This originally appeared on Fem2.0. Republished here with permission.
I was on a date recently with a man I’d met through mutual friends. When the waiter brought the check to the table, my date casually remarked, “I’ll get this one.”
“Oh that’s alright, I’m happy to split it,” I replied with a smile.
He pressed me, saying, “It’s fine, I’ll take care of it.”
“No, thanks. It’s really OK. I don’t mind paying, too.”
“I said don’t worry about it—I’ll handle it.”
I reached for my wallet as I yet again said, “No, that’s OK, I appreciate it, but I’d really like to pay for my own meal.”
“I said I got it.”
“No. Really, it’s kind of you to offer, but we should just split it.”
It was at this point that he and the waiter exchanged a knowing look, which I’ve come to identify as the “bro code” look. It’s the look that two men give each other when one of them is trying to get a woman into bed with him and he needs the other’s cooperation. I see this look in bars more often than I’m comfortable with—as if the men are negotiating over the price of a cow.
So my date and the waiter exchange this look, and the waiter ignores the credit card in my outstretched hand, instead accepting my date’s card. My date looks back at me, smiling.
I blinked. Exactly how many times did I need to say “no” in order for him to hear me and respect that?
In Gavin de Becker’s New York Times bestseller, The Gift of Fear, he describes how a man’s inability to accept “no” is actually a strong indicator of a much bigger problem with the way he relates to a woman. He writes:
“Declining to hear ‘no’ is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it. With strangers, even those with the best of intentions, never, ever relent on the issue of ‘no,’ because it sets the stage for more efforts to control. If you let someone talk you out of the word ‘no,’ you might as well wear a sign that reads, ‘You are in charge.’”
I never read truer words in my life. Four times I demurred, telling my date that I did not want him paying for my meal. And four different times, he ignored me, or brushed aside my refusal. He then went ahead and did what he wanted anyway, completely disregarding me and my opinion. I can’t think of a stronger signal he could have sent to tell me that he didn’t respect me.
I would have been perfectly happy to sit there and discuss it with him. I would have been happy to explain my reasons, and even give him an opportunity to counter those reasons. But he didn’t engage with me. He didn’t ask me my reasons because they didn’t matter to him. He went virtually behind my back to ensure I had no say in the matter. (We’ll save my disdain for the waiter for another time, but I find him equally complicit in this).
When I’ve explained this theory to male friends, they become immediately defensive. “He meant well!” “He was just being nice!” “He would have stopped if you hadn’t smiled as you said ‘no’—if you hadn’t appeared to be cute about it. If you hadn’t seemed so wishy-washy about it.”
This is a valid although ultimately naïve assertion. It’s true that it’s up to the woman to be clear—to communicate effectively. Men aren’t mind readers, and it’s often profoundly unfair to expect them to “know what we meant” when we didn’t exactly say “no.”
That being said, men aren’t idiots either. “No, thank you,” “I appreciate it but I think I’ll pass,” “I don’t think I want to,” and “I’d rather not” are universally accepted as simply polite ways of saying the exact same thing: NO.
For men to pretend that women need to put both hands in front of them and yell “no” loudly and aggressively in order to be understood, is insulting to everyone involved. Women are taught from birth that every time we assert ourselves, we might as well put a big sign on our foreheads saying “I’m a Bitch.” And especially on a date or in a social setting, no woman wants to ruin a fun time by introducing an aggressive current to the atmosphere.
The one thing you’ll notice I haven’t explained here in this post are my reasons for saying no. And that’s because they don’t matter in the context of a discussion about what “no means no” means. I could have a totally legitimate reason for saying no. I could also not. I could have a silly reason. I could have an utterly ludicrous and totally irrational reason.
It doesn’t matter. The value of my decision here isn’t the issue. The value of my decision-making ability is. It was my meal—ergo, my decision. When it’s anything that affects me, and not you the man or both of us together, it is unequivocally my decision and mine alone. You’re certainly welcome to offer to pay for my meal, and when I graciously decline, you’re welcome to ask for my reasons. You’re welcome to ask me to discuss them with you, but I have no obligation to convince you that I’m right or that my reasons have merit.
Why is this such a big deal to me, you might wonder? Simple. The majority of rapes are committed by acquaintances, and often romantic interests, and as such it would be almost foolish of me not to consider that I may end up dating a rapist. Sound like a pretty big leap? Let’s take a look.
Rape, let’s remember, isn’t about sex. As we know, rape is about power. It’s about control. It’s about not respecting a person’s agency, or a person’s right to make decisions about her own life. It’s about deciding that your word is more important and more valuable than someone else’s. Rape is you believing that your decision to have sex is more powerful than someone else’s decision not to.
“Rape is rape.” “No means no.” We make all of these things sound so simple. But the truth is that they aren’t simple.
Do I honestly believe that this guy would have ever pushed me down and forced me to have sex with him while I was kicking and screaming and crying? Frankly, I really have no idea. This person was a virtual stranger to me. All I can really say about him is that, much like anyone else on a date, I was using the dinner as a chance to get to know him. I do this by picking up signs, reading signals, and generally interacting with a person.
And because rape and sexual assault are crimes that women are perpetually taught to protect themselves against, I admit that I do need to ask myself while on a date with a stranger, “is he exhibiting any behavior that should be a warning signal to me?”
I have to ask myself, “will you be the one who eventually rapes me?”
I don’t like going through my life asking these questions any more than I imagine the men I go out with like that I ask myself these questions about them.
I’m confident that the men I go out with are nice guys. That they aren’t the few men out there who are committing the vast majority of the rapes. And I certainly don’t think that every man who insists on buying my dinner is a rapist.
What I will say though is that dismissing a woman who says no, denying her agency and her right to make decisions that affect her life, going behind her back and manipulating a situation so that she does not have control, is a dangerous signal.
This tells me that you don’t respect me, that you don’t value my decision-making ability, and that you don’t acknowledge, appreciate, or respect my agency.
Maybe you’re not ever going to rape me. But one thing is for sure: You won’t accept me as an equal partner in a relationship, and more likely than not, this dinner is just one of the ways in which your lack of respect for me will manifest itself.
At the end of the day, my life, my agency, my independence, are all worthwhile reasons to not have gone out with this guy again. It could have been a one time thing that actually wasn’t a big deal. Then again, it could have been an indication of a much bigger problem. Either way, my date made me feel like I didn’t exist, like I was a child taking directions instead of a grown woman making a choice.
And ultimately, a man who makes me feel like that isn’t one I’m ever going to be interested in, anyway.
Abigail Collazo serves as the Editor for Fem2pt0. Abigail has worked on women’s issues in both the nonprofit and government sector for over 10 years, with a particular focus on global women’s rights. Abigail grew up in Westchester, New York, and has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Mount Holyoke College. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University, where she is writing her graduate thesis on the intersection between gender and war. She tweets from @abigailcollazo.