Content warning for sexual assault, rape, victim blaming and awkward metaphors.
Since when did sexual propositions use the same techniques as the guy who tries to sell broadband to me as I walk through the high street?
You know the ones. I dread walking past them.
“Oh no. It’s those people who are going to try to sell me broadband… steer clear… steer clear…” I think frantically. Look busy. Look distracted. Stare at a shop window. Pretend to be on the…
“Hello there, miss! Have you got a moment to talk about your broadband?”
Oh shit, they got me. I blush and feel guilty that I don’t want to talk to them about broadband. I already have broadband. I am on my way to work. I don’t have time to talk about broadband right now. I wouldn’t buy it from a guy in the street anyway.
“Um I’m not interested at this time, thank you.” I mutter, embarrassed. I try to keep walking but he blocks my way. I know it won’t work.
He grins a big fake smile at me, “How do you know? You’ve not seen the deal yet!!”
Shit, I think. “Please, I’m really not interested…” I pause and think of a reason why I am not interested, “Uhhh, I already have broadband!”
This one never works but I always try it.
“Ahhh I bet our broadband is better! We can double your speed!”
I can feel myself getting flustered and annoyed. I just want to get to work on time but he’s blocking my direction and walking in front of me whilst trying to hook me in.
I try again, “I’m really not interested, I’m really sorry. I just need to hurry as I need to get to work for 9am…”
He is not remotely concerned; he presses on.
“Ah that’s okay, this will only take 2 minutes. Will you give me two minutes? I can convince you in two minutes!”
This is getting awkward now. I need to leave, and he won’t stop talking to me.
“No, I am sorry, but I don’t have two minutes,” I reply, looking down at my feet in embarrassment and trying to edge away.
“Okay darling, one minute? I can do it in one minute if you like?”
Now I’m angry and I look him in the eye, “Look, I’ve told you a number of times. I’m not interested!”
His salesman smile drops into a frown. A frustrated frown.
“Whatever!” He snaps at me and walks off, clearly furious.
You might be thinking how familiar that sounds. You might also be thinking why I am talking about the broadband-guy in a blog about victim blaming.
Well, it occurred to me that we have a serious problem with women being able to say ‘No’ – and then not having to give a reason. This blog will explore the connotations and techniques of women not being able to assert that they just don’t want attention or sex.
It is extremely common for women to experience harassment, abuse or violence when they say ‘No’ to a relationship, unwanted attention or sex. 65% of women report experiencing street harassment from men, 23% had been sexually touched by someone in the street and 20% had been followed (stopstreetharassment.org, 2016). In 2017, a BBC survey revealed that over half of women had been sexually harassed by men in their workplace. Another example of violence when faced with a female saying ‘No’ is sexual assault and rape. RAINN report that 1 in 6 women report experiencing rape or attempted rape.
We also know this because women can usually reel off many instances of this happening to them, without even trying. I can guarantee that the thousands of women who read my blog have personal experiences of trying to say no, and their refusal being ignored.
I can think of some now, right off the top of my head:
- In 2013 I was in a bar with my friend when a guy kept trying to touch me and put his arms around my waist. I didn’t know him, and I kept telling him to leave me alone. He ignored me and eventually I lost my temper and yelled at him to stop touching me so he grabbed me and bit my shoulder until I dropped to the floor. I think he ran off because when I managed to get up, he was gone.
- In 2014, I was walking through my town centre when a man started telling me I was beautiful and sexy. I told him repeatedly that I wasn’t interested and asked him to go away. I told him I was married and so on. He didn’t care. Eventually, he got the message and responded by yelling at the top of his voice ‘I’m not interested in you, get away from me you dirty fat slag!’
- In 2017, I was sexually attacked by a man I had never met on the night I celebrated creating the BOWSVA psychometric measure (irony, right?). I had gone out for dinner and wine with another academic to celebrate my results and months of hard work. A guy in his late forties kept hitting on me and I just asked him to leave me alone. Out of nowhere it seemed, he grabbed me and started to sexually assault me. He was so strong and I was so small compared to him. Whilst he assaulted me, he told me it was his birthday and he was entitled to me.
I know women reading this will be nodding, I know they will be thinking – yep, sounds familiar.
So, lets explore why ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘No’. Then, we will discuss why this leads to victim blaming of women who experience sexual violence and abuse.
- Accept the damn compliment!
The first stage of sexual harassment is usually complimentary. Completely unwanted, but complimentary. You’re gorgeous. You’re sexy. You’re wonderful. You give them a hard on. Real romantic stuff like that. It’s quite common for women to become embarrassed and thank the guy. ‘Oh, thanks…’ or even just give an awkward smile.
