content note: discussion of situations analogous to sexual assault
I vividly remember the day my mama taught me the concept ‘No means No’. At the time, it had nothing to do with sex.
How did my mother teach me skills to reject unwanted sexual activity without ever talking about sex? She empowered me to assert my boundaries.
I was 7 years old, and I was wrestling with my brother. Despite the fact that he was only 4, we were a pretty good match in strength. Throughout the time we were playing, I was saying “No!” and “Stop!” playfully, in a giggling high-pitched voice, with a smile on my face.
But then, my brother really started really hurting me.
I told him to stop, but he couldn’t differentiate the serious ‘Stop!’ from the joking one. He thought I was still playing. Luckily, my mother recognized the change of tone in my “Stop”, so she came over and intervened.
She broke us apart and told my brother, “If she says ‘Stop’ you have to listen. It’s important to stop if she says ‘Stop’!”
“But she’s been saying “Stop” the whole time!” he protested. “How can I tell when she actually means it?”
Then my mother told him he should always listen when someone says “Stop”, but she also turned to me. “He has a good point,” she said. “You need to only say “Stop” when you really mean it. And if you do say “Stop”, you can’t be smiling or laughing. That sends a mixed message. It looks like you are still having fun! If you’re going to say “Stop” you need to sound and look like you really mean it.”
I understood the concept, but was unclear on the execution. “Well…how can I do that?” I asked.
My mother recognized this moment as a learning opportunity. My brother needed to learn to listen and respect what I said. But I also needed to learn how to send clear signals. She wanted to teach me how to assert my boundaries in a way that would be unquestionably understood.
Mama thought for a bit, then she said, “You have to say ‘Stop’ or ‘No’ with a loud, deep, firm voice, like how you would talk to a dog” Then she demonstrated to us, “Say it like this: ‘STOP!’.
I must’ve been the luckiest 7-year-old girl in the world! How many parents out there encourage their children, (especially their daughters) to assert themselves so boldly? Far more often, children in this type of situation are just told to stop playing: they’ve gone too far. But that requires the parent- an outside mediator or arbiter- to make the judgement call. Instead, my mother taught us how to express when it’s gone too far for ourselves. This way, no parent or other external party was required.
And here’s the extra-special thing. She had us practice:
“Say it like this: ‘STOP!’, ’NO!’ …. Got it? Let me hear you try.”
She had us practice because she wanted to make sure we could do it. Moreover, she wanted to make sure that we knew we could do it. She wanted us to know what a forceful “STOP!” or “NO!” sounded like coming out of our own mouths. We practiced. It sounded serious. It sounded powerful. It felt powerful.
I cannot express how important it was to actively practice saying “No” and “Stop” forcefully. I’m not going to lie: I thought the playful ‘Smiley-No’ was kinda fun. I’m not sure how I got the idea that saying “no” when I actually mean “yes” was fun. Does that idea come from ambient social-messaging, or some sort of natural impulse? I doubt I will ever know. But for my brother, the playful ‘No’ was indistinguishable from the serious ‘No’ so long as I still had a smile on my face.
There are plenty of reasons why someone (females in particular) would present a ‘Smiley-No’ when they seriously mean ‘No’. In fact, it’s totally natural to smile and laugh when afraid as a form of appeasement. There’s even a catchy name for this behavior; its called ‘tend and befriend‘. Additionally, females are socialized from a young age to suppress their voices, to be soft- spoken, and not-be-forceful in general.
Whether the tendency to give a ‘Smiley-No’ when we are truly frightened comes from nature or nurture, the fact that it’s so ingrained is all the more reason to actively break the habit by practicing.
[Some things come naturally. Others may require practice.]
My mother made sure we could say “No!” and “Stop!” loud enough, deep enough, so it would be unquestionably understandable. When she was satisfied with our performance, she left. We happily went back to wrestling, now armed with new safety skills.
Neither of us needed to know what sex was to get Mama’s message: Respect what others say. Say what you mean. If someone doesn’t seem to understand a boundary, whip out that “Dog-voice NO!” and make them understand. Because your boundaries are too important to go ignored.
When we went back to playing that afternoon, I tried to avoid saying “No” or “Stop” with a smile on my face, but somehow it still happened every so often (that pesky ‘Smiley-No’ habit!). If I squealed out a Smiley- “Stop!” I noticed that my brother would get visibly confused.
Sometimes he would stop, sometimes he wouldn’t. He was, after all, four years old, and we were both still getting used to this. But if I really needed to, I would use my ‘Dog-voice NO!’ and my brother would stop dead in his tracks.
It wasn’t a sexual situation, but in hindsight, it’s obviously analogous. When I hit puberty and learned about sex, I connected the dots.
By the time boys grow-up and become men, they should understand that ‘No means No’, no matter how it’s presented. Yet, men accused of sexual assault often claim that ‘it was all just a misunderstanding’.
Perhaps the ‘Smiley-No’ and other types of indirect refusal are genuinely misinterpreted. Certainly there are still women out there that play hard to get (which needs to stop…ASAP). When I suspect that someone genuinely misunderstands me, I give them what I call a ‘Soft-No’– that is, I say ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ gently and seriously, with a completely straight face. Usually this works.
But some men still claim to ‘misunderstand’ the ‘Soft-No’. Its fair to say that sometimes men willfully misinterpret the ‘Smiley-No’ or ‘Soft-No’, and use that ‘misunderstanding’ to avoid taking any blame. The ‘Dog-voice NO!” allows absolutely no room for this excuse. Saying ‘No’ forcefully doesn’t just show that you mean ‘No’. It also sends a meta-message: “I will not be pushed around. I will fight back. I will press charges. Do not mess with me!”
My mother gave us the tools to set our own boundaries, and in doing so she sent a clear, empowering message:
- Your boundaries are important and are to be respected.
- You are the only person who knows what your boundaries are. No one else– no outside mediator or external arbiter–decides what is “ok” for you and what is not.
- You are the only person who can communicate your boundaries. You cannot depend on anyone else to communicate them for you.
- If someone isn’t respecting your boundaries, there is nothing wrong with talking to them like they’re a dog. In fact, it might be essential to do so.
My ‘Dog-voice NO!’ has served me incredibly well throughout my life.
I’ve used it with my brother while wrestling, with classmates who tried to steal my food at lunch, when I’ve had to stand up to peer pressure, and yes—to refuse unwanted sexual advances (stay tuned for Part II).
Lots of people tell me, “It’s great that you had that experience with your mom, Rebecca, but you know… most girls don’t have that.”
Yes. I know. That’s exactly why I am sharing my story today.
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Don’t feel comfortable using the “Dog-voice NO!”? Check out these other strategies for asserting your boundaries: