I have a confession to make. Taking no for an answer doesn’t always happen easily.
See, there’s been a lot of conversation in different online and in-person communities that I move through about “creepy men.” I’ve even written this piece on five things men can do to not be creepy. Part of those discussions include talking the seeming inability or unwillingness of some people to take no for an answer, and I think they often gloss over the fact that it’s something that we have to learn how to do. So I’d like to come out of the closet and speak about a time when I didn’t take no for an answer.
A while back, I went to an event put on by one of the aforementioned communities that I’m a member of. It was all-night dance, with amazing people, great costumes, and fun music. I was a bit tipsy, as were many other folks. I ran into a group of people I knew, including a woman I’d chatted with at a recent party. I’d enjoyed our conversation, was quite attracted to her, and had had the thought that I’d enjoy another opportunity to talk with her.
When I saw her, I tried to engage with her and said something clumsy. I admit that I don’t recall my exact words, though as I said, I wasn’t sober. She politely declined, and I kept trying to talk with her. Looking back on it, my brain wasn’t processing her clearly and well-stated boundaries. And so I kept pushing, trying to get a different response, until she walked away, obviously angry with me.
I spent the rest of the night in a shame spiral because I knew I’d done something out of alignment with my expectations for how I want to act. I’d manage to interrupt the cycle for a few minutes, and then I’d get pulled right back in. I would have driven home, but I needed to wait to sober up. I could have found someone to drive me, but I didn’t think of it because I find it hard to reach out when I’m in a shame spiral. I was able to tell a couple of people a little of what had happened, which helped. A bit.
During the following few weeks, I gave a lot of time to sitting with what I had done and what had happened. It wasn’t a comfortable process, and I knew that I needed to do that before I could offer an apology. Over the years, I’ve worked hard to change how I act, especially towards people I find myself attracted to. Learning to gracefully receive a “no” took a lot of work and I don’t always manage to do it. The way that I can make room for my being imperfect is being willing to offer apologies when I make a mistake.
I don’t mean “willing” in the sense of going along with it, as the phrase “I’m willing to do it” is commonly meant. That’s the inverse of what “willing” means to me. When I say it, it means that I will do what I intend to the best of my ability. It means engaging my will, honing the blade because a sharp knife cuts best. Sitting with my actions and moving through my emotions let me see that I needed to cut away my shame in order to offer an apology with an open heart.
So I leaned into my discomfort and emailed one of the folks I knew in that group and asked her what she thought the best way to forward would be. She agreed to pass an email along, so I wrote this. I changed names and specific details for anonymity’s sake, but otherwise, this is verbatim.
I would like to offer you an apology for how I behaved at the event last month. I’ve been sitting with this ever since and I hesitated because I didn’t want to bother you further. But I knew that you deserved an apology, so I asked Susan for her advice. She thought it would be OK if I sent this to her to forward to you. I hope that’s all right.
I am very sorry for not hearing and not respecting your boundaries. You were very clear about them and I didn’t honor them the way that I should have. While there were a few things on my end that prompted that, I’m not going to burden you with them because, frankly, I’ve always believed that reasons are not excuses or justifications. Although I absolutely did not mean to be disrespectful, I know that I was and I regret the impact that had on you. I hope that my apology makes some amends for that.
Since it’s possible that we might both find ourselves at a future event, please know that I will not intrude upon you. I would not want any expectations about my future behavior to be a concern for you or to influence any decision on your part about attending events. While I can’t change what I have done, I will absolutely commit to not adding to it.
If you have any interest in replying to this message or if there’s anything further that I could do to resolve this, you’re more than welcome to either email me directly or to pass it along through Susan. And if you prefer to not do so, I certainly understand that. I simply want to make space for it, if there should be any need.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Heather responded by telling me that she accepted my apology and that while she’d be fine with saying hi in passing, she had no interest in interacting with me. I replied very briefly, saying that I understood, and that was the end of it. I’ve seen Heather at a few events since then, and I’ve always kept my distance out of respect for her boundaries.
