CW: I’m discussing the continuing harassment of Lila Perry, a transgender girl in Missouri–my current home state. She has been using the girls’ locker room and bathrooms since school started this year, and many students (many of them female) have walked out in protest. In this post, I am addressing TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist) comments regarding this issue. I’m putting the rest of this post below a cut so that trans people do not need to read this and be triggered. Cis people, I am a cis person talking to you. Please do read this post.
We have a communication problem. Or, more precisely, we have a problem with reaction to certain communication: the ‘soft no.’
A lot of people profess to be confused about it–to the point that Dr. Nerdlove has written about it multiple times. Gavin de Becker writes about it in The Gift of Fear. What is it? It’s a way to say ‘no’ without being direct or harsh about it.
Wait, but what’s wrong with a direct no? Shouldn’t a direct no clear up any confusion?
The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with a direct no. Some people are lucky enough to be educated to give a direct no. But most women are not socialized in such a manner. Most of us are socialized to give indirect no’s:
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.
And sometimes even a hard, direct no leads to unpleasantness at the least. But sometimes–sometimes, it can lead to far, far worse, as as some of the examples from the Dr. Nerdlove columns. Sometimes we give a ‘soft no’ because we’re afraid of becoming a part of stats like these:
Sometimes we give a ‘soft no’ because we’re already a part of stats like these:
We have fear, and we’ve been socialized to appease rather than offend. Many of us would like to use direct scripts for saying no, but it’s not that we’re being ill-mannered when we don’t–it’s that we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t.
And we are not making this up. In Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer, the author shows how women’s refusals are understood and ignored depending on the men in question, and shows some of the men’s rather disturbing responses to women’s refusals. And from this piece:
Women know this is happening! We know we don’t feel safe! And sometimes we may be comfortable to start changing the norm here, but this is still NOT the demographic that you should be calling out. You should be calling out the men and boys who perpetuate this. The ‘journalists’ who need to report that a girl had a boyfriend when she was stabbed to death for a hard no. The culture that teaches boys you should try as hard as you can to win a girl’s heart, unless she has a boyfriend (or sometimes still then). The world that does not respect women’s claims about their own feelings and opinions. Not the women who operate within that system and have to use patriarchy to their advantage to feel socially and physically safe.
The thing is, having to use ‘lines’ and ‘soft nos’ is a very patriarchal thing. Having to appease, to tend and befriend? It’s kyriarchal and partriarchal and it needs to stop. But we cannot put this blame on those who are at risk of violence for not engaging in this behavior–because often, this is a matter of survival.
Instead, we need to query the culture that allows for pushing past the soft no. What is it that allows for ignoring when someone says no in any way they have available (when it’s not been pre-negotiated)? I think this is part of the rigid construction of masculinity in our culture–that it is part of the construction of the ‘macho man,’ that he gets to have sex whenever he wants it, from whomever he wants it (always someone feminized to him), and that if someone refuses him, it is a denigration of his masculinity.
Except–that’s a very harmful concept, isn’t it? Of course it is. What if someone ignores his no, and takes from him what they want despite his no? What if he said a very forceful no, and they did that anyway? What if all he could manage was a soft no? Does it matter? No.
The point is: everyone’s ‘no’ should be respected, however that ‘no’ comes out. It is chilling that ‘soft no’ gets used as an excuse to blow past boundaries, and even further–to assault, rape, and murder. It happens to people of all races, all genders–but least often to those with the most power in our society, and as such, we need to start our query there, with the most powerful, who are the ones blowing past the ‘soft nos’ the most often. This is how we take down kyriarchy.