content note: discussion of ‘almost’ sexual assault
In NO (Part 1), I talked about how my mother taught me to assert my boundaries when I was I was a little girl. She taught me to say “No!” or “Stop!” loud and clear, with a straight face and a deep, firm voice as if I was talking to a misbehaving dog. When I grew up, it clicked that I could apply this loud, forceful ‘Dog-voice No’ to asserting my sexual boundaries. Furthermore, I took the principle of using firm serious body language and removed the loudness to create what I call the ‘Soft No’—a more palatable, but still potent I-mean-what-I-say signal.
Fortunately, I haven’t had to use the Dog-voice No or the Soft No very often. I am lucky enough to have spent most of my life surrounded by people that listen to my words. Nevertheless, every now and then my boundaries are overstepped. As promised, here’s a few examples of when I have used the Dog-voice No and the Soft No in sexual situations:
One deliciously hot summer night, I was at a lake with my new beau, Joe. It was our fourth or fifth date, so we were still in the process of getting to know each other. On the physical front, we had already kissed, been naked together and gotten handsy– but nothing past that. On the emotional front, I honestly had no clue where the relationship was going. But I decided not to care. After all, we were still getting to know each other.
The lake set a carefree tingly-nostalgic mood for our date, summer-camp movie style. We had just spent the last hours before sunset playfully swimming, and now we were lying together on the beach, kissing, as the first stars came out. The falling dusk seemed to hide us from the general public gaze, but you could still hear children running around, playing at nearby campsites.
Joe started to untie my bikini top. I had been topless with him before, so I didn’t really care about him seeing my boobies. But there were people just around the bend. And children at that! I didn’t want them to accidentally see us! I have very different sexual boundaries depending on whether I am in private or in public with my partner, and to me this was a public situation.
I prepared myself mentally for the Soft No– making sure there was no smile on my face. I touched Joe’s hand untying my suit and softly, but firmly said “No, not now.”
The vast majority of guys I’ve been with immediately respond to the Soft No. It’s incredible how fast the serious attitude, the straight face, and the firm voice will turn their behavior around.
In fact, let me digress a moment to illustrate how the Soft No usually works:
Just the other day, I was trying to say goodbye to a guy, (lets call him Mr. Clever) at the end of a date. I was exhausted, and although I like Mr. Clever a lot, I just wanted to go home and sleep. Nevertheless, he coaxed me up to his apartment with the classic “you forgot something at my place last time”. I guess he was hoping that by agreeing to come get them I had agreed to sticking around for sexy times, because once I was in his apartment it became clear he didn’t want me to leave.
“This is where I say goodnight” I said, after collecting my things. I leaned in to kiss him goodnight. He kept kissing me. I liked it, so I kissed back. Next thing I know, we’ve been making out for awhile.
I was so tired, it was hard to push back at all as Mr. Clever walked me backwards to his bed. When I fell onto it, it was so lovely and bed-like, I just wanted to stay there and sleep. But I knew that if I actually wanted to sleep, I would have to go home. Whether I was giving him mixed messages, or whether he consciously ignored my words and let himself fall into a perfect pop-culture “No means Yes“ narrative, I recognized that it was time for some Soft No clarity.
I made eye contact and with a firm gentle tone I said, “I need you to help me leave, OK? I need you to push me out of this bed. I need to get home so I can sleep”. Immediately, Mr. Clever knew I was serious. He stopped with the sexy times. He helped me up. He made sure I got all my things. He walked me out to my bike. He was pretty clever.
The Soft No is polite and assertive. It’s a body language/tonality reminder that yes, you DO mean what you say. Once the Soft No is deployed, most people, like Mr. Clever understand that this is a “No means No” situation. They stop whatever it is. They take it seriously.
But not Joe. When Joe was untying my swim top, I gave him the Soft No and he kept untying. It was time for the big guns.
I said “NO!” loud, deep, firm, like I was chastising a dog. So loud, I’m sure those children could hear me back at their campsites. I honestly didn’t even think to use it. If I had to take the time to consider whether to use it in the moment, it might’ve taken too long. I’d planned and practiced the Dog-voice No to be the semi-automatic response to someone disrespecting my clearly-stated boundaries.
