On Sex and Saying No

Designed by Anasthasia Shilov

I remember the first time I felt desire, and I remember the first time I felt fear. 

I have pages upon pages of entries in a bright yellow spiral journal I brought to summer camp describing the intense and foreign, full-body sensation of holding my first boyfriend’s hand and suddenly being overwhelmed with want, with awareness of the texture of his skin and of every contour of his face and of how it would feel between my thighs. When I went to visit him in the fall, my best friend made me a manual featuring step-by-step instructions for giving the ideal blowjob. “Good luck,” she said. In his parents’ bathroom, I trembled as I unfolded the sheet of loose leaf. Rendered and labeled in orange marker, “shaft” and “balls (touch)” looked back at me like terms to memorize for an exam. 

You will probably not be surprised to hear that it did not go well. But he asked. I blushed. We continually course-corrected, but no one came. We fell asleep holding hands. 

These early encounters with intimacy are awkward. They are painfully adolescent. And often, they are scary. But they are scary because we are scared: of our bodies, our desires, our partners. 

It is extremely important to me that I name the fear intermingled with the self-actualization I felt with that first boyfriend. We need tools—and experience using them—to process and transform the anxiety and ambiguity inherent to the expression of sexuality into something not just acceptable, but attractive. And I am concerned that the first and only tool we teach is “no.”

Focusing on “no” deepens rather than dispels fear. We constantly monitor our compliance with a bare-minimum standard, and in doing so lose sight of how much more than that sex is, can and should be. We ask for permission rather than pleasure; “Is this okay?” is a shallow, selfish substitute for reciprocal desire. A myopic focus on whether or not you’re breaking the rules is not conducive to positive, mutualistic sexual experiences; our ability to assess and respond to our partners’ needs is obstructed by a totalizing fear of violating their boundaries. When we are constantly engaged in comparison between what we’re doing and one very specific, legalistic standard of what consent can look like, we lose the specialness of the moment, our access to our own wants, and our ability to be fully present. Sex education has been subsumed by consent education, a kind of pod-person substitution which has rendered us unable to process the extent of the loss. Intimacy and pleasure have been excised from the curriculum. The result is to imply that such things are frivolous, the consequences of which are devastating. 

Sex is iterative; in order to have good sex, most people will first have a lot of bad sex. The other danger of the reductiveness of “no” is that if our only means of identifying why the sex we’re having might be bad is that it is nonconsensual, we all too readily apply that label to sex that just isn’t good. In doing so, we deny ourselves agency. We should be empowered in our sexual relationships to ask for the kind of foreplay that we know turns us on, the positions that we know feel good, the affection that makes us feel safe. We need knowledge and practice—which we learn from previous relationships as well as from taking our solo-sex practices seriously and treating our bodies affectionately—to make those asks. “No” as be-all, end-all preempts the conversation. 

Talking not just about boundaries but desires is not necessarily an aseptic, awkward prescription. Specificity communicates self-possession, which is sexy, especially when it follows phrases like “I want” or “It would be so hot for me if.” “No” is a hugely important word; I do not mean to diminish the radical potential of a “no.” But what makes you want to say yes? What makes you want to moan it?

Paradoxically, the fixation on “no” makes it harder to actually say no, both because “no” becomes an emergency—a do-or-die, black-and-white determination about whether an Assault Is Actively Taking Place, which makes it harder to respond with compassion and care—and because we do not talk about what comes after a no. The didactic consent paradigms we are taught in institutional settings privilege very specific kinds of communication, attachment and embodiment, which are often incompatible with the trauma responses of survivors. (Having previously had “no”s or nonverbal signals of distress disregarded by a partner makes it a lot harder to feel safe & secure articulating your needs.) “If consent has to be unambiguous, that would make it the only thing in life that is unambiguous,” a friend said to me as I wrote this piece. When nonverbal consent is mentioned as a valid practice, it’s left abstract. Our sex education needs to identify the specific shapes those practices can take—a nod, a moan, a caress. Everyone is gratified and turned on by their partner’s perceptible enthusiasm. 

So when a partner says “no,” it is understandably scary. We might feel rejected, hurt, and scared. In the past, I’ve said “no” and been met with silent acquiescence—my partner turning their back to me and pulling the covers up. Even if no boundaries were violated, we both felt punished. We need to reframe “no” as an expression of trust and care rather than as a rebuff. Popular consent-education phrases like “thank you for sharing your boundary with me” are a start, if a somewhat pedantic one, but we need to be both honest (“that makes me worry that I did something wrong”) and inquisitive (“did I do something wrong? What could I do instead that would make you feel good, now or in the future? What would make you feel like I’m listening?”). 

On this campus, few people have ever really heard “no.” Nineteen out of twenty Yale applicants are rejected; to be here is to be part of an elite and entitled few. An effective harm reduction approach to combatting sexual violence requires naming and trying to process that entitlement, our deep-seated aversion to rejection. Efforts to combat sexual violence in a vacuum are doomed to fail, both because they facilitate the collapse of distinctions between bad sex and assault by denying people the tools they need to identify and intervene in unsuccessful sexual encounters and because they make pleasure a superficial, secondary concern. 

And honestly, even the word “pleasure” falls short of encompassing the whole of what sex and sexuality can be—an embodied experience of relationality, togetherness, the messiness of personhood. When I flip through the pages of my yellow summer-camp journal, I feel such a tangle of emotions. My descriptions of arousal are halting, uncertain, steeped in shame and the pervading anxiety I felt about developing an erotic identity. But that doesn’t mean the process isn’t worthwhile. A one-word vocabulary of “no” stifles the deeply necessary development of our sexual selves; if you want more (and I know you do), say so—show me. 

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