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Why We need to stop telling people to get better at saying no

A few years ago I spoke with several young women who had had a “consent class” during their last year of high school. During this class, the boys were sent to the gym to play basketball while the girls remained, enduring a lecture on how to say no more clearly and more firmly. 

I think most of us can see how wrong this was, how based on assumptions, how heteronormative, and how victim blaming this approach to teaching “consent” is. And yet, in slightly less obvious ways, I continue to see this approach to consent education perpetuated again and again.

Boys and girls are still separated and taught different things, with no plan for non-binary or queer kids. When this happens, girls are taught to have firmer boundaries, make assertive eye contact, and the idea that they could never be a perpetrator of a consent violation is quietly communicated. Boys are taught that they need to watch out for consent violations perpetrated by their peers against the girls, and to stand up against them. The assumption that they can never be a victim of a consent violation is communicated by default. Generally consent is only spoken of in terms of sexual interactions, and the many ongoing myths about sexual assault are not called into question. In fact, through this very structure of teaching, and in other ways, they are reinforced.

One of the challenges in teaching consent skills to people, is getting them to unlearn the myths, scripts, misconceptions, and problematic perspectives that contribute to an ongoing culture of coercion. Learning how to have better interactions isn’t complex because it’s so hard to do, it’s complex because we have so much baggage to unpack. The kind of baggage that would make well meaning people separate boys and girls and then only talk to the girls about getting better at saying no.

I have written in another blog post about how I consider hearing no graciously as the most important and foundational consent skill. But people only fully comprehend the importance of hearing no graciously once we examine the reasons that many people have a hard time saying no, even in low stakes situations. And that sometimes it is impossible for people to say no, even though they really really want and need to.

I have also written about the freeze response in another blog post, and you can read about that here. It is an autonomic trauma response, just like fight and flight, that occurs within 15 milliseconds of experiencing an event that the brain stem identifies as a threat. For children, and for victims of sexual assault, the freeze response is by far the most common response. This is outside of people’s conscious control, and can be very confusing to people during and after experiencing this response, as many people have never heard of it, and don’t understand what is happening to them..

People may also think that because they were able to say a few words, or were able to keep walking, that they were not having a freeze response. But the reality is that we may be able to do automatic things like driving and walking during a freeze response, and we may be able to utter a few words, but we won’t be able to say full sentences about what we want, and we won’t be able to say or do what we want to.

One very common myth about sexual assault is that it will always be a loud event with lots of fighting and yelling of “no!”, but the reality is that most victims will be experiencing a freeze response and there will be very little movement or vocalization.

When people don’t understand about the freeze response, they blame themselves and others for not saying “no”, for not fighting, for not running away. This leads to a lot of victim blaming and shaming, by the aggressor, family, friends, and even by the victims themselves. 

Young people find it very impactful to learn about the freeze response, and I hope that everyone who learns about it, and how common it is, will educate others about it in turn. 

But the freeze response is not the only reason we need to stop focusing on telling people to get better at saying no. Even in low stakes situations, when people don’t feel threatened, it can be very difficult for people to say no. This is normal and common, as generally we want to get along, not hurt people’s feelings, we don’t want conflict, and we want people to like us. A group of students can come up with a very long list of reasons why it might be hard to say no.

And depending on how much power we have in the situation, if we are from a marginalized or targeted group, or if we have been taught to be nice in all situations, this can make it even more difficult to say no. 

In the book, Sexual Citizens: A Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus by Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan, college survivors of sexual assault are interviewed. Over and over again they say something like, “I don’t understand why I didn’t say no!” Young people know that they have the right to say no. For the most part they comprehend very well the theory of consent and how interactions should go. But then, in high stakes and stressful situations either unconscious training or autonomic reactions set in and have to be either overcome, or compassionately recognized and understood.

This is why the foundation of any consent educational program should be based on understanding why it’s hard for people to say no, and then learning to hear no graciously. Learning to hear no well and graciously includes learning to recognize a no that is non verbal, and to identify uncertainty, hesitation, or people pleasing behavior in others. And not just learning about these skills, but actually practicing them and integrating them in an embodied way.

We must stop badgering people about saying no more confidently, having better boundaries and communicating them more effectively This only adds to the shame and self blame that victims feel when they have been unable to say no. If we truly believe that only an enthusiastic yes is a yes, then we should be asking people if they got an enthusiastic yes, rather than focusing on who said, or didn’t say, no. 

In our book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators, we have an entire chapter on the Freeze Response. My co-author Marcia Baczynski and I feel that this is such an important subject that we all need to understand better. We also spend two chapters talking about how and why it can be difficult to say no. The fun and interactive exercises in the workshop and the book help participants to practice skills such as hearing no, recognizing a lack of enthusiasm, and knowing what to do when you’re a maybe.

To learn more about consent skills, the workshop, or the book, come learn more at my website,

Order the book here!

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1 Comment

Monica Reyna
Monica Reyna
Mar 12

Love the point "One of the challenges in teaching consent skills to people, is getting them to unlearn the myths, scripts, misconceptions, and problematic perspectives that contribute to an ongoing culture of coercion. Learning how to have better interactions isn’t complex because it’s so hard to do, it’s complex because we have so much baggage to unpack."!

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