by being clear in your own mind about what you want, without guilt or anything else to compromise your position. I think others can sense the internal waffling and take that as a cue to push – whether to get their own way, or to do you a favor by nudging you into what they think you want but won’t give yourself permission to do (which is now sounding a bit D/s).

    But I’m not British. YMMV.

  • Alison W says:

    For years, my Italian-Aussie father-in-law has made constant assaults of this nature on me (and everyone else) – relentlessly attempting to make me take a drink (alcohol) or a second cup of coffee (which after almost 20 years he knows damn well I NEVER want) when we visit him, insisting on buying and bringing cake or biscuits for me (which after almost 20 years he knows damn well I dislike) when he visits us, and refusing to take no for an answer until I have to snap at him (which upsets my husband). So last weekend I finally decided to call his bluff on the latter: ‘Dad, if you really want to spend your money on giving me food that I actually enjoy, why don’t you just give me a fiver and I’ll use it to buy vegetables? His face was a picture – and then he pulled out a fiver and handed it to me – and his face was ANOTHER picture when I thanked him and whisked it away. Hopefully this will get the message through :-) (And for the record, I did go out afterwards and bought some lovely asparagus, which I photographed and sent to his phone – and he was genuinely pleased by that.[People are complicated.)

  • I’m sure that elements of this is cultural… I have also seen lots of commentary about women in particular, as we are generally expected to be compliant and please people. Keep the peace and all that.

    I’ve found it a lifelong journey to say no in business, and I know I’m not the only one. There have been studies on the difference between men and women. I’ve learned that saying “no” at work is good for me and doesn’t actually seem to make a difference on how I’m perceived, contrary to what I feared.

    This has also crossed over into my relationship life. It’s been an even bigger journey saying no to men, or bad situations, or things I don’t want to do. But saying no in it’s various forms (deflection, straight out “no”, or “fuck off”) actually starts to feel really good when you realize you are taking care of yourself. I also try to treat people with respect and preserve their dignity… but not at my detriment.

    I’m sure anxiety makes all these issues much more difficult but I agree that once you realize it, it’s the start of being able to make change.

  • Bo Farewell says:

    Have you noticed how easily kids say “No!” and if you insist they would probably scream as loud as they can. And they just as easily take “no” for an answer. I always related this to the fact that they believe what they hear. They believe the words. If I say “I will eat your breakfast if you don’t come here right now!” my daughter has no doubt that I will do it, even though I say that every morning and I have never ever eaten her breakfast.

    When we grow up we stop believing words. Then a “no” means nothing.

    I have always tried to not pressure people do something they don’t want to, even when I am confident they would enjoy it. I hope they take it as a sign of respect. It is like saying “I think you are a grown adult and you know what is best for you. I respect your opinion.”

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