It isn’t just boys who need to learn to hear the word “no.”
I’m at a high school teaching our IMPACT:Ability program. We’re about 6 weeks into the program, so we’re starting to address some more uncomfortable topics. This week we’re doing dating scenarios, where students have to practice saying “no” to a partner trying to coerce them into having sex. The teens all seem receptive when the girls are practicing—girls saying no to a pushy partner appears to register as a normal, albeit objectionable, situation. But when the boys come up, it seems only the boys are buying in.
A few of the girls are making disgusted faces; they look as if they feel personally offended by the scenario. “I would flip out if a guy did that to me,” I hear one girl say to her friend.
To clarify, “that” isn’t being manipulative, coercive, or otherwise pushy as a dating partner. “That” is simply saying no to sex.
The belief that boys always want sex, and shouldn’t refuse it when the offer comes from a girl, is just as damaging as all the harmful messages out there about girls and sex. It robs boys of their agency, it renders invisible their pain after an assault, and it fails to hold girls accountable for their actions—depriving them of the personal growth that comes from understanding and admitting a wrongdoing.
Girls need to learn to accept rejection in sexual situations just as much as boys need to learn to take no for an answer when a girl they like turns them down. In both cases, we should be encouraging respect for the other person’s autonomy and the development of a self that doesn’t rely on outside validation (there’s nothing more attractive than someone who wants, but doesn’t need, to be with you). Just like we need to counteract the message that a girl who doesn’t want to date a guy just hasn’t been convinced yet, we also need to correct the idea that girls are the gatekeepers to sex—the only ones with the power to decide if it’s a yes or a no. Heterosexual girls need to realize that sexual rejection is a part of life.
The idea that boys always want sex also feeds into the notion that a girl’s greatest power is in her sexuality, which makes rejection unpalatable. (If a guy doesn’t want to sleep with you, you must be worthless). Put in a situation where their sexual advances are denied, someone with this belief is likely to choose not to accept rejection and instead double down on their goal—and deny later that what they did was sexual assault.
It’s worth noting that these narratives about sex and sexuality exclude non-binary people entirely, as well as LGBTQ+ people. So they not only serve the harmful purpose of putting cis-gendered heterosexual young people in a box that tells them how to behave/perform sexuality, they reinforce the idea that being cis and straight is the only acceptable way of being.
Girls (and everyone who needs to hear this): your value is not in how “f***able” you are. You are valuable as thinkers, creators, writers, friends, daughters, problem solvers, athletes, caregivers, and loud-mouthed dissenters. How you respond to someone setting boundaries with you—and whether you give them the chance to—says so much more about you than whether someone wants to sleep with you.
And if someone doesn’t want to sleep with you, be grateful for their honesty, and move on to someone who does. Sex is 1000x better when everyone is into it anyway.
Note: For more on this topic and for personal accounts from boys, I highly recommend checking out Peggy Orenstein’s article “Boys Often Don’t Recognize When They’ve Been Sexually Assaulted.”