When “Yes” Means “No” – And Why We Need to Start Paying Attention

We all know the story. Women don’t report on sexual assault because they will be victim-blamed, they will be questioned, they will be judged, and they may be forced to see their assailant in a courtroom if they ever choose to press charges (and would be at risk of being re-traumatized). Further, discussion about sex in any way is a very personal topic, and even more so when you add on a traumatic memory, so “going public” is even more uncomfortable and scary. It’s an undeniable truth that sexual assault claims are always loaded with judgement and repercussions for the woman, and for this reason there is a very real danger in reporting on both a personal and professional level.

There are already enough road-blocks to reporting, but on top of this, in many cases, women themselves feel responsible for, at least part of, what happened (even though they aren’t). They don’t feel that things were black and white enough that they can stand up to being questioned in front of a jury – or questioned by anyone – even when they know what happened was wrong. They know they will be questioned about how much they drank and what they wore, how they walked home with the person, agreed to let that person come in for a drink. These are the assaults that happen by acquaintances, dates, or other people women know in some way in their lives (around 85-90 % of all sexual assaults on college campuses are by someone the woman knows).

So sometimes, yes, it’s black and white. A woman was attacked in a park at night. In an alleyway. There was clear violence and aggression, she said no, she fought. Or she was drugged. These are indisputable wrongs. But then there are the times that something happened that wasn’t right, and while there wasn’t any violence, or there wasn’t any obvious drugging, or that woman didn’t (or wasn’t able to) say no out loud – even though she didn’t say yes. So she feels guilty because she didn’t fight. She didn’t slap him and knee him and try to get away, as the heroic women that make the newspaper headlines do – because maybe he was a friend. So she feels guilty she wasn’t tough enough, wasn’t strong enough, and wasn’t aware enough – even though this is still not her fault. It was not your fault.

This guilt, this not being able to say no, this has already been talked about. I’ve read the great articles floating around social media, and people are paying attention.

But no one is talking about what I’ve been thinking about more and more with each young woman I meet in counselling confidentially. The women that never have and never will report. Because they can’t, even though something awful has happened to them.

What keeps them silent is beyond the fear and the guilt and the victim blaming. It is beyond our current definition of rape and assault.

It’s when you say yes – but you didn’t want to have to.

You didn’t want to have to say yes, to do those things, to mutter an assent and then stay very still when something was happening that you didn’t want to have happen. To scream in your head and stay silent out of necessity.

It is when you feel that you have to go along with something for fear of other repercussions. When you aren’t given enough time to think through what is happening. When you are pressured in a situation that it is unsafe to really say “no.”  When a situation is created with no other safe “out.” When you have to say “yes” because you were being threatened or otherwise manipulated in ways you didn’t even understand yourself.

If you were to look at sexual assault statistics and include these women as well – I think the 1 in 6 statistics would be SHATTERED. I would suggest that this number could be as high as 5 in 6 women who have experienced an unwelcome sexual experience, even if they said “yes.” Maybe a full 6 in 6.

These are the stories we aren’t hearing at all.

We don’t hear about the women who said “yes” to their boss but wish they didn’t have to, because they needed that job security for their own future and to say “no” would have been a different kind of death sentence; of losing a house – of defaulting on mortgage payments – of losing benefits and income they needed to survive and to enjoy their lives.

We don’t hear about the women who said “yes” in a dangerous situation, knowing that a “no” could have been far worse. The women that couldn’t predict what angering that man might do – if he would blow up and attack them, or force them to do something anyway, which could be far worse in the end (especially if that man were a boss, friend, or acquaintance). The women who felt that the risk wasn’t worth it, but didn’t want to have to make that call in the first place.

We don’t hear about the women who said “yes” in a situation to get a job or a promotion or a position, feeling that in this world, as a woman, that was the only way for them to get into an industry or on a certain career path. The women who felt cornered with no other option due to fear and manipulation by a person in power. The women who had their futures hanging on a line they wished they didn’t have to cross.

