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    10 MIN READ

    How to receive a no

    The golden rule: If no doesn’t feel like an option, then yes isn’t a choice.

    When it comes to consenting to sex, traditional sex education teaches us that “a yes is a yes and a no is a no”. In reality though, this is a limited view of consent that excludes all the nuances and sexual diversity. Being turned on and wanting to sex, and agreeing to sex because you believe you “should” are not the same things, even though they both sound like a yes. The global phenomenon of the #MeToo movement helped uncover how often we as humans are coerced into a “yes” when our bodies are saying “no”. 

    Saying yes to something that you don’t really want to, is called violating your own consent. We do this because we’re socialised to tolerate and endure things that cause us discomfort, putting other people’s needs and pleasure before our own. This applies not only to sex but our day-to-day lives as a direct product of the patriarchal values of our society. The only way to combat these toxic expectations is to create new self-advocacy practices by being self-aware enough to create realistic boundaries, tuning into our bodies and honouring our energetic limitations (which might include responding with a no). 

    It’s particularly critical on those drunk taxi rides back to a stranger’s house, realising you’re actually freaking out about the expectation of getting naked when you arrive at their apartment. Especially because when you jumped into the taxi you thought you were down to fuck. It looks like being in a long-term relationship where you’re tired but your partner’s libido is running high at bed time. It looks like really enjoying making out with your partner, but they rush ahead of you and start taking your pants off before you’re ready, sending you into an anxiety spiral directly related to a bad sexual encounter you had once. 

    Pushing someone to say yes or to accept your desires when they really don’t want to, is called violating someone else’s consent. And sometimes, regardless of our gender, we don’t even realise how close to the line we might be.

    We’ve enlisted our Sealed Section’s resident sexologist, Kass Mourikis, to help us understand how to deal with “no’s” when they are given to us, and to help us learn how to express our own “no”’s more unashamedly. 

    ACKNOWLEDGING GENDER ROLES AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE

    Though the extremes of rape and sexual violence are often cis-male perpetrated against non cis-males, all genders are at risk of having yes’s stolen from them. It’s easy to forget societally that males are not the sex machines we often hear of them as, and if you’ve been perpetrated by someone else, it can be really difficult to unlearn fear towards them. But as a woman, how many times have you asked a guy if he wants a blow job before going down on him? Even if you’re 90% sure he wants you to blow his mind, 10% doubt is really too much.

    Because of the prominence of sexual violence, we have to go above and beyond to create open conversations in sexual situations where a “no” can come out honestly and safely. This means when we drift into situations where people’s intentions aren’t clear, we are confident and resilient enough within ourselves to hear the explicit or non-explicit no’s and still have a good time. By doing this we also create a culture where a “yes” means more, opening us up to greater intimacy and better sex.

    OVERCOMING SHAME 

    ANON: My boyfriend sometimes doesn’t want to have sex when I am really in the mood. I find it really embarrassing and feel like I’m coming on too strong. It makes me feel kind of monstrous and unsexy, like I just want to pretend like I never asked, and never want to take the lead in the bedroom again? 

    KASS: When you ask a question really hoping for (or expecting) a yes, getting a no instead can be hurtful and trigger feelings of shame. It’s not a particularly easy time to navigate something logically either, with so many hormones running through our bodies. 

    Because these moments are more common than you think, it’s really good to question our sense of entitlement to a yes, and ask ourselves why hearing a no can make us feel so weird. 

    It’s important that once we become aware of this, we give ourselves time to sit with our discomfort. This practice is called conscious shame awareness. It’s never fun to feel rejected but our desires are not always in sync with our partners. It’s often got nothing to do with how your partner feels about you , and can be affected by many factors in life. Things that impact sexual desire are so vast and include stress, oppression, exhaustion, carrying the mental load, mental illness, feeling misunderstood or unseen, body image, trauma, relationship challenges or ongoing conflict. 

    If your partner has said no, and you’ve tried to push the issue (aka been a little too forward) you may be feeling some guilt or shame about the situation.

    NB * Guilt = feeling like you’ve done something bad and Shame = feeling like you are inherently bad or broken.

