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The anatomy of a no


It was a Thursday night and 20-odd members of Kardinal Kink were at a consent workshop taught by two educators from San Francisco, a workshop that went far beyond basic consent to focus on the complexities that often surround sex and intimacy.

“There are generally three types of ‘no,’” explained one of the instructors, a sex educator based in San Francisco, “‘not right now,’ ‘not that activity,’ and ‘not with you.’” After he detailed more about each one, members paired up and practiced making offers to each other and saying no in each of the three ways; murmurs of “no thanks” and “not tonight” soon echoed off the walls.

Twenty minutes later, the instructor asked “Which one was the hardest?” with a knowing look on his face.

Some club members raised their hands instantly. “Definitely the ‘not with you’ type of ‘no,’” one said. “It’s just really hard turning someone down like that without making it personal.”

These words resonate with many of us at Stanford. We’ve all had the experience: someone who we know — even someone we like as a person — might ask us out to coffee or dinner, or invite us back to their room with the intention of getting physically intimate. And we like them, but not in that way, and we struggle to find a way to say no without hurting their feelings.

Our society romanticizes this kind of intimacy, painting any intimate offer as the ultimate act of vulnerability to the point where turning it down is practically taboo. It turns into a ritual — the shy but determined offer, the downcast eyes and slight blush, the unspoken yes — and violating these unspoken rules navigates very tricky territory. Seventeen magazine advocates flat-out lying as a way to turn down a prom invite “without hurting him,” which would almost be funny if incidents like the stabbing of a girl who said no weren’t there to sober us up.

This is an extreme case. But the fact is that a rejection to any intimate offer, whether prom or a coffee date or a hookup, carries with it social penalties: women who say no are labeled “prudes” or “friend-zoners;” men who say no are called “losers” or “emasculated.”

At the same time, we internalize the fear that if we receive a no, it is because we aren’t attractive, intelligent, masculine, feminine, or just good enough, when in reality “not with you” is a matter of chemistry, not an objective judgment of worth.

The result is that there are very few ways to feel comfortable saying no in a society that screams “yes, yes, yes.”

Back in the workshop, the club member continued to explain why it was hard for them to say no. “I felt like, even though we were supposed to be practicing saying ‘no, not with you,’ I really wanted to say ‘no, not right now.’ I felt like that would make things less stressful.”

The educator paused for a bit before responding. “If you say ‘not right now,’ though, won’t they just ask again in the future? You’ll need to have the same conversation over and over and over again because they think they have a chance and you think they’ll give up.”

The scenario that we were told to imagine during that club meeting is far too familiar to all of us, a situation which we’ve all experienced but never fully understood how to resolve. Maybe we’ve been the person asking, holding on to hope; maybe we’ve been the person delaying, hoping the other will lose interest; maybe both. It’s a stalemate of awkwardness that sometimes is so unbearable that it might just be easier for someone to say yes.

But that’s not really consent.

We need to grow more comfortable with giving and receiving “no’s.” Knowing that each person involved in agreeing to intimacy is comfortable with saying no would make our interactions more honest, our consent more genuine, our intimacy less conflicting. It would clear away at least some of the cloudier realities about consent that people experience on a day-to-day basis.

Phrases like “yes means yes” and “consent is sexy” are useful because they focus on the proactive obtaining of a “yes” before intimacy, but only using these phrases without talking about what “no” means and how to give one is inadequate. It turns what should be a healthy component of all interactions into a vague, almost mythological idea.

We need more workshops on rejection, more conversations about vocalizing our differences and more understanding of what a “no” really means. When we acknowledge that a “no” is okay and provide resources for understanding how to react when we are told “not with you,” we start moving towards healthier interactions.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!