Being taught how to say no with confidence is conspicuously missing from Sex and Relationship Education (SRE). Consent needs to underpin every sexual interaction and the ability to communicate what you want is crucial. It is ridiculous to teach young people to correctly use condoms if you don’t also teach them to stand their ground when a douchey partner refuses to wear one.
Teaching people to say no sounds a bit abstract, but there are some easily accessible and concrete exercises you can do. These will help to build up your boundaries and get you to a place where you feel comfortable maintaining them.
Feel your own boundaries (and yourself)
Saying no (and yes!) is much easier when you know what you want to say yes or no to. This sounds pretty obvious – but women are socialized to avoid their own sexual desires. Women are taught from a young age that sexual desire is only for men and “deviant women.” “Nice girls” are both innocent yet accommodating to the wants of their partners, even if said partners want something they expect to hurt the women they are with.
Key conversations can become super one-sided if you know you’re DTF, but you don’t know much more than that. Quite often your prospective partner can end up having total control of those early chats about likes and dislikes, just by virtue of being able to suggest your activities.
There can also be a huge amount of pressure that if you say no to one sex act, you have to counter with another idea – and if you can’t, you should go along with the next one your partner comes up with, lest you look “prudish” (ick). That’s not ok – consent is not throwing a list of sex acts at a person until they give up and say yes to the least objectionable one, it’s a negotiation where all parties get to share what they like and find a set of sexy activities that make everyone happy. But how do you get there?
Masturbation lets you get to know your body, know what feels good, where you like pressure, where you don’t. Using sex toys can also let you know what is important to you – do you enjoy penetration? Does your clit get super sensitive after an orgasm? Does butt stuff make you tingley, but in an awesome way? This knowledge helps you create a map of your body, which gives you the ability to direct what you want and also helps you say what is off limits. But boundaries are not just physical. Masturbation lets you explore fantasies in a safe place where you can really let your imagination run wild. Pornography can be an excellent tool here – what words are used to describe the actors bodies or the sex that they are having? Does this take you out of the fantasy or pull you in deeper? Think about the answers to these questions and it will give you so much more confidence to stand your ground in the bedroom. It’s hard to centre your pleasure and to have your pleasure taken seriously when you don’t know what that looks like. Take the time to find your buzz – after all knowledge is power.
Learn to acknowledge what being uncomfortable feels like
Once you know what makes you feel good, it’s worthwhile taking a second to know what it feels like to have your boundaries pushed. We know what it feels like when we feel a little ick about something – but time and again women are told to disregard what their bodies are telling them. From diets that tell you to ignore your body’s hunger, to the widespread practice of doctors dismissing women’s pain, to even the concept of women’s intuition being ridiculed next to a man’s gut instinct, women are told to ignore themselves. Often women are taught to ignore pain or discomfort during sex (“oh, but your first time is meant to hurt”, “no girl really enjoys anal, you just put up with it until it’s over”) or go along with sex acts they aren’t 100% sure they are into (“come on, don’t be a prude,” “wow, I didn’t expect you to be so frigid”). We need to unlearn this bullshit and listen to ourselves and when we feel those warnings, signs let them be known. The vast majority of the time you will be with someone who wants you to be having fun too – so they’ll be happy you told them! And if they don’t care? Get the hell out of there.
If you are asked anything that seems open to interpretation, demand clarity. You cannot reasonably answer a question you don’t fully understand. Because women are taught to be polite, to err on the side of “no, he couldn’t fancy me, I have x things wrong with my body,” it is really easy to feel like you have to say yes to an ambiguous ask out, and hope it’s just a friends thing. Try to remind yourself it is impossible to meaningfully consent to something if you don’t know what the thing is! This also applies to “Netflix and chill?” type questions. Demand clarity – is that a request for sex? Do you need condoms? What’s on offer? Will you need to take lube? (I mean, always – you can never have enough lube). These questions can be turned into some pretty hot sexting sessions to get you worked up pre-sex session, but they are important. And anyone who wants to leave you in the dark, isn’t being respectful.
Be your own Bestie
Have you ever had a friend tell you a super sketchy story about non-consensual sex that they then passed off as a minor inconvenience? And then when you tried to tell her how bad it sounds, she gets really defensive? We are so used to minimizing our dodgy experiences as a defense mechanism; it’s hard to shake off even if you are surrounded by fierce, feminist friends.
Whenever you start to feel your boundaries being pushed at, and you start making excuses or minimizing how you are feeling, take a second and imagine your best friend describing the situation you are in, then take the advice you would give her.
In a perfect world, free of patriarchy, saying no would still be tricky – we can all empathise with the person who has put themselves out there and been turned down. But it is so important to remind yourself that part of putting yourself out there is the knowledge that things won’t always go your way. It is always the askers responsibility to look for a clear and enthusiastic “Yes!” and if they don’t get it, to act like an adult. You always have the right to say no, to demand clarity and to leave uncomfortable situations and never let anyone tell you otherwise. – HR
Heather is a London based freelance consent workshop facilitator and general sex education nerd. She started teaching sex ed at uni despite being a maths undergrad. She is a committed sex positive feminist and proud Northerner. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherConsent.