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Sexist Beatdown: What “No” Means Edition

So, here is a terrifying scenario: you go to visit a dude in his dorm room. He tries to have sex with you. You say “no,” repeatedly, throughout the process. He does not stop. You are pretty darn sure that this is rape! So you go to the police! And the courts! And they agree with you! Because your rapist, stunningly enough, admits that you said “no.”

Oh, and then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturns the whole deal. Because, yeah, you said “no.” A lot. Everyone agrees on that part. But there’s no reason to believe that you meant it!

Ok, so, bad news: this is not just some ludicrously unjust case I have concocted to angry up your blood. This happened! In 1994! And a recent study by Dan Kahan of Yale University Law School will tell you why. Basically, people who have “egalitarian” worldviews (of the type that might lead you to believe the dudefolk and the womenfolk are both people, and like having sex) are likely to think that “no” means precisely that, and that having sex with a person who says “no” is, in fact, rape, and should be ruled as such in a court of law. People with “hierarchical” worldviews (of the type that will depress the hell out of you) do not. And the people least likely to believe that “no” means “no” are… older ladies?

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Join us, as Amanda Hess of Washington City Paper’s The Sexist and I lose our minds and/or discuss!


ILLUSTRATION: How can this happen, given our nation’s educational t-shirt culture?

AMANDA: Hey, would you like to chat now? Remember: In this chat, “no” means “maybe.”

SADY: as it should! i, personally, like to SAY “no” so that my chat partner will not believe i am enthusiastic about the chat that i totally actually want to be chatting.

AMANDA: I generally restrict using “no” and variations on it, such as “stop,” with undergraduate rapists whom I have never met before, in order to ensure that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court nows that I truly maybe wanted it.

SADY: right? so, this case. around which this study is based. is actually like some terrifying cartoon of sexist assumptions. girl goes into dude’s room. girl has been friendly with dude. dude proceeds to initiate sex, to which girl says no. sex continues on apace. which is rape, right? but instead there are all these discussions of whether she tried to unlock the door or whether he shoved her onto the bed HARD enough to constitute “force” (did she bounce?) and the “no,” although admitted to by both parties, actually DOES NOT COUNT AT ALL.

AMANDA: Did she bounce. That’s the really, really weird thing about this case: All the assumptions about what makes a “real” rape are totally fucking insane! and the one sane assumption—that if she says no, it means she doesn’t want to have sex—is discredited

SADY: right. and at one point, they mention that it was determined that the “no” meant lack of CONSENT, but did not thereby qualify the act as RAPE, since rape requires force and also that you not be married to your rape victim. so the question is, then: why isn’t “no” enough? why is “no means no” a problem, and for whom? and the answer is… um, older ladies, apparently.

AMANDA: yeah: the answer is older, privileged ladies that i imagine to be stroking gigantic white cats while informing rape victims that they actually wanted it . . . in order to hold on to their social privilege, and the diamond-encrusted tiaras that go along with it, or whatever. these older ladies are really interesting to me, and i was trying to figure out what exactly about their cultural circumstances made them want to decide this case this way?

SADY: right. like, one SAYS no to the gentleman, dear, that he might not think you a harlot. whilst you have the sex that you said “no” to because you wanted it. oh, and also, if you say no AND MEAN IT there’s no way for the dude to know that! because you SHOULD be saying no ALL THE TIME!

AMANDA: And also, implied, I think, is that if any women actually say NO and mean NO, then the women who say NO and mean YES will be considered sluttier than the rape victims. WHICH IS FUCKED UP.

SADY: UH HUH. and, like, if you want to play an incredibly hot erotic sexy game of saying “no” to sex every time you want sex, whatever. for me that is like playing a game of Let’s See How Close I Can Stick My Face To This Chainsaw every weekend. but what are the odds that a woman who says no and means yes is going to then up and take her case to a rape court? for funsies? like, that is pretty time-consuming and awful, actually! i doubt anyone is THAT invested in maintaining her reputation as a non-sex-liker! so why should it affect the construction of the law? AT ALL?

