Why You Should Never Feel Guilty or Awkward About Saying 'No'

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By Locke Hughes

When you were a little kid, 'no' was probably one of your favorite words—one that you happily doled out in any situation, at any time, to any authority figure. But as we get older, uttering those two little letters too often becomes uncomfortable, or even impossible—especially when it comes to sexual scenarios.

Saying no to sex should be as simple as, well, saying no, but it’s often more complicated than that. Maybe you feel awkward, because you like the person. Or you feel guilty for “leading someone on.” Or perhaps, like the character Margot in the viral short story “Cat Person,” you didn’t want to seem “spoiled” or “capricious” once you’re already in someone’s bedroom.   

Here’s the thing, though: No one should ever feel pressured to do anything sexually they don’t want to do, says Julia Bennett, director of learning strategy on the education team at Planned Parenthood. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at a bar, in someone’s apartment, or in bed. Nor does it matter whether you’ve slept with that person before, or you’ve gone on three dates, or even if you’re in love. Everyone deserves to have their boundaries respected, point blank. But we know that’s not always how things go.

What is Consent, Exactly?  

Before we talk about saying no, let’s recap what it really means to say “yes.” According to Planned Parenthood, giving consent actually consists of five elements, which you can remember by the acronym, FRIES: Freely given (not under the influence of drugs or alcohol), Reversible (you can change your mind at any time), Informed (you know the full story), Enthusiastic (you’re truly into it!), and Specific (just because you consent to making out, you’re not saying yes to sex, for example).

“These 5 pieces of consent are all equally important and necessary, so just because someone doesn’t say no, that doesn’t mean yes,” Bennett explains. And the onus is always on the asker or initiator to stop the situation if it’s making you uncomfortable. (If you are your partner are having trouble discussing exactly what consent means, PP’s video series on the topic is a helpful resource.)

When and How to Say No

Before you even take a sip of that rosé on a date, take some time to determine your boundaries and your non-negotiables, says Keri Potts, an anti-sexual violence speaker and victims advocate at Pathways to Safety International. Then, you can lay out your expectations sooner rather than later, using active, affirmative language.

For example, say, “I am looking forward to tonight, but I do not want to have sex with you. I want to be clear on that.” Or, “If we have sex tonight, I want to do that at my apartment and I need you to use a condom,” Potts says. Also, ask them if they understand or if they have concerns, Potts says. Remember, it should be a conversation between two people.

Be clear and direct when stating your boundaries, and look them in the eyes as you talk, Bennett suggests. “You can also tell them what you do want to do, listing some activities you’re interested in but others you’re not,” she says, which can help the conversation go more smoothly. 

Saying No in a Potentially Dangerous Situation

A red flag to watch out for: If your partner keeps ignoring the boundaries you set, tries to change your mind or wear you down, or displays anger or frustration, it might be a sign of a potentially unsafe sitch, Potts says. And if in doubt, always tune into your gut. “Your gut is your internal warning system; it wholly has you and your safety in mind.”

If you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe, here’s your game plan: Remain calm and firm (not aggressive or rude) while expressing your desire to end the encounter or leave, Potts suggests. If possible, find someone and ask for help. If you are alone, seek an exit route ASAP. You can also take a “time out” (like going to the bathroom to gather your thoughts), or make an excuse that allows you to leave (maybe you suddenly feel ill, or there’s a family emergency)—whatever makes you feel more comfortable.

The bottom line: a no is a no. Your partner should always respect your boundaries, Bennett reminds us, and you always have the right to change your mind. Finally, remember that feeling too guilty, scared, or awkward to speak your mind doesn’t help anyone, Potts says. But expressing exactly what you want (and don’t want) is a win-win situation. “It’ll put an end to any unhealthy, uncomfortable, or even harmful situations,” she says, “and lead to a more enjoyable sexual experience with clear expectations on both sides.”

This post is part of an April series for Sexual Assault Awareness month in partnership with Planned Parenthood. Check back throughout the month for more tips on how to talk about your and your partner's boundaries in a way that isn't scary or awkward.