Women are more than just being assaulted. We are being systematically told that any type of sexual advance is our responsibility to deal with. We are the ones responsible for saying “no” even in dangerous situations, unfair situation, or even when it might cost us our jobs. Even when it holds us back from job security, opportunities, or promotions. We “have the right to say no” but we really don’t have that right. We have it – but when we take it, we lose. We lose opportunities, we lose male friends, we lose our safety; we lose however we play it.

We have the right to say “no” – and we can take it – but it’s going to cost us. Because no one is going to give us that job back if we did say no – not in reality (even though we’d like to think so). No one is able to turn back time on any physical harm that may come to us if we had said no and the man had turned violently aggressive. No one is going to give the job or give the opportunity to the woman that says no instead of the one that says yes in far too many industry situations. So to tell women they have the right to say no is true – but it’s not. Women have the right – but as a woman, you still pay the price. Either way, you pay the price.

Of the women I have seen in counselling over the years, and even friends and acquaintances I have heard stories from over the years, I might be so bold as to say there hasn’t been a single woman I know who hasn’t felt trapped, cornered, or put in a situation that she wishes she didn’t have to be in, where she was the sole person responsible for “making that call” to have to decide to say yes or no. Where she was the sole person that had to make the call if something wasn’t right, or fair, or safe. Women, not men, have to constantly assess what is going on and “say yes or no.” And sometimes this analysis we are forced to do in our heads is really a “no” – but the only option at the time is to “yes” because women know the costs. And women have no recourse for this, because, after all they “could have said no.” The power was “technically” in their hands.

But it wasn’t.

So here is my call to men – stop putting women in those situations where all the responsibility for these situations falls on the woman. Stop pushing and pushing and pushing, thinking that it’s all okay so long as she says “yes” before you do anything because then it’s not “technically” rape. And no court of law would ever prosecute you. But if you have to push her that hard – there’s a good chance she really means no EVEN if she said “yes.” You just didn’t make her feel like she ACTUALLY had the option.

Aggressive pursuit of sexual intimacy of any kind just doesn’t make sense. Even if you get a “yes” after an aggressive pursuit, there’s a good chance you’ve made that woman feel like she doesn’t really have a “no” option. And so you assault her anyway, but in a way that you can feel good and safe about on your end, while she lives with that regret and that shame for the rest of her life. That she wasn’t strong enough, that she wasn’t fast enough, and that should couldn’t come up with a better solution at the time.

Men: Take some responsibility in these situations and assess if this is something that should really happen. Should you really be pushing so hard? Is your relationship with that woman going to affect her ability to feel safe in actually saying no? Are your advances appropriate, even if she did say “yes” at the time? Should you be making the call yourself to back off, instead of waiting for her to have to be the strong one?

Because women are the ones paying the price. We have to be on constant alert. We have scripts written in our heads of what to say, what to do, how to say no “nicely” so we don’t get in trouble for it. We have methods to distract men away from their advances, we have friends to help intervene, and we have plans on what to do if something goes wrong. This shouldn’t be all on us.

We need men to stand up for what is right and to stop putting us in these positions where we are the ones that have to “make that call.” Stop putting us there. It’s not right. It’s not all on us.

It’s breaking us.


P.S. I want to acknowledge the men that already do this – and thank you. I have also heard encouraging stories from men in counselling, who told me that they took the girl they liked back home drunk to help them stay safe, and when she made an advance on them, they turned her down saying that when she was sober they could talk about it again. The men that told me that even though they were interested in someone at their workplace – a junior employee – they felt it wasn’t right to push that decision on that woman so they moved on. The men that are watching and listening to our struggle and our pain and helping to take some responsibility.

I want to also acknowledge the men that find themselves in these situations, and my call to women – just because men do it to us, doesn’t mean we should also do it to them. It doesn’t make it right. Don’t corner a man in a situation where he doesn’t feel he can safely say no, either.

Thanks for reading. Please share.