It seems to me in all of this discussion about creepiness, crossing boundaries, and sexual assault (all of which are related elements of a larger structure), there’s not a lot of talk about how responding well to “no” is a learned skill. Whether it’s the result of my being a cisgender male, social conditioning, or the relationship between the two (which seems most likely to me), being able to respond well when an offer I made was declined, rejected, turned down, etc., did not simply happen. It’s a skill I had to cultivate, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of my family, my friends, my lovers, my partner, and my therapist. And it’s something that I don’t always do as well as I wish.
While I’m not a parent, I’ve certainly watched a lot of people raising kids and I think it’s pretty obvious that learning how to respond to a “no” without pushing is something that takes consistent and regular practice. It’s not something that just happens with people, any more than it happens with dogs. It takes a lot of work and it’s not easy to do. And unfortunately, the behaviors that seem so minor when we’re little become really annoying when we grow up, also rather like dogs. With all of the mixed messages we get about boundaries, communication, and gender rules, is it any surprise that so few people manage it?
Of course, while people of any gender can have difficulty hearing a “no,” though there are some trends that are clearly gendered around it. Not only are boys and men often not taught to hear a no, especially around attraction and sexual desire, many of us are taught specifically to not respond to it with respect. And let’s not forget that many women are taught to play hard to get, which can make it difficult to believe that a no really does mean no. But having difficulty saying or hearing a “no” isn’t limited to any particular gender- it happens everywhere.
I’m willing to bet that you’ve tried to override someone’s no at some point in your life. Maybe it was talking your friend into going to a movie with you, even when they said they didn’t want to. Or hugging someone who didn’t want to be hugged and whose body language you ignored or didn’t notice. Or holding a piece of food up to someone’s face and telling them to open up. Or repeatedly offering someone another drink or smoke or pill or shot, despite their saying they didn’t want it. Have you ever kept trying after the first “no”? Be honest. I bet you have.
I’m not suggesting that these are the same as being creepy or sexual assault. What I am saying, though, is that there’s a certain resonance between them. There’s a similar tone, even if the volume and intensity are wildly different. And I can’t help but wonder how much that contributes to the heat around discussions of creepiness. How much of the response to creeps is magnified by a desire to cast out the people who do things that we see in ourselves and dislike or feel ashamed of? It’s a common human reaction, unfortunately.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons for that heat. Consent, especially around experiences of sex and sexual assault, is a very touchy subject because there’s a lot of wounding and pain associated with it. US culture isn’t gentle around those hurts, either. There’s a lot that’s woven into our culture that keeps pressing on those tender wounds, which makes healing more difficult. There are plenty of reasons for people to be sick and tired of having to have the same conversations over and over, especially when it often seems like so few people (and men, in particular) are willing to try to change. And there’s a lot of reactivity on all sides of the discussions and fights about it, which generates anger and lashing out.
The resulting heat makes it nearly impossible for anyone to speak out about ways in which they’ve ignored the word “no” because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. And without speaking those words, without acknowledging those experiences, it’s a lot harder to change how we act. Anger causes fear and defensiveness. Fear smothers safety. Lacking safety is what keeps us from leaning into our vulnerability. And without openness and vulnerability, there is no change. So what do we do with that? What do we do about the fact that there are many solid and righteous reasons for anger AND the fact that anger makes it harder to foster the change that we need? How do we create space for vulnerability without invalidating the anger that comes from deep and repeated wounding? How do we tell the difference between a mistake and malice?
The only thing I can do is to speak my truth. Inexperience, intoxication, arousal, excitement- these can all make harder for any of us to gracefully take no for an answer, and I’ve been on both sides of each of those. I think that for most people reading this, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be able to say much the same. It might not be around sex, but it’s going to be there, somewhere.
I think we need to separate those reasons from other causes, such as selfishness, malice, or a desire to control and/or hurt someone. And I think we need a different response to someone who does something that’s not in alignment with their intentions versus someone who hurts others out of a lack of empathy or a desire to control and hurt. Unfortunately, I don’t always know how to tell which response is the best fit for a given person and situation. Lots of people who act out of malice or selfishness can pretend to want to make things right. Or they can mean it when they say they want to change and not have any idea how to do that. The only way to know whether someone will change is to see how they work to heal any injuries they’ve caused and what they do to learn new ways to act. That takes time and it means taking a chance on someone, perhaps when we’re feeling hurt and angry, which isn’t easy to do.
