Can you hear me now?

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'No' Is a Woman's Most Powerful Word

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The furor over the Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia is dying down. But the conversations continue. This weekend, in the New York Times, Susan Dominus related a scenario that will seem familiar to a lot of women, and probably, a number of men: a friendly member of the opposite sex pouring the drinks with a generous hand, and later, a dark room, the continued pleading that follows the murmured nos, and finally, an exhausted capitulation because it's easier than forming the will to keep arguing, or to get up and leave. 

When I was in college, around the same time as Dominus, the slogan of college rape activists was "no means no." I said it myself many times. It had all the virtues of a good social rule: simple, easy to follow, and easy for everyone to agree upon. It is still a very good rule, one that every man and woman should honor. Unfortunately, for many women, it was not enough.

We had unconsciously framed date rape as a product of the antediluvian values of an earlier era, one that was already, by then, somewhat remote; a time when girls were expected to fight hard to preserve their virtue, and so (the legend went among men) would make a big show of saying "no" even when they actually very much wanted to have sex. So boys would find implied consent elsewhere -- in the decision to walk alone on the beach or go for a drive in the mountains -- and barge past the formulaic refusals. Maybe sometimes that's what was actually wanted; often, it was not, and those men were rapists.

I don't know if this description of that earlier era is accurate, because I wasn't around, though I've heard enough stories to think that it at least approximates the truth of things. Regardless of the accuracy, we believed that these were the values we were fighting, and so we said "no means no"; consent rests on affirmation from the girl, not what she's wearing or why you think she agreed to go back to your room. 

Whether or not "no means no" might have been adequate to prevent the problems of date rapes behind the sock hop, it was not adequate to all the difficulties we faced. My generation drank more than our mothers had, so that women were more frequently incapable of saying no, or much of anything else. There were no parietal rules to keep us out of each other's rooms, or force us to come home at an early hour. Nor could we fall back on "nice girls don't"; we had to refuse this specific man each time, not on the grounds that some external force was stopping us, but because we simply didn't want to have sex with him. That's an uncomfortable conversation, and modern though we may be, most of us still hated uncomfortable conversations, especially if we'd had a few and just wanted to go to sleep.

I'm not calling for a return to single-sex dorms, curfew rules, and the presumption that "nice girls don't." I'm just pointing out that these things gave our mothers an easy way to say "no" that didn't have to be explained or defended, and wouldn't be taken as a specific rejection of this person right in front of you. We were chanting a slogan designed for a world that no longer existed. In the world where we lived, it required an assertiveness and a confident self-knowledge that a lot of 19-year-old girls found hard to muster. It required actions we weren't always willing to take, like loudly saying "no," and leaving if he persisted. In other words, it left us vulnerable, though not in the same way that our mothers had been.

Dominus suggests that we need a new language to sort out these toxic situations:

Struggling to find language to define that experience after the fact left me longing for more words that could have been used in the moment. What I wish I had had that night was a linguistic rip cord, something without the mundane familiarity of “no” or the intensity demanded in “Get off or I’ll scream.”

“No” and “stop” — of course, they should be said and respected. But several women who told me they felt their consent was ambiguous said that in the moment, they froze, and language eluded them altogether: They said nothing. Because those words are inherently confrontational, they can require a degree of strength that someone who is feeling pressured or confused or is just losing her nerve or changing her mind might not have.

. . . One phrase that might work is “red zone” — as in, “Hey, we’re in a red zone,” or “This is starting to feel too red zone.” Descriptive and matter-of-fact, it would not implicitly assign aggressor and victim, but would flatly convey that danger — emotional, possibly legal — lay ahead. Such a phrase could serve as a linguistic proxy for confronting or demanding, both options that can seem impossible in the moment. “We’re in a red zone” — the person who utters that is not a supplicant (“Please stop”); or an accuser (“I told you to stop!”). Many young women are uncomfortable in either of those roles; I know I was.

