Learning to Say No

Samantha Garzillo | guest writer — American University

I am incredibly fortunate that I have never said no in a sexual encounter and had someone ignore it.

But for five years, I didn’t think I could.

We’re regularly talking about sexual assault. We’re learning that consent is necessary, body language communicates a lack of consent and that not just women are raped. But there’s one conversation we aren’t having: What are we doing for those who believe they have to consent, who say yes when they want to say no?

When I was fifteen, I had my first serious boyfriend. We became intimate before I was ready. I didn’t speak up about it and gave in to every advance every time, even when I didn’t want to. I asked myself every question: Shouldn’t I be attracted to him? Don’t I have to be intimate with the people I date? Wouldn’t it be insulting to him if I said I didn’t want to? Isn’t it mean to “blue ball” someone? Would he find sexual gratification elsewhere?

That is, I asked myself every question except, “Is this my body and am I allowed to decide who touches it and when?” I was uncomfortable addressing this and it led me to almost three years of hesitant, reluctant and regrettable consent.

Years later, I let an ex-boyfriend use me for sex for months with the hopes that it would open a door back into his life. It was unloving, impersonal, and, by the end, disconcertingly aggressive. I did not demand — hell, I did not even meekly request — respect. In doing so, I wasn’t respecting myself. What started as an active choice became another whirlwind of letting someone else treat me as if I existed for their physical pleasure, and at no point did I protest.

So what do we do? How do we empower ourselves to say yes only when we want to and only to those who deserve to be told yes?

There are clear reasons why it is difficult to say no:

The media makes female pleasure taboo and dirty, while PG-13 movies bombard us with scenes of blowjobs.

We’ve romanticized the idea of an unwilling woman being convinced by a persistent male

Men and women base their worth on approval from sexual partners. We’re afraid to give and receive “no,” believing it can translate to “I am not attracted to you” or “I don’t enjoy being physical with you.”

Women are regularly taught that their bodies are for men’s pleasure. Women supposedly dress and act in a way that makes men think they’re beautiful. Without taking ownership of your own body, and recognizing that it is not purely sexual, it is harder to believe your body is not for someone else’s pleasure.

Though I cannot speak on the experience of men, the pressure they receive to lose their virginity and have many sexual partners must also complicate consent. We regularly present the idea of men’s rampant libidos, painting the false picture that men never say no because they always want sex. No matter the gender of the person you are perusing, it is important to never assume what they want.

By combating these issues, saying no becomes easier, but surely all burdens cannot fall on ourselves to be empowered to say “no.” We also have to be good partners. Even if someone has verbally consented, if they show hesitation or discomfort, check in with them. There are many ways to make consent a conversation that both partners can and should engage in. For instance:

  • “Is this okay?”
  • “Do you like this?”
  • “Do you want to do this later instead?”
  • “You’re allowed to stop me.”

Saying no can be difficult — that is, unless we truly believe we have the right to say it. No matter how many people we’ve slept with, how much we love who we’re dating or if we’ve wanted to every time before, saying no is always an option. What is not an option is preventing others from telling you no. If we take ownership of our bodies, believe our pleasure is as important as others’ pleasure, and allow our partners to feel comfortable with talking about their uncertainty, learning to say no will be as easy as it was to learn to say yes. ◆

This version of “Learning to Say No” has been updated.


Samantha Garzillo is a law and society major at American University, focusing primarily on public policy. She also enjoys making ranty Facebook statuses about sexism.

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