‘Smile at the creep, maybe he will leave me alone. Keep walking. Don’t look back…’
So why do women do that? Why do women who receive completely unwanted comments about their bodies or their looks, thank the harasser or smile at them?
There are two main answers. The first is that women are taught that their looks are their greatest asset and that being complimented on having a sexually attractive body by Mr. Random is the pinnacle of female success. Therefore, a woman who is told by a passer-by that she’s hot or sexy, must accept that compliment, and be happy about it. In a hypersexualised society where sex sells and women are sold – this is the gold standard. Men just falling over themselves to tell you that they would ‘give you one’ is seen as evidence that you must be stunning, and you can’t expect men to be able to keep quiet when you are that tantalising. Can you?
The second answer is that women and girls are socialised into their gender role to be nice and polite, even when someone is being a complete bellend. Women who assert themselves are often called ‘aggressive’ or ‘bossy’, for example. Women are expected to be well mannered, ‘nice’ and pleasant to everyone at all times. Stepping out of that gender role box will result in her being reframed as an angry bitch.
- Apologising that you are not interested in them
Linked to the ‘nice, polite woman’ gender role stereotype, we have the awkward and embarrassed mutters of ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m not interested’ or ‘I’m really sorry but, no thank you.’ I’m struggling to understand why we are sorry… why are we sorry for them? Are we sorry for them? What are women apologising for when they say sorry to a guy like this:
“Eh up sexy, what’s your name then? Want a drink?”
“Ummm, I’m really sorry.. but.. I’m not interested.”
The answer? Women apologise in advance for saying no. Women are apologising for contradicting male entitlement. The man who has approached her in this way expects her to be flattered, to take the compliment, to want the drink. Women know that saying ‘no’ is risky business, so they apologise before they say no. They convey apologies for not being interested in the man, despite the fact that they don’t owe them a thing. Not even an apology. Or a response.
- Apologising again, and then saying ‘I have a boyfriend/I am married!’
This one is really important. This one is a real kicker. When some men hear ‘No’ and continue to persist, the next stage is to use this line. Some women say it because it is true. Some women say it when it is not true. But why do they say it to men who persist? And more concerningly, why does it often work?
“Oh come on, don’t you want a drink? You’re gorgeous!”
“Umm, sorry but I have a boyfriend…”
The depressing answer to this is wrapped up in ownership of females and male competition. When a woman says ‘no’, it is rarely enough for a man to stop harassing or pursuing her, and the woman knows that. But when a woman replies that she is ‘taken’ by a boyfriend or husband, many men accept that she ‘belongs’ to another man – and the ‘no’ becomes validated. Interestingly, I know lesbian women who are in relationships or married to other women who also say that they have a boyfriend or husband because they have learned that revealing that they are gay and have a female partner just makes the situation worse. Some lesbians have learned that the ‘male ownership’ lie works – and men leave them alone. You know, rather than asking them for a threesome.
Think about it. If you are a woman, how many times have you used this line of refusal when your first three ‘no’s didn’t work? If you are a man, how many times have women told you that they have a boyfriend or husband to stop you from sexually pursuing them? Why was the presence (real or imagined) of another man, the factor that made you realise that she wasn’t interested?
Why was an imaginary boyfriend or husband more authoritative than her first three ‘no’s?
- I’m better/fitter/nicer/richer than him!
However, what happens when ‘I’m sorry but I have a boyfriend/husband’ doesn’t work? Personally, I have been married for 8 years and I know I have used this hundreds of times to stop a man who was making me uncomfortable (before I became acutely aware that this was sort of like saying ‘another man already owns me so…’). I remember one guy who completely destroyed my ‘I’m married’ response to his sexual advances by saying ‘So am I!’
At that point I just stared at his wedding ring and thought, ‘Married professional, in your forties, probably have children with her, she’s probably at work or at home – and you’re here trying to convince me to have sex with you. You charmer.’
I remember trying to joke with him that if we are both married then we are both committed to other people and that he shouldn’t be hitting on me at all. He told me that his wife would never find out and that he would be better in bed than my husband. He told me he was successful and probably richer than my husband too. Then he tried to put his hand up my skirt.
So why the competition? It literally becomes an ego fight with your husband or boyfriend – that they can be better than him. Again, women are put into a position where ‘no’ means nothing. They have already said no repeatedly, then they have tried to assert that they are in a relationship and now a man is trying to convince them that they are a better man than the one they are already with. But why do they do this? Well…
- Persistence pays off!
Oh do I hate chick flicks. (Insert gif of me burning all chick flick DVDs). I don’t even know why they are called chick flicks. We should rename them ‘sexual harassment’ flicks’. We have a massive pop culture of teaching men and boys that when women are not interested in them, just try harder. When a woman knocks you back, she wants you really. When a girl tells you she’s taken, just try harder to be better than the guy she is with. If she ignores you, turn up at her house a few times. If she avoids you, follow her to places and make grand gestures. If she dumps you, just call her a few hundred times and turn up at her door with massive bunches of flowers until she realises that she does want you after all.