    Signs of shame include having flushed cheeks, noticing your chin starting to wobble, shutting down emotionally, getting defensive, feeling aggressive or wanting to run away from a situation. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s important to give yourself permission to be honest about these emotions and remove the label of “good” or “bad” from them. Judging the way you feel makes shame feel more intense when it arises.

    The opposite of shame is pride, empathy, self-compassion, and free self-expression. The ideal outcome in this situation is that you and your partner can both feel understood, and a plan forward may consider why your partner’s libido is low and how rejection in this space impacts you. You might even discuss when might be a better time to be intimate and implement some new communication strategies to catch each-other at a time when your libido is matched up.

    Shame is learnt and it arises when people fall outside of social expectations and norms. When “normal” is defined as the narrow, white, thin, heteronormative, non-disabled range of experiences, anyone with experiences outside of this is likely to feel shame. Shame is an oppressive tool used by societies to control and subdue their members. Shame is the internalisation of these expectations as right or moral and breaking them makes them feel wrong, bad and unworthy. 

    WHAT DOES A “NO” REALLY MEAN

    A no means, “don’t step beyond this point right now”. 

    Don’t let your anxieties trick you.

    + A no does not mean there is something wrong with you. 

    + A no does not mean never (although sometimes it does). 

    + A no does not mean you are less loved. 

    + A no does not mean you are less. 

    What a “no” does actually say is that your partner feels safe enough to tell you how they’re actually feeling. So kudos to you! And if good sex is what you want to be having, that “no” protects you from the kind of experiences you don’t want- the ones that leave those involved feeling weird and worst case, traumatised.

    SPOTTING THE HIDDEN NO

    The reality is that because of internalised trauma, power imbalances and societal expectations, a lot of individuals do not even realise that they are allowed to say no. Instead of pretending this isn’t the case, it’s important to understand what no’s can be hidden as, because a hidden “no” is still a “no”. Sometimes it can even feel unsafe to give a no because it can provoke a dangerous situation or cause greater trauma. The bottom line is, a no is not always easy. 

    Kass’s golden rule is that: If no doesn’t feel like an option, then yes isn’t a choice.

    If there are consequences (real or perceived) that could follow a no, then saying “no” or “not right now” can feel like a last option. It’s really important to check in with your sexual partner to make sure they’re feeling good throughout your intimate experiences. This is part of maintaining the safe, consensual and fun environment. Experimenting with your bedroom voice to find your comfortable expressions can feel awkward, but it can also be a huge turn on and intimate experience. 

    It can be as simple as asking, “Does that feel good?” and making space for your partner’s response.

    If you want to know more about how to sexily ask for consent, our Finding Your Bedroom Voice zine contains a more comprehensive guide to sexy talk.

    CHANGES IN BODY LANGUAGE OR ENERGY

    Part of why sex is so enjoyable is because it is a sensual, sensory experience that takes us away from our thinking logic into our feeling abilities. It’s important to use these feeling abilities to look for non-verbal cues as a crucial part of staying on the same page as your partner, using your awareness of your partner’s body language, and to listen for moans and signs of encouragement. “It’s about listening to a response, asking questions, checking in or stopping when you notice hesitation or silence,” Kass says. “If your partner withdraws within themselves, stops touching, becomes quiet, seems to stop or freeze, then this is an indicator that they don’t feel okay with what’s happening or that their body has entered into a freeze response and they can no longer move”.

    NAVIGATING INTOXICATION

    Where alcohol or drugs are involved in sexual encounters, more needs to be done in preparation to sift out any hidden “no”’s. If you’re too drunk or high to talk about preparing for safe sex, you probably shouldn’t be having it. 

    Kass’s advice: Navigating sex while under the influence is all about having open and honest conversations about consent and safety before and whilst high. Deciding a safe word or using a traffic light system is a useful tool for being sure that everyone involved will respect boundaries. 

    + Red = stop 

    + Yellow = slow down

    + Green = full speed ahead 

    It’s important to trust that all people involved will listen and respond to feedback or immediately stop when consent is withdrawn, and that everyone involved is going to be aware if anyone freezes or dissociates while they’re using and can’t say no.

    The problem with being high and having sex is that one of you may not notice the micro changes in energy and consent because your awareness and ability to detect changes in behaviour has been suppressed. This is why it’s illegal to drive under the influence.

