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Why It Can Be Hard to Say No

What are the factors?

The Aziz Ansari story has triggered many debates. A woman with the pseudonym Grace went to Ansari’s home after dinner on their first date. Sexual progression happened quickly. After making some verbal and non-verbal requests to slow down or stop, Grace eventually left and cried the whole way home. Many thought that she should have taken responsibility and just left sooner. Others assert that there was no consent because he kept pushing for more sexual progression, ignoring her requests until she gave in. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, one thing remains common among many: we have been there.

A Common Experience

Many women have shared having been in similar situations. We tried to speak up to no avail or did not know how to voice our preferences and ended up doing something that did not feel great to us. How is it that so many of us can relate? Even those of us who can stand up for ourselves at work or to our parents or friends sometimes lose our voices in sexual or intimate settings. Why do so many of us acquiesce in the moment, only to then feel awful and violated later?

For each person the reasons will be different or involve a complex web of factors. What we can do though is to assess our own situations and anticipate what might play out for ourselves in a similar situation to hopefully lead to happier future outcomes.

Socialization and Expectation

Women in particular are socialized to please. We are taught to be good, not rock the boat, to keep the peace. For many of us it is so ingrained that we don’t even notice when we hold ourselves back in order to make it easier for the other person. Many will ignore their own internal voice because they prioritize making things ok for the other.

We want to be desired. So many ads and mainstream women’s magazines reference women’s (sexual) desirability as a goal. How to win over a man, the kind of woman a man will have if he buys a fancy car, how to be the woman every man desires: these are all themes that we hear repeatedly. Of course, the desire to be desired can be a factor for folks of all orientations. And this desire is magnified when we are star struck, or the other has high social status, even if it is just in our minds. Whether we like it or not, once we are faced with that desire, we might feel conflicted about what a partner then wants or even feels entitled to as a result of our efforts to become the object of their desire.  


One in three women, and even higher numbers among women of colour, indigenous and transwomen as well as one in six men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. We may experience other kinds of violence as well. If we have a history of violence or fear that violence might be the result of saying no or even asking for something different, we might acquiesce as a lower price to pay.

Internal Conflict

Many of us believe in the idea of sexual agency, that we should feel ok about taking charge of our sexuality and pleasure. Sometimes, however, we feel awkward or uncomfortable or change our minds about what we want to do in the moment. It often does not play out in real life as we had imagined. It is common for us to get caught up in our heads with a dialogue about what is going on, essentially removing ourselves from experiencing the event while we have a debate as to what we want or should do in the moment. And the sexual experience progresses, not on our terms, while we are practically absent.

Listening to Ourselves and Communication Skills

It is easy to say that someone should just leave or say no. And many of us can do that in some instances. But what if we just want it to slow down? Or want something different but are not sure how to voice that preference? Or want to back up but that moment has passed already? Or we have done it before so we feel like we “should” be able to do it again? If we don’t want to say an outright no, it can be harder to say what we actually want. We certainly don’t learn those skills in school, among our friends or for most of us at home. In my workshops and private practice, many women say that they don’t even know what they want, much less know how to communicate it. And in moments of pressure or even panic, many of us ignore those messages that our gut gives us. We might not even hear them through the noise of our brains.

Other Factors

Some of us might freeze if we don’t have much time to think about what we want. Or we might be shocked when a partner pushes our head or hand onto a part of their body, not able to think of what to do or say. Sometimes we get worn down when a partner pressures us, badgers us repeatedly or tells us that we started something that we need to finish. And there are as many other reasons why we might get stuck as there are people.

Assessing our Own Vulnerabilities

The first step to moving forward is by taking a good look at ourselves and which factors play out in our lives. Even in long term relationships, many women disclose that they endure bad or painful sex to protect their partner or because they do not know how to speak up without ruining the moment or relationship as a result.

Reflect on your past encounters and think about what got in the way to your achieving a fabulous erotic experience. See if you can remember an inner voice that was trying to speak up but that you did not hear or ignored. Being aware of our patterns and vulnerabilities is a first step towards making change. Talk to your partner, a friend or therapist about these things to help you move through them. Talk to your kids about the gray areas of expression as well as the problems with not gaining explicit consent, ignoring cues or putting pressure on someone to change their mind. Next month’s column will focus on how to better prepare for the next experience so that you can feel more empowered and better able to advocate for what you want.

Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email carlyle@goodforher.com or go online to goodforher.com