Joe immediately stopped, shocked.
After a moment of recovery he said, “That wasn’t cool… you just like, hit me over the head with a two-by-four”
“I had to say it that way” I replied. “When I said ‘No’ softly, you didn’t listen.”
After this explanation, every other guy I’ve had to use the Dog-voice No on, has recognized their error and changed their behavior. But Joe wasn’t accepting any culpability.
“Yeah, but you just went from like, volume-2 to volume-10”, he said, “There was nothing in between.”
“Well if you stopped the first time, I wouldn’tve had to go to the 10.”
“Still, it’s not fair of you to go to such an extreme.” (WHAT?!?)
We continued to argue all the way home. He kept on saying that I hadn’t given him enough warning. I kept saying that I absolutely did. He said I was being over-the-top. I said I was being real.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but by engaging in this argument with Joe, I had already lost. Built into that statement –“it’s not fair for you to go to such an extreme” — is the assumption that Joe knows what ‘reasonable behavior’ is, and that I do not (as demonstrated by my ‘unreasonable’ behavior). By engaging in that argument, I automatically accepted that premise. And the more frustrated I became, the more ‘unreasonable’ I looked.
On top of that, this conversation centered around the ‘tactlessness’ and ‘insensitivity’ of my reaction. By spending breath on this topic, I had no time to talk about the real issue: how HE was about to violate my boundaries. Whether Joe intended to or not, he was arguing in a manipulative way that was going to put ME in the wrong for something that HE clearly provoked.
We stopped at a gas station to pee. When we got back into the car he said, “I think we need a safe-word.” I looked at him in shock.
“Ok… How about ‘NO’ ?!?!”
‘No’ and ‘Stop’ are unofficially universal safe-words. Everybody knows what they mean. Unless you and your partner have previously agreed that its fun to “play-through-‘No'” and have chosen a different safe-word, you should listen to ‘Stop’ and ‘No’. DUH!
Needless to say, I stopped dating Joe. We split on relatively good terms (all things considered) and are friendly acquaintances today. Joe wasn’t all bad. But indignant boundary breaker = deal-breaker. Any time we’ve talked about this incident (at least 3 or 4 times), he’s always argued that I was in the wrong. For whatever reason, he just doesn’t get it.
But the bottom line is that in the moment of action, the Dog-voice No worked. Joe stopped.
Its totally possible that someone else may have continued to violate my boundaries, even after the Dog-voice No. As my fellow DDP editor, Barbie, eloquently said:
A person who is ethical will stop at a Soft-No; a person who is not will cheerfully ignore your loudest roar
The Dog-voice No is for the people in between: the people who won’t listen to the Soft No, but will stop short of bulldozing past a loud forceful, scary-sounding No-ROAR.
I mean, hey! The Dog-voice No even worked on Joe. Joe!—A guy who obviously does not grok the concept of ‘No means No’ –a guy who has the audacity to argue over whether my ‘No’ was appropriate or ‘called for’. Even he stopped violating my boundaries when I unleashed my Dog-voice No.
Asserting your boundaries is crucial to feeling empowered and in-control of your own life, body, and emotional well-being. Of course, no mode of speaking is a guarantee that the other person will listen, but sounding firm and scary is an invaluable tool to have in your arsenal.
I don’t say ‘No’ forcefully because rape culture says that’s the only ‘legitimate’ way to say “No”. There are plenty of other, gentler, completely legitimate ways to say “No”. I say ‘No’ forcefully because there is a very high probability that it will WORK, even when other perfectly legitimate types of “No” have failed.
This isn’t about striving for the ideal. In an ideal world there is always consent, or if boundaries are violated, its the violator who’d be shamed or hurt because of it, not the violated. Lets keep pushing towards that ideal world, absolutely. But until then, my own voice is the best tool I’ve got for enforcing my personal boundaries. I encourage everyone else to develop and use theirs as well.