AMANDA: beats me. the really scary thing is the assumption that because these jurors will decide based on their cultural attitudes and NOT the law, it doesn’t matter WHAT the law says rape is

SADY: right, which is what the study seems to confirm.

AMANDA: however, in this particular case, the jury did decide to convict the dude of rape, and then the penn. supreme court decided 7-0 to reverse it … based on the law. or … based on their weird cultural assumptions? perhaps there were some hidden Privileged Older Ladies on the bench?

SADY: it really strikes me that the basic assumption here (in people who assume that “no means no” is a bad thing) is that dudes go around accidentally raping ladies ALL THE TIME and shouldn’t be punished for it.

AMANDA: yeah. oops!

SADY: like, the idea is that dudes can’t interpret the word “no” correctly, because they are less smart than your dog, and therefore should they accidentally rape someone who is saying “no” a lot you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. like, better luck next time, timmy!

AMANDA: even though, chillingly, the accused and the victim got to know each other in a sexual assault awareness lecture titled “Does ‘No’ Sometimes Mean ‘Yes’?” you really have to wonder how the lecture resolved that question

SADY: Oh, GOD. “in conclusion, no means no except when that is inconvenient for you personally! hope this helps!”

AMANDA: like, if the lecture concluded, “No, No Doesn’t Sometimes Mean Yes,” the attendees could have said, well yes, but what if No actually means Yes in your conclusion that No Doesn’t Mean Yes?

SADY: ah, the timeless “but I WANT ice cream” logical maneuver.

AMANDA: it’s terrible, because “no means yes” has always struck me as some sick dirty joke that people tell, but now i see that it has affected the actual reasoning of juries. the main point to take away from this is that jurors need to stop taking their jury duty vacation as an oppportunity to punish women that they think are sluts. if i were a lawyer, i would start asking that question in jury selection.

SADY: ray of light here, though? younger, more sexually active folks of both genders were more likely to grasp the meaning and validity of “no.” like, apparently if you get that women CAN consent to sex, you’re more likely to not have sex with them until they DO!

AMANDA: yeah. totally.

SADY: which, you know. the slut-punishing vigilante squad aside, makes me feel hope for this new generation, and their ability to understand words you learned when you were two years old.

AMANDA: this study was extremely depressing. i at least thought that the “she wanted it” defense would at least concede that admitting that she actually said “no” would be bad for their case. you’d assume the rapist wouldn’t admit that! but when he does, the Old Privileged Ladies seems almost more likely to believe him

SADY: well, you know. he’s a poor young man! led astray by that permissive harlot! and so on, and so forth.

AMANDA: no bouncing, so what can you do

SADY: right. NOT ENOUGH PREMARITAL FORCE-BOUNCING, that’s what was wrong with this case. so, here’s my advice to the world: however you feel about “no,” can we hope, maybe, that you are MORE excited to get a “yes?” Because that, I think, is what you should be aiming for. “Yes, I would like to have sex with you.” That, I would assume, is a statement that we can all agree is a positive.

AMANDA: . . . Maybe!


  1. Levi wrote:

    But… doesn’t “yes” sometimes mean “no”?!

    *head a splode*

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  2. Jessica wrote:

    Jesus. Just when I think rape cases can’t get any more depressing.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  3. kel d wrote:

    OK, top tip for “confused rapists” who do not know if “no” means “yes”.
    Ask the girl “What would you like me to do to you?” it is dirty talk *and* if the answer is “stop, just stop” there is your answer. Should we teach that in SCHOOLS?

    But yeah, it’s not as if that will make a difference. All these “she said no but I thought it meant yes” rapists know exactly what they are doing.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  4. bellacoker wrote:

    I think that the Older Lady crowd is universalizing their experience, and perhaps think the girl had already consented because she went to the guy’s room. That she should have said No way before, as not to sully her “reputation”. But since there is already the possiblity that she was not pure, the actual de-purifying act was a given. Or something.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  5. Lynn wrote:

    I think a lot of it is the need to believe it couldn’t happen to you/your child, because you follow the Good Girl rules.

