As I mentioned in my review of The Myth of Male Power, Warren Farrell claims that when women say “no,” there’s a good chance they mean yes. If she’s French-kissing while telling you she doesn’t want sex, maybe she really wants you to ignore her no and keep going. If a woman tells you to stop sexually harassing her, she’s testing you to see if you’ll fight to win love (evolution has hardwired her to want a fighter!). If she mentions liking Fifty Shades of Grey, which is all about a woman being dominated, that’s code for wanting the guy to dominate her. After all, Gone With the Wind has a big marital rape scene, and generations of women think it’s sexy that Rhett Butler didn’t want for informed consent.
Farrell’s not alone in claiming “no means yes.” Limbaugh, for instance, once told listeners “no means yes if you know how to spot it. Seduction used to be an art, now of course it’s ‘brutish’ and ‘predatory.’” Lots of dating-advice books express the same view: guys are hunters so they’ll be more excited if the woman plays hard to get. Women should say no to encourage pursuit; if a guy doesn’t pursue, he’s a wimp. The same applies to sex: guys won’t buy the cow if they get the milk free.
The long and the short of it is that we live in a culture which encourages guys to disregard a woman’s no and shames a woman if she says yes too soon (“If a lady says no, she means maybe. If she says maybe, she means yes. if she says yes, she’s no lady.” according to one old phrase). This does not lead to good sexual communication. One survey of college women found 39 percent had said no at least once to sex when they meant yes. This does not validate Farrell/Limbaugh, though. It still adds up to a majority of nos that actually mean no; a guy who assume he knows “how to spot it” can easily get it wrong, especially if he relies in these guys’ advice (I’ve French kissed women who did not want sex; I’m not alone). Despite Farrell’s claims about 50 Shades and Gone With the Wind, you are not what you read. Enjoying a book about a man who won’t take no for an answer does not mean you want that in real life.
And a lot of people really do have trouble spotting it. In one 1985 case, a foster parent threatened to return his fourteen-year-old charge to the detention home unless she slept with him. She refused, but eventually submitted. The appeals court in Commonwealth v. Mlinarich thought they could spot that her no meant yes: he hadn’t used force, so clearly he’d seduced her, not raped her. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen described director Roman Polanski’s rape of a thirteen-year old by saying “he seduced [her] with all the power and authority of a 44-year-old movie director who could make her famous.” That’s a bizarre interpretation of Polanski giving a tween drugs and alcohol, then penetrating her even after she said no to sex.
“Seduction” is doing a lot of work here. I think of seduction as murmuring sweet nothings in my date’s ear as we sip wine by candlelight (yes, I’m old). Contrary to Limbaugh, I’ve never heard that sort of thing described as brutish; I suspect he was thinking of something more aggressive. He’s never thought consent mattered, complaining that liberals favor calling in the rape police when there’s no consent. Guess what? If there’s no consent, it is indeed rape.
It’s true if a guy holds back when the woman’s “no” isn’t sincere, he’s passing up a chance to get laid. But that’s preferable to becoming a rapist. At least, it is for a decent human being; many rapists aren’t. They’re not trying to spot the woman’s secret desires; they don’t care about them. That doesn’t mean this talk of seduction and no means yes isn’t harmful; just look at the judges in Mlinarich, or Farrell’s argument that even a sexual harassment lawsuit shouldn’t discourage a man from pursuing his coworker (she wants you to fight for her, remember?).
In other contexts, we know “no means yes” is bullshit. If a panhandler asks me for five bucks and I say no, nobody assumes I mean yes. If they pursue me and keep asking, maybe I eventually give them money; that doesn’t mean my no wasn’t sincere. In business or sales negotiations, No is often a bargaining strategy; it’s still wrong to force someone to buy a product (“I know you want to close this deal so give me the money.”) and we know it.
When the context is sex, that logic disappears. In 2003, for instance, pundit Gregg Easterbrook said that because no often means yes, saying no to a man doesn’t make it rape. Only saying flat out that “if you don’t stop, it’s rape,” is good enough. But if no means yes, why can’t “this is rape!” mean yes? In one 2014 Swedish case, the victim shrieked no until her voice was hoarse. The judge dismissed the case on the grounds the attacker thought she liked it rough. Would screaming “this is rape!” have changed anything or would the judge have decided that was more of her kink?
Even if the attacker genuinely thought the woman was playing hard to get, having sex after she says no is still rape. Just like a drunk driver who didn’t realize they were over the legal limit, rape is a crime regardless of the attacker’s intentions.