I understand what Dominus is trying to do, but I don't think it will work. Twenty-five years after I registered for college, we're still searching for an alternative to the stark simplicity of "No."  And unfortunately, there's just no substitute. If you want to "teach men not to rape" -- a formulation that floated around the Internet a lot in the days after the Rolling Stone story was published -- then you need to give them a rule that can be clearly articulated, and followed even if you've had a few.

That's why "no means no" worked so well, even if it wasn't perfect. It's a heuristic that even a guy who's been sucking at the end of a three-story beer funnel can remember and put into practice. The rule obviously needed some refinement, by adding other equally clear rules -- like "if she's stumbling drunk or vomiting, just pretend she said no, because she's not legally capable of consent." But the basic idea, of listening to what the woman is saying, not some super-secret countersignals you might think she is sending, is exactly the sort of rule that we need in the often-confusing, choose-your-own-adventure world of modern sexual mores.

Compare that with "we're in the red zone." What does that mean? It seems to me that a guy can take this one of two ways: either as "no," or as something less than "no," something which means that there's still hope and he should consider asking again in 15 minutes. If it means "less than no, but maybe more than yes," then we haven't fixed things; we've just added another layer of confusion. 

But I don't think that's what Dominus is after. I think what she's actually seeking is a way to deliver a definite refusal without having to say the word "no." And being of that same generation of women, one that often goes to absurd lengths to avoid even mild refusals, such as declining to purchase goods or services we don't want, I certainly wish that there were a reliable way to deliver the message without saying the words.

But as millions of time-share owners can attest, there is no substitute for a clear "no."  My generation has spent decades trying to make things sound less unpleasant by coining new words to replace the older, harsh-sounding ones. The result of this "euphemism treadmill," as Steven Pinker has dubbed it, is not that everyone moves to a new, higher plane, free of the old unpleasantness; it's that the new word takes on all the disagreeable connotations of the old one, and then people start looking for a new euphemism. 

"Water closet" becomes "toilet" (originally a term for any body care, as in "toilet kit"), which becomes "bathroom", which becomes "rest room," which becomes "lavatory." "Garbage collection" turns into "sanitation," which turns into "environmental services."

The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge: give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. (We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when the names for minorities stay put.)

It is not the word "no" that women are struggling with; it is the concept of utter refusal. That is what has to change, not the words to describe it. It is perhaps unfair that this burden should be placed on women, especially when we are socialized to be accommodating and "nice" (especially to men). Unfortunately, no one else can bear the burden of deciding who we want to have sex with, and then articulating it forcefully.

Nor should feminists be eager to help women avoid the burden of deciding, and then stating their opinion in the strongest possible terms. "No" and "I don't want to" are great tools for women to master. For centuries, society protected nice middle-class women from having to use them by deciding what we wanted, and punishing anyone who wanted anything else. Now that those rules are gone, some feminists are essentially advocating handing the burden of deciding what we want over to ... men, who are supposed to guess whether we are offering "affirmative consent," and be punished if they guess wrong.

The affirmative consent rules are, in my opinion, completely unworkable as either a social or a legal norm. But even worse than that, they give back the power we fought so hard to win: the power to make our own decisions, and then to reap the rewards, or suffer the consequences, of what we decide. "No means no" is a good enough rule.  It is not good enough to defeat every psychopath who is willing to use drugs or a man's superior strength to take what is not offered freely, but it is certainly good enough to defeat a "rape culture" that says women don't really know what they want, or deserve to have their desires respected.

But even a good rule needs good women to make it work: proud of our decisiveness, confident in our right to self-determination, courageous enough to bear the awkwardness of disappointing those who badly want what we don't want to give. Women need to learn "no" not just to protect themselves from aggressive men in the bedroom, but also to make themselves more powerful in the world outside. We need to embrace "no" in all areas of life, and teach men to expect to hear it from us more often. We need to insist on our own right to have opinions about everything, and to have our opinions count for just as much as a man's do.

So we need to tell men "no means no," and that fierce punishment will follow any violation of this simple rule. But we women also need to tell them "I mean no," not "we're in the red zone" or "I shouldn't -- I have an early class tomorrow." Most important, however, is what we need to tell women: that the power of "no" is their inalienable birthright, and that those who are given such great gifts have an obligation to use them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net