Can you say “no” to sex? Consent and expectations.

woman of color looking confidently at the camera

When the expectation is to always say “yes,” consent is more powerful than ever before.

Over the past few decades, a lot of social norms surrounding sex have changed drastically. It’s great that we can now talk more positively about sex, and we should celebrate that. And while slut shaming still happens, it’s happening less: getting rid of double standards is great!

But in the middle of all this we have a lot of tricky water to navigate in terms of sexual consent, and many women feel more pressure than ever to say “yes” before they’re ready. Can we take back the power of “no” without making sex sound like a bad thing?

With shifting social norms come shifting expectations. The social pressure which used to make “no” the only acceptable answer is now gone. But without it, it is much harder for women to say “no” and be taken seriously. Because women are now free to say “yes,” there is an idea that women will want to say “yes” all the time. And yet, without the weight of all this social pressure to say “yes,” when a woman does say “no” it should be more significant than ever.

Whereas before, “no” could mean “I would if it weren’t for what everybody would think,” now “no” means “I really actually don’t want to.” And that’s hard for many women to say, because we don’t like hurting people’s feelings or causing them to feel disappointed. We would prefer to be more polite and less explicit in our rejections, but sometimes there’s no other way around it.

Without social expectations to back us up, we need to be stronger and more honest about what we want. This takes courage, because a clear “no” often leads to accusations of unfairness or attempts to negotiate a different response. The prevailing attitude is “but why not? I thought you wanted to have sex?” That may be true some of the time, but just to be clear:

  • Being open to sex doesn’t mean you’re open to having sex with just anyone.
  • It also doesn’t mean you’re always willing to have sex, even with someone you’ve already slept with, and
  • It doesn’t mean you should have sex, just to be “nice” or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

And saying “no” doesn’t make you a prude, or a tease, or an ice queen. As much as we might like to forget it, sex has greater consequences for women than for men. Our society puts the burden of using contraceptives on women, and if those contraceptives fail, women are often left with both the blame and the responsibility. All of this, along with your own personal feelings, are perfectly valid reasons to turn someone down.

Seek people who respect your decisions. Sex should always be about a clear and resounding “yes.” If you don’t feel that “yes” in your heart, then your answer should be “no.”

Iris is the director of ArborWoman.