    I’ve seen the same thing happen to the families of deployed soldiers. Some get insanely weird about explaining why the soldier who got hit by the IED had in some way asked for it…because if they can do that, in their heads it means their soldier won’t be hurt.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  6. Broggly wrote:

    I remember when I first read about “no means yes”. It was in Catcher in the Rye, and Holden was complaining that girls would say no and mean yes, because being privileged ’50s girls (the same ones who’d go on to be privileged old ladies) they didn’t want to seem like they enjoyed sex too much. This bugged him because whenever a girl said no, he stopped. My point? People who think no means yes must be less mature than Holden Caulfeld.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  7. masagoroll wrote:

    Wow, that case is horribly depressing. It is especially scary to me as a recent college graduate– I went into guy’s dorm rooms. I had NO IDEA that just being in there meant I was a harlot who could not actually say no!

    Saturday, August 29, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  8. I don’t know if I have the fortitude to actually click through and read the studies, but I think you young ‘uns don’t completely grasp the Old Ladies’ position.

    They were taught that a Good Woman *never* says Yes, except during her wedding vows. That’s it, the one time Yes is an acceptable answer.

    So they were in the position where “No” had to do duty for both “no” and “yes” — both for any gentlemen they want to communicate with, and to themselves. How do you say “Yes” when you can’t admit you want to, and when everyone will think worse of you if you do? Well, one way is to say “no” in a lot of different ways, hoping to communicate subtextually.

    The other way, frankly, is to get raped a lot. But you can’t admit you were raped, because as we know that makes you practically a slut. What the younger generation thinks of as “rape” is part of these Old Ladies sexual experience, but they’ve been getting by for decades by denying it was so. Rape is something that happens to *other* women, Bad Women, what happened to me was just the way the world is, only to be expected.

    So IMHO for a lot of those Old Ladies what happened to the young woman in this case had actually happened to them, and for pretty much all of the Older Ladies it had happened to someone they care deeply about (mother, sister, friend). If they accept that lack of consent is rape, it casts a pall of horror over their own past, bringing up *way* too many things they’re dealing with by no thinking about.

    Sunday, August 30, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  9. Julie wrote:

    Oh good! More Older Lady hating; we cat-stroking, tiara-wearing, privilege-ignoring, second-waving older ladies really, really needed some of that. Seriously, older than what? 80? 92?

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  10. Julie wrote:

    Possibly trigger-y, but no more than the original post:

    quoting Doctor Science: What the younger generation thinks of as “rape” is part of these Old Ladies sexual experience, but they’ve been getting by for decades by denying it was so. Rape is something that happens to *other* women, Bad Women, what happened to me was just the way the world is, only to be expected.

    Okay, I gave this several hours of stomach-churning verge-of-tears-ness before deciding to respond with something more meaningful than the snark above. DS, you are right about one thing: date-rape was a common experience for many women of my generation. Unspeakably, despicably common.


    – How many other rape victims have what happened to them dismissed as “part of their sexual experience”? Life experience, traumatic experience, yeah okay. But please: not sexual experience.

    – You are wrong to assume that any of us, much less all of us, denied anything, or in fact “got by for decades” with that [alleged] denial. Even before the term, no, make that the CONCEPT of date rape was well-known, every woman that I have talked to about this particular shared experience knew that *something* was wrong with what had happened, often several times, to them. Most of us were relieved to have the “real-ness” of our trauma validated, and to accept that that trauma affected our lives in many ways for many years.

    – While it is true that back in the day, we often thought of rape as happening to other women, no one I knew ever thought it only happened to Bad Women, but rather to other women, Just Like Me Women.

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  11. Nancy wrote:

    If this case makes you uncomfortable, you should try sitting in a law school Criminal Law class on the day (maybe two) when you discuss rape. And it is _repeatedly brought up by people you had thought decent and rational that really, men do need protections against _all those girls_ out there who would totally consent to sex and then afterwards, regret it and accuse them of rape and take a whole rape prosecution to court._ And the prof entertains these concerns as if they’re at least plausible discussion points _even after they’ve already been brought up once._

    In 2008, mind.