    WHY MIGHT SOMEONE GIVE YOU A NO

    Someone you’re seeing might surprise you with a no to sex because you’re the first person they’ve felt safe enough to express themselves around. 

    A person might not want to have sex for many reasons. They could be tired, they could be feeling insecure, they may be processing recent or old trauma, or quite simply, they may not be aroused. 

    In any case, this person does not owe you an apology for their no, instead, the more understanding you are, the more likely they will be to continue being honest and intimate with you. If you need more information to continue being intimate with someone after they give you a no, that makes you human and you are entitled to ask, but know what your boundaries are in the case of an answer not being readily available. We all have complex and intricate life stories we are coming to terms with, after-all. 

    “Is there anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable?” is always a great debrief and intimacy creating question when your partner has exhibited signs of freeze or withdrawal.

    SELF-AWARENESS AFTER A NO 

    Kass’s challenge: Get clear on your intentions before you ask for sex. 

    Here are some common intimacy needs and ways to meet them when sex is off the table: 

    A need to give or receive pleasure —

    You can sometimes meet that need through solo masturbation, or, negotiating with your partners other ways to experience shared pleasure. This might look like being held by them while you masturbate or asking them if they’d be up for receiving a massage or even just sharing a cuddle. 

    A need to feel connected with your partner —

    Is there something else you could do right now to feel close to them? For example could you watch a movie spooning, go for a bike ride or a walk in nature, could you spend quality time talking or doing something else together?

    A need to feel validated, desired and appreciated by your partner —

    What other ways could your partner let you know that they care about you and appreciate you? How could you show up and validate yourself?

    SO YOU GET TOLD A NO

    Take a breath. Thank your partner. 

    In an ideal world, you want to feel strong enough in yourself to say thank you to your partner for being clear on their consent and being real with their no. The reality is that saying thanks might be tough to do when you’re feeling rejected and wounded. By making an effort to do this, even when you feel uncomfortable, you create a safe space for intimacy and honesty. 

    Even if you’re angry, Kass says thanking your partner for a “no” first is so important: “Directing your anger towards them might even teach them that you’ll be angry or upset with them when they say no, increasing the likelihood of them saying yes when they don’t want to”.

    Practice mindfulness and address your own emotions. 

    After you’ve thanked your partner, listen into what your body is telling you that you need. Practice conscious shame awareness, notice what you’re feeling and accept it for what it is. If you need, do some deep breathing and find your balance. 

    Ask yourself… 

    + What are the names for these feelings I’m experiencing? 

    + When I feel like this, what do I imagine or picture in my mind? Is this positive or negative? 

    + You might also reflect on the meaning you’re making of their no. 

    + What does it mean when your partner says no? 

    + What does it feel like they’re rejecting? 

    Once you’ve able to figure out what a no feels so bad, you can take steps to meet that need.

    RESPONDING TO A NO 

    Acknowledging a no with your response is an important part of any healthy sexual interaction. Worst case scenario, you might need a bit of time to process your emotions. Or, you stumble through your words. Don’t be afraid of showing your humanness and remember that no-one is responsible for your emotions except you. 

    Here are some ways you can respond to a no when you’re ready: 

    “Woah, thank you for your no. I’m grateful for your honesty, I just realised how set I was on having sex so I feel like I need to do something to sort myself out.” 2. “Thank you for being honest with me, I appreciate you.” 3. “If you’re a no, I’m a no.” (probably not this one but, also 👉👈) 4. “Cool, thank you. I feel a little weird that you’re uncomfortable, not going to lie, but I think I just need time to sit with my insecurities for a moment.” 5. “I wasn’t expecting that response if I’m honest, I think I need to take some time to process how I’m feeling”.

    AFTER THE NO 

    A no to sex doesn’t always mean a no to the intimacy of the relationship. Here are some of Kass’s suggestions for things you can do after you hear a “no”: 

    + Talk candidly about why the no happened and when it’s happened before

    + Bake cookies

    + Ask to cuddle

    + Kiss, and only kiss

    + Watch a movie or cook together

    + Take some alone time to journal

    + Go for a walk

    + Go for a bike ride or plan an adventure together

    + Do some bad art

    + Dance

    If you receive a no to sex, the world is your oyster, albeit a sexless one for that instant. 

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