Content note: This post mentions emotional, physical, and sexual violence. There is also some text beneath the jump that may not be safe for work.
For whatever reason, I’m often the go-to person among my friends for advice with sexuality and relationships. I don’t mind; I view it as an opportunity to spread the word about the benefits of open communication between romantic and sexual partners to all of my friends. One sticking point, though, that makes my friends hesitate to communicate more openly is the fear of rejection.
Take for example my close friend Evan, who told me about a bad breakup he had.
“Sexually, the relationship was very dissatisfying for me,” he said. “I went down on her every time we had sex, but she never did the same for me. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the sex we had, but it made me feel like maybe my body disgusted her.”
“Well, did you ever ask her to go down on you?” I asked. “If it was affecting your sex life so much, you should have mentioned it.”
“No, I didn’t,” said Evan.
Stricken, he said, “What if she said no?”
That struck me as something important and profound. What happens when you respectfully make a romantic or sexual request, and the answer is no? Where do you go from there? How can it go wrong, and how can it go right? As I thought about it some more, I identified some important questions about how we deal with rejection.
1. What’s the worst that could happen?
I often ask this question, lightheartedly, of my friends who come to me for advice on how to ask someone out. (I’m flattered that I’m often the go-to person for advice about this!) But it is a serious question. Let’s consider the two points of view, which we can call the “seeker” (the person making the request) and the “sought” (the person responding to the request.)
From the sought’s point of view, the worst that can happen if they say no is physical, sexual, or emotional violence. Women, queer, and transgender people are disproportionately the victims in these cases. Fortunately, these disaster scenarios are not the most common consequences of saying no. Most of the time, the worst that can happen is that the seeker disengages emotionally and degenerates into passive-aggressive whining.
Still, I think we can conclude that saying no is just as brave, if not braver, than making the request in the first place. (Especially if the sought lacks male privilege.)
Now let’s take this from the point of view of the seeker. Again, the worst that can happen is physical, sexual, and emotional violence, though again, these forms of violence in romantic/sexual situations tend to be directed at women, queer, and transgender people.
I know about this kind of violence because it happened to me in high school. I was the youngest girl in my school to come out of the closet. I confessed my feelings to my crush, who out of a combination of internalized and externalized queerphobia spread rumors to all of our friends that instead of politely asking for a date, I had been stalking and drawing sexually inappropriate pictures of my crush. I was not only devastated that some of my friends believed that I would do this to someone I cherished, but it also reified every nasty lie I’d heard about how queer people sexually prey upon the poor, straight objects of their desire.
I point all of this out because I want you all to remember that power and privilege come into play every time you ask for consent in a romantic and/or sexual situation. Therefore, if you, the seeker, are in a position of privilege relative to the sought, you have an extra responsibility to consider what might be on the line for the sought, and try to make things easier for them.
But now let’s move on from worst-case scenarios, into a more common outcome that people nonetheless dread: the asker makes a request, the rejector says no, and they both feel really awkward.
2. Why is it awkward?
Asking for something means that you don’t have it, you want it, and you might not get it. It also reveals something intimate and important about you: what it is that you desire. Asking for anything makes you vulnerable. This is all the more true when you ask for something romantic and/or sexual, because this is usually something you really want, and that most people don’t know that you want.
Of course, the situation can be awkward for the sought too. If the sought cares at all about the seeker, then they don’t want to see them open up in this intimate way and then be denied what they really want. They don’t want to witness the seeker’s disappointment. We can all understand that.
And again, from the seeker’s point of view, this can be really hard because now the sought knows something about you, that you want something intimate from them. That’s a form of power they have over you that you don’t have in reverse.
I know what this is like. I once asked a girlfriend to try BDSM with me, and she was appalled that I’d even asked. I had revealed something about what I wanted, and the nature of my desire festered between us like a wound.
I think another, overlooked reason why rejection is so awkward is that culturally, romantic requests are built up as big, defining events that you have to set up to go just right. Marriage proposals in restaurants, giant banners or sky writing or shouts over the megaphone: “Will you go out with me?” Or, for sexual requests, certain scenarios like prom night or wedding night where it’s culturally expected that one person (in a heterosexual context, the man) will ask the other for sex. These setups only make it worse for everyone involved, because it’s much harder to get up the courage to ask someone this way, and much harder to say no. The weight of cultural expectation means that the seeker feels like a failure as a human being if they get no for an answer, and the sought feels pressured into saying yes because that’s what they’re supposed to say in a moment fraught with so much significance.
3. How can we make rejection a less awkward and painful experience?
First off, the #1 most important way to react to a rejection is to accept it. Don’t try to persuade the no into a yes. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear the no and keep going. Accept it as if it were written into the sky in fiery letters by the finger of God’s scariest angel. Everything else is optional. This is mandatory.
One way we can make rejection less awkward is to make our requests open-ended instead of “yes or no.” When you ask a yes or no question, like, “Do you want to have sex with me?” you set up your desire as this one thing that you want, and you’ll either get it or not get it. Sometimes this is true; whatever Bobby might sing in the musical Company, you can’t marry me a little. You either marry me or you don’t.
Most of the time, though, there are a variety of responses to your request that will make you happy. There might be one that you prefer over the others, and you can express that preference. But if you present your favorite option as the only one you want, then it can shut down the possibility of exploring other outcomes that you might be able to agree on. So instead of saying “Do you want to have sex with me?” you could say, “I think you’re really attractive. I’d like to take this further.” So now you’ve expressed your interest in taking things in a sexual direction, and the person you’re asking can decide what sorts of sexual things, if any, they would like to do. If the person you’ve asked shows some interest, you can lay out some sexual acts you might enjoy, while reassuring that any or none of the above is fine with you.
Circling back to my conversation with Evan, I think he could have benefited from asking his girlfriend open-ended questions. Since she never initiated oral sex, I think he may have been right to fear that she would have said no if he’d phrased his desire as a yes or no question: “Do you want to go down on me?” But he could have explored the issue in an open-ended way, by saying, “I really enjoy going down on you, but I’d also really like it if you did the same with me. Could that ever be a possibility for you? If not, is there a reason why?” If she’d had some kind of hangup about performing oral sex, a yes or no question might have made her clam up, but asking in way that allows a variety of responses may have helped her open up about why she never reciprocated oral sex.
Another great way to make rejection less awkward is to ask early and ask often. Ask people permission for things all the time, even things you usually don’t ask permission for, but maybe you should. If your friend looks sad, instead of going for the hug, ask first if they would like a hug. When you pick up your date from work, ask if they would like a kiss or a hug hello, or neither. When you’re walking home from the restaurant, say you’d like to hold their hand, if that’s all right.
Asking early and asking often has many beneficial effects. First, it shows the people you’re asking that you take all types of boundaries seriously, even ones most people see as trivial, like whether you can hug your friends when they’re sad. Second, it makes it less scary for the person you’re asking to say no. Third, it encourages them to make frequent requests of you in return, to which you can say yes or no or whatever the question calls for. Fourth, it makes it much easier to handle “no” for an answer. Since you’re asking more often, you’ll hear it more often, which gets you used to dealing with it. Also, it’s likely that since you’re asking more often, you’re probably also hearing yes more often, which makes you feel better about hearing no, because you know that there are some desires that you have in common.
There’s always a risk, of course, that rejection will be awkward no matter what you do. But creating a more positive and honest culture around sex and romance involves some risk. Sometimes, it means opening up your heart in painful ways. But there’s so much you can gain by making yourself vulnerable that I say it’s worth it. So go ahead and ask respectfully for what you want. Just remember that if you don’t get it, the world is still vibrant with opportunity.