Sorry, “no” doesn’t always mean “no”

This article is actually extracted from a Usenet post I made in alt.mens-rights back on December 9, 1994.

What do I think of what I wrote when I was 21 years old, looking back at it now more than two decades later? I would never write this article today. In a society where sexism and the abuse of women are all too common, the fundamental message behind “no means no” is critically important and should not be derailed by pedantic analyses and “what about”-isms. There can be appropriate times and places to engage in a nuanced discussion of how permission and consent work in scenarios ranging from “playing coy” to outright bondage; but those discussions should never be used as an excuse to beat back important messages like “no means no” or the real social problems that they are intended to address.

I am leaving my original words below, however, unedited. They are a reminder to myself of where I have come from intellectually and how I’ve grown, as well as a reminder to others that people change and mature over time, and that any life (your own or anyone else’s) should be judged by its trajectory and not by a snapshot.

No, no doesn't always mean no.

The problem with the “no means no” slogan is that it simply isn’t always true, and everyone knows it.

Honestly, there are times when I say “no” to my boyfriend but am in fact hoping he will turn me on enough, with further foreplay, to change my mind. Frequently he does. And when it does not work, I am very clear about it. I don’t say in a meek little voice, “Uh… honey dearest? I’m not entirely sure I am in the mood this very second.” I make it clear what I want, and what I don’t want. I consider it my responsibility to do so.

Here’s the biggest point, though: We’ve talked about it. I think this is the thing lacking in a lot of sexual encounters. “No” can mean “yes”–but everyone has to be aware of when it does and does not. Some people have little symbol systems, so they can act out saying “no” to someone and still be pursued, but clap their hands or use a safe word (or whatever) and have it mean really stop.

But I think it is detrimental to the causes of communication and equality to push the line “no always means no” because so many people have experiences and fetishes that demonstrate it to not be true. And I don’t just mean males having fantasies about women saying no and not meaning it–I mean women (and men) actually enjoying the ability to say no and yet continue to be pursued.

Personally, I’d like to change the slogan. Instead of “No means No” we need No means Know: communicate and understand what your partner is thinking. Get that meaning in more than one word.

If all you have to go on is a single word–whether that word is “no” or “yes”–it is worthless.