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  12. Julie:

    I’m practically one of those Old Ladies myself, being 53. The women I am talking about are specifically the ones who, in the study, weren’t willing to call what happened “rape”. Sady, Amanda and their age-peers seemed to be characterizing these conservative older women as pearl-clutching privileged biddies.

    Yes, many older women are, as you say, relieved to have the “real-ness” of our trauma validated — but there are others who hate it, who hate even having to think about how much it hurt, who despise their younger selves for “giving in” or “going along”. Or who are still married to the guy.

    I’m just trying to emphasize to the younger women here that apparent lack of sympathy from older women about rape is not likely to be due to *ignorance*.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 6:37 am | Permalink
  13. Ika wrote:

    So, yeah, that’s a horrible story, but I have to kind of chime in with Julie here: ‘older’ than what? Who are these ‘older women’? Because, you know, my girlfriend is 60 and she was one of the second-wave without whom, you know, rape would still be a property crime between men and not a feminist issue at all. Also, as you say, it was the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who reversed the conviction, and they look like five old dudes and two women to me.

    I googled this Dan Kahan guy and the abstract of the paper you’re referring to actually says:

    The major finding was that a hierarchical worldview, as opposed to an egalitarian one, inclined individuals to perceive that the defendant reasonably understood the complainant as consenting to sex despite her repeated verbal objections. The effect of hierarchy in inclining subjects to favor acquittal was greatest among women; this finding was consistent with the hypothesis that hierarchical women have a distinctive interest in stigmatizing rape complainants whose behavior deviates from hierarchical gender norms.

    So women with a hierarchical worldview gain something from stigmatizing rape complainants. That’s slightly different from no means no” [is] a problem… for… older ladies, surely?

    Anyway, yeah, sorry to have my first comment on your completely awesome blog be a rageous one. But you mostly rock very hard, and it makes me sad to see the young ladies ragging on the old ladies. (I’m 34, so I’m an in-between lady.)

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 4:31 am | Permalink
  14. HeatherMae wrote:

    I would think that feminists who happen to spend time on feminist blogs would be the most likely to understand the concept of “If it doesn’t apply to you, it’s not about you.” This post is specifically talking about older women who are rape-apologists for very specific cultural reasons that are now hopefully pretty obsolete, mainly that women need to pretend that they don’t want sex. This doesn’t apply to older women who are second-wave feminists, or even women who aren’t feminists but are also not rape-apologists.

    Also, Broggly, you just broke my brain with that one. I’m going try it out on people being obtuse about rape: “You are less mature than Holden Caulfeld.”

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  15. Julie wrote:

    “Or who are still married to the guy.” Oh good God, what a sickening thought.

    I apologize, Doctor Science. I missed where you were going with your remarks and consequently took them out of context. We are very close in age, but it sounds like you knew/know women of a far more conservative bent than those with whom I associated in my young adulthood.

    My own experience was more like: “a Real Woman *never* says No, unless she is uptight and frigid.” Heh. Remember THAT particularly delightful invective? Oh yeah. Good times…

    Although I did not get as far as IKA (thanks, by the way!) in locating demographic details of the apparent rape-apologist respondents in the Yale study, I’m still curious as to what constitutes an Older Lady in this case.

    On reflection, and as a result of the thoughtful responses here, I guess it’s that I’m just so horrified at the very notion of women as rape apologists that I took things too personally.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  16. Ika wrote:

    Julie – you can download the whole paper here. I’ve only skimmed/text-searched it, but it doesn’t seem to define ‘older’: the ‘older’ thing is a really minor note in the research. His conclusion is that people with a hierarchical worldview are more likely to acquit; within that group, women are more likely to acquit than men; and within that group (hierarchical women), the older respondents were more likely to acquit than the younger ones. So there’s nothing about ‘older women’ as a group: he never uses the phrase ‘older women’, only things like ‘hierarchical women, particularly older ones’.

    I’m not, alas, horrified by the notion of women as rape apologists: the patriarchy has always recruited women to do its policing for it (there’s a very good second-wave book on this called Damned Whores and God’s Police).

    Friday, September 4, 2009 at 3:54 am | Permalink