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Yes, No, Maybe So: The Inner Workings of Consent
I first learned about consent in grade nine when my English teacher showed the viral Tea and Consent video in class. It seemed so simple–If a person wanted to say no, they would just say it, and people should respect that. But as I grew older, I was disappointed to learn that the ease of saying no and accepting a no is more complicated than it is made to seem because of social scripts and the power dynamics between intersecting identities. Rarely is it a linear yes or no interaction, and the conversation looks very different for everyone.
Saying no can be really difficult to do
There are a lot of factors to being able to say ‘no’ freely, like one’s personality and upbringing. For some introverts who are people pleasers, saying no is emotionally demanding in that it feels like failing to support someone. Many people are brought up to prioritize their impact on other people's lives over their own needs, and depending on how a ‘no’ has been received in the past, saying ‘no’ again can be re-traumatizing instead of empowering.
There are also the influences of power and gender at play. Historically, oppressed groups including women, people of colour, and sexual minorities are socialised to cater to the needs of those belonging in dominant classes–people who feel entitled to their time, bodies, and labour. For example, saying ‘no’ to a male superior can be more challenging than saying ‘no’ to a female co-worker, and because marginalised folks face barriers to holding management roles, multiple levels of oppression and disadvantage occur. Saying no to work is also a privilege in the sense that not everyone can afford to take time off. Ultimately, the normalisation of saying no in professional settings calls for the dismantling of the capitalistic need to be hyper-productive in order to survive, but the process of unlearning the values we grew up with is emotionally draining itself.
In this way, each ‘yes’ can feel like a step up the social ladder–a strategy to being likeable and reliable–a path to traditional success. It also fosters a distorted sense of belonging with those in power, as if abiding by every request makes someone more deserving of space. However, real belonging begins with seeing yourself as someone who deserves to have your boundaries respected wherever you are and whomever you are with. It is celebrating choice and ensuring that you and those around you feel seen and heard.
The ease with which we express our boundaries is also culturally informed. Growing up in the Philippines, I often find it hard to say no to people who are older than me as Filipino culture reflects respect for older members of the community. For example, the mano tradition requires young people to bow and receive a blessing from elders by pressing their forehead to an offered hand. It is also embedded in our languages, across multiple dialects. This emphasis on respect on the basis of age causes a lot of internal dissonance for me; yes, putting my needs before older relatives’ is an act of self-care, but it also feels like an act of disdain towards my culture. However, I have learned over time that my being critical of my upbringing does not mean that I can no longer take pride in my roots–it is not all or nothing.
Hearing a no can hurt
Initiating an activity is an act of vulnerability. For example, when someone says ‘no’ to sex, it can cause the person who initiated to feel insecure or jealous. Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Are they seeing someone else? As a society, we are taught that a refusal indicates a personal inadequacy or a lack of value for the relationship when in reality, we have lives independent of one another, and we are allowed to make decisions that feel right for ourselves at any moment, for whatever reason. Something that tends to get overlooked is that a healthy sex life starts with a healthy relationship built on trust, empathy, and respect.
Though learning how to gracefully accept a ‘no’ is important in the process of normalising consent, welcome all the feelings that come your way, the good and the bad. Acknowledge how a ‘no’ affects you and confront why exactly it is making you feel this way. It is okay to sit with your sadness or disappointment, but know that using that reaction as a tool to manipulate someone into agreement is coercion, and it makes for a toxic and harmful situation.
If you struggle with saying no, here are some things to consider:
Value your boundaries as a sign of respect to your being.
Your needs are important too, even if they may inconvenience others.
Learning how to say no can protect your energy.
You don’t always have to justify or sugarcoat your ‘no.’
With practise, it gets easier. Not necessarily easy, but easier.
When you receive a no, here are some things to consider:
Respect the decision the other person is making for themself. It might not be about you at all.
Trust that others know what is best for themselves.
Acknowledge that saying ‘no’ might have taken a lot for the other person to say.
Don’t force them to give you an explanation. You are not always owed one.
Consent in sex and beyond must be seen as a dynamic and ongoing conversation that calls for the active participation of all parties involved. It is not black and white as we are human, raised with beliefs and values we had no choice but to internalise. Hearing a no can feel bad, and saying no can feel like letting other people down. So, let this be an invitation to question those inner voices. Make room to feel and show kindness for yourself and others. Give yourself time and room to grow. We are bigger than the values we were raised in, capable of learning and unlearning, perpetually.
About the Author: Alyssa Victorino is an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University (SFU) pursuing a Psychology major and a Sociology minor. She is currently the Program Assistant with the Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office (SVSPO).