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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Just say no

For a man to hear a ‘no’, a woman has to actually say it

No means no. That cannot be said often enough. No means no. 

But if you mean ‘no’ then it follows that you also have to say ‘no’. If you want someone to hear your ‘no’, then you need to say it out aloud. Non-verbal cues do not cut it. Nor do verbal cues. Nor does less than ‘enthusiastic’ participation. 

That’s because all of the above relies on someone else to receive a message that you have not actually articulated. It requires your sexual partners to intuitively pick up on a discomfort that you have not voiced. It enjoins them to be mind readers (trigger alert, all you ‘woke’ millennials!) even when they may not know you well enough to be able to read your mind.

And that is putting a lot of responsibility for your safety and well-being on the shoulders of someone else. 

Yes, I know, this is where a lot of you will pause reading to shoot off tweets asking me to stop ‘victim blaming’. To tell me that I am putting the onus on women not to get raped or sexually assaulted or abused instead of putting the men who rape, assault or abuse them on notice.

But no, I am not blaming the victim. Mostly because I don’t see women as disenfranchised victims with no agency of their own. I don’t see them as passive participants who have no control over what happens to them. And any movement, feminist or otherwise, that seeks to turn women into hapless creatures who cannot stand up for themselves, who cannot speak for themselves, does not have my support. 

As you can probably tell by now, this column was triggered (there’s that word again!) by the Aziz Ansari case. (No, I’m not going into that whole controversy; I’m sure you’re fully up to speed by now.) So, what I am writing about today applies only to urban, educated, emancipated, sexually-active women with jobs and lives of their own – like the woman, dubbed ‘Grace’ to grant her anonymity, who sought Ansari out and went on a date from hell with him.

I am on the side of the generational divide that does not believe Ansari’s awful sex moves amounted to sexual assault or even sexual abuse. And I have difficulty understanding my millennial friends who insist that ‘Grace’ was coerced by Ansari. Her own account of the evening, in my reading, suggests otherwise.

But what is clear to me is that in this age of Tinder, when casual hook-ups with people you barely know are the rule rather than the exception, women need to be empowered to navigate this sexual minefield instead of being infantilized and told that they bear no responsibility for their own actions.

It goes without saying that consent is essential in every such encounter and that it is the responsibility of men to ensure that they secure it before initiating any kind of sexual contact. (And yes, ‘enthusiastic’ consent is the very best.) But I balk at the thought of casting women as helpless creatures who cannot even say ‘no’ when they mean it.

Sex, like much else in human life, is about communicating your desires, your needs, and yes, your reservations. But if we want men to listen then we must also empower women to speak up so that they can be heard. Women need to be active participants with a voice in the proceedings, not passive objects to whom things happen without their having any control over it.

I have lost count of the number of women who have told me over the past week that women don’t say no because they are afraid of the consequences. As in, they may meet with violence or even death if they say no. And yes, that is true in some cases. 

But here’s where those ‘verbal’ and ‘non-verbal cues’ come in handy. It’s not just incumbent on men to pick up on these cues. It’s imperative that women read them as well. If you feel you’re not being listened to during your date, being rushed into things at a pace you are not comfortable with, then maybe you should say ‘no’ sooner rather than later. Split the bill, call a cab and get the hell out of there.

Most adult women have a well-honed instinct for sniffing out the bad boys from the good. Trust those instincts. They will stand you in good stead. And if that voice in your head is telling you this is not going to end well, then end it right then. 

Of course there will be times when men you thought were honourable and ‘safe’ will surprise you. When a ‘friend’ you have known for years will suddenly turn into a monster. We’ve all been there. It’s truly awful and hard to negotiate, especially when your ‘no’ is heard but not acknowledged. But to conflate sexual assault or even sexual abuse with bad or awkward sex does a disservice to both men and women.

Yes, there are many men out there in the dating pool who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Who will push, push, push, until you’re well into sexual assault territory. And it is often difficult to see them coming until you’re right there in bed with them.

But there are plenty of good guys too, who are primed to look for your consent. Sadly, very few of them are actual mind readers. Which is why it’s imperative to remember that for a man to hear a ‘no’, a woman has to actually say it. 

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