A few things I do know: I’m going to continue practicing taking no for an answer as gracefully as I can. And I’m going to apologize and make amends when I cross someone’s lines. When I see or hear about other people not taking no for an answer, I’m going to try to not shame them. Shaming them also shames the parts of myself that struggle with this. I refuse to shame any part of myself, in part because it makes it harder for me to apologize when I need to. My shame is difficult enough to work through without my magnifying it.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to let their (or my) behavior slide. Fierce compassion suggests that a solid kick in the ass can do a lot of good. If people hadn’t been willing to give me a few when I needed them, I wouldn’t have grown in the ways that I have. And it doesn’t mean that I’m going to coddle their (or my) shame. Shame is a powerful medicine and it can be a strong motivator, as long as it’s not overused.
In that spirit, I would like to renew the offer I made in this piece from last year. If I’ve ever not taken no for your answer with the respect you deserve, I invite you to share that with me so that it can be set right. As hard as it might be for me to hear it, I will do my utmost to receive it and to thank you for being willing to share that with me. There is no statute of limitations on this- if there’s still a charge for you, no matter how long ago it was, you’re welcome to get in touch. My contact form goes right into my inbox.
And also in that spirit, I invite you to consider some of the ways in which you’ve ignored, haven’t heard, or overcome someone’s “no.” Whether it was part a sexual experience or not, whether it was because of your excitement, intoxication, inattention, or simply being so attached to your desires that you couldn’t let go of them, I ask you to hold onto that in your discussions/debates/arguments about consent, creepiness, and sexual assault. It doesn’t have to be a topic of discussion- just let it inform your words and how you engage with people. If your experience is like mine, you might find that it helps things start to change. Until and unless we make room for the fact that one of the roots of creepiness is that people (of any gender or sexual orientation) need to learn how to hear “no” and respond appropriately, we’ll never be able to separate that element out and develop better skills. If we don’t make room for apologies, we’ll never get them. And if we don’t give space for people who make mistakes, we’ll never be able to come up with a productive response to the people who are genuinely malicious, hurtful, selfish, or simply loo lazy to change.
One tool that has been a big help for me is using safewords. While most people only think of them as a way to do roleplay involving mock resistance (think pirate and captured cabin boy, for example), another benefit is that they can make it easier to hear someone’s “no.” After all, we generally learn that word when we’re about two years old and by the time we’re adults, we usually have a lot of different associations with the word that can get in the way of saying it or hearing it, especially when we’re turned on. Using safewords can cut through that.
It doesn’t only have to happen during sex, either. I was once in a group conversation and someone made a joke that grossed me out. I said to the other folks, “I’m calling a safeword on this topic, at least until I can leave. I have a squick around it.” Since the rest of them were familiar with safewords, we changed the topic and all was well. And there are times when I get silly with my partner, joking past the point of it being as funny to her as it is to me. In those moments, I sometimes don’t pick up on the dissonance between her experience and mine, but if she safewords, I can stop annoying her. Try it. You might find it helpful.
In any case, I think it’s time that we stop talking about creepy people and start talking about creepy behavior. When we make it about creepy people, it renders creepiness as Other. But when we acknowledge that perhaps there’s a similarity between some of the creepy things that people do and some of the things we’ve done or that we do ourselves, we’re more likely to succeed at moving this conversation forward, instead of in circles. And I think that it’s time that we recognize that some of the creepy things people do might resonate with some things we’ve done that we’re not proud of. That’s an important step towards finding better and more productive ways to engage in this work and to foster real change.
So what are some of the ways you’ve had difficulty hearing or responding to someone’s “no”? Whether it was during sex or not, what’s something you’ve done that would bother you if someone else did it to you or someone you care for? Can you encompass that? Can you admit that there might be some resonance between “those creepy people” over there and yourself? And what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do to expand your capacity to take no for an answer, without pushing, whining, bargaining, cajoling, getting angry, or any of the other things people do to try to get a different response? How will you ask the people around you if you’ve hurt them, and offer an apology and amends? And how will you help other people to do the same?