3 Ways of Saying “No” to Unwanted Sex

Consent is a complicated process, a facet of mutual agreement upon what course of action to take. Consent for sexual contact, when all involved are on the same page and know they are on the same page—and stay on the same page—is relatively straightforward. Consent in general is core to leadership, as followers must necessarily consent implicitly, explicitly, under duress, or by frank coercion, if one person’s plans are to guide the behavior of many. When it comes to consent to engage in sexual activities—where leadership should be shared and all decisions unanimous—power dynamics engage and one person strives to overcome the will of the other, whether conscious or unconscious, overt or hidden. Decisions where agreement is unclear and choices are changing are necessarily the most complicated in terms of consent, as the status of the consent may become uncertain with the passage of time for various reasons, some more acceptable than others.

Consent may be explicit or implicit, verbal, or non-verbal, depending on the circumstances. For how long is consent good? Is the time frame of the consent spelled out? Do we agree that consent is standing until rescinded, or is that left unspoken? What happens when consent changes? How is that communicated, is it clear, is it tactful, is it unspoken or discussed in an unclear way? Who’s obligation is it to check on consent, the giver or the receiver of the consent?

When it comes to heterosexual activity, the default for most people is to assume that the man is asking for consent to have sex with the woman, but that is not always the case. Do we unpack that assumption that the woman is the “gatekeeper” and discuss shared consent, or do we leave that aspect unformulated? These kinds of questions, and others, characterize the currently timely discussion of consent. Remarkably, we have been talking about consent for at least several decades, if not hundreds or thousands of years, and we still are hazy about it. Whether it comes to sexual consent, a medical procedure, a business deal, a personal agreement, consent can be slippery.

Refusal is as complicated as consent, but less well researched

Refusal, on the other hand, is a decision not to consent to a suggested course of action, prior to consent having been granted. This is complicated in terms of whether consent had previously been given, and either needs to be re-determined, or is presumed to remain in place.  Misunderstanding is likely when one believes consent is there and the other believes it needs to be obtained, and in other similar variations on that theme.

Because there is less work done on refusal versus consent, researchers Marcantonio, Jozkowski and Lo, in Archives of Sexual Behavior (2018), looked at a specific sexual refusal scenario – how do heterosexual undergraduates go about refusing sexual intercourse? They did research with 773 students at U.S. universities in the South and Midwest, conducting and refining ways of assessing how people refuse sex while also getting a snapshot of how they actually behaved when refusing sex. They looked for correlations between methods of refusal and other factors, including demographics such as gender and relationship status. 

They were presented with a scenario, and asked to rate how they would respond using an inclusive pool of 38 refusal approaches from prior research:

‘‘People communicate their willingness or consent to
engage in sexual activity in a variety of ways.To what extent do you
agree or disagree with the following statements to the question:‘‘In
general,how would you let your potential sexual partner(s) know if
you were not going to consent or were not going to agree to have
vaginal–penile intercourse with them?’’

In addition to surveying sexual refusal, an important goal of this study was to continue development of a new rating tool, the Sexual Refusal Tactic Scale (SRTS). Based on prior research, they had come up with that comprehensive but imprecise list of 38 ways people might refuse sex, covering a broad range of strategies ranging from saying no, to explaining in a more roundabout way, to nonverbal communication. In the current study, they narrowed those items down to 9, eliminating ambiguity and overlap, and investigated how they mapped onto students’ reported strategies to find the underlying relevant pattern and confirm the shorter list of items adequately covered what they wanted to investigate.  Using statistics to distill the data (“factor analysis”), they found three underlying factors governing sexual refusal: direct nonverbal, direct verbal and indirect nonverbal. Here are the nine items and how they group in the factor analysis:

9 ways of refusing sex and the 3 underlying factors into which they group.

Source: Mercantonio et al., 2018

One main finding of the study was that the 9 survey items adequate cover peoples’ sexual refusal tactics, validating the Sexual Refusal Tactics Scale, which will require further testing and refinement (e.g. to see if it works in other demographic groups and cross-culturally). But where there any patterns in how students’ refuse to give consent to sexual intercourse?

There were two main statistically significant findings. First, the only gender difference was that women refuse consent to sex more often than men do. There were no differences in this sample among how often men and women use direct nonverbal, indirect nonverbal, and direct verbal refusals. The second finding was that single men and women use direct nonverbal communications to refuse consent to sex more often than do those in a relationship. There were no other significant findings.

Navigating murky waters

Is it surprising that there are no differences in refusal tactics found between men and women? It held true in this fairly homogeneous sample of college students. It will be important to see if there are any differences a function of race, ethnicity, age, educational level, attachment style, personality and so on. It is important because it can help use better understand why people have difficulty refusing to consent to sex in different settings and under different circumstances. We generally expect women to refuse more often, because the status quo in heterosexual relationships is that men initiate sex more often than women.

This reflects underlying asymmetry in gender relations, and needs to be examined in greater detail. To illustrate briefly,  stereotypically men are not expected to refuse sex requests, especially from an attractive partner, as one might run the risk of being accused of being un-masculine, to put it politely. Likewise, women could be viewed as too sexually forward, leading to a different set of problems in our gender-biased reality