Chick flicks are just hundreds of hours of men trying to ‘woo’ women who are not interested in them. The plots are generally based on this simple formula:
- Man likes woman
- Woman does not like or does not know man exists
- 85 minutes of man ‘persisting’ or ‘trying to win her over’
- Woman is harassed into loving the man
- Woman suddenly has epiphany at the end of the film and realises that this was the man she wanted all along, even if throughout the film, he has been a complete dong.
How are women supposed to be able to say ‘no’ safely when we have created an expectation that men are supposed to persist and keep trying until she realises that she really wants him? ‘No’ becomes meaningless if persistence is king.
- When women say no, what they really mean is ‘yes’
The outcome of all of these examples and gender role stereotypes, is that women only say no so as not to appear ‘easy’. They say no, but really, they mean ‘persuade me!’
In the literature in forensic psychology, and certainly in my own work, we call this ‘token resistance’ – the concept that the woman is resisting sex or attention as a tokenistic gesture to show that she is not easy or ‘playing hard to get’ instead of actually meaning ‘no’. Garcia (1999) found that women were only perceived as ‘really resisting’ when they showed serious displays of distress such as crying or trying to slap the man – not only this, but the females in the scenarios who asserted themselves in these ways were rated much more negatively by both men and women than the women who did not. Many other types of sexual refusal in the scenarios were perceived as ‘token resistance’. Therefore, there became a dichotomy in which women who say ‘no’ gently and carefully or in a socially acceptable way within their gender role were perceived as engaging in ‘token resistance’ but the women who asserted themselves by shouting, crying or slapping the man in the scenario were rated negatively for asserting themselves in that way.
Ergo, women who say ‘no’ cannot win.
Why is this linked to victim blaming?
I have recently finished writing a large literature review of victim blaming and one of the sections I have written is on ‘sexual refusal’ – the ability and opportunity to say ‘no’ to sex or sexual advances. I explored a curious set of articles that discussed or tested women’s ‘sexual refusal skills’ and I even found that women and girls in universities and colleges were being trained in ‘sexual refusal’ – which is still a common feature of assertiveness training and date rape prevention training (Kitzinger & Frith, 1999). There have been further studies as recent as 2011, that have examined how ‘effective’ women’s refusals are when they have already been a victim of rape or sexual violence (Yeater et al., 2011). I found a number of theories that argued that women who are repeatedly revictimised, raped or abused have ‘poor sexual refusal skills’.
I wrote in my own literature review that some of the conclusions about ‘sexual refusal’ and women’s ‘ability to say no’ sounded a lot like victim blaming. In one blog, I have just briefly demonstrated how hard it is to have your ‘no’ taken seriously by a determined man in a society that champions his persistence to get you in bed, even when you have told him eleven times that you don’t want to. I wondered, as I wrote, why there is so much emphasis on women building better sexual refusal skills and more and more campaigns that teach women and girls to ‘just say no!’
Women are saying no. They are saying no once, twice, fifteen, fifty times. Saying ‘no’ is not the problem here. It’s the receipt of the ‘no’ by the man who cannot take it – that is the problem.
Telling women to ‘just say no’ better is victim blaming.
Just like the broadband-guy, who couldn’t take no for an answer, who persisted and made me feel embarrassed and harassed in the street – we have created a space where women can certainly try to say no, but it doesn’t mean anything. That’s why #metoo went viral. That’s why millions of women identified with it. That’s why hundreds of women have been sexually harassed in Hollywood.
‘It’s a compliment!’ – they’ve got us smiling and thanking guys that tell us we have great tits.
‘Sorry, but I’m not interested’ – they’ve got us apologising for not wanting sexual advances.
‘Sorry, but I’m married’ – they’ve got us apologising that we already belong to another man.
Men who do this, here is a handy cut-out-and-keep table for you to understand what women mean when they say no:
|What women say
||What women mean
|‘I’m not interested’
||I’m not interested
||Shit, that was awkward
|‘I have a boyfriend/husband/partner’
||I’m not interested, and I am hoping this new tactic makes you go away
|‘I’m sorry but…’
||Oh god, I hope he doesn’t get angry that I’m about to say no to him
|‘Leave me alone’
||Leave me alone
|‘Stop touching me’
||Stop touching me
Written by Jessica Eaton @JessicaE13Eaton http://www.victimfocus.org.uk
My new book, ‘The Little Orange Book’ is being released on the 25th September, click here to register your interest in the book or the launch event http://www.victimfocus.org.uk/the-little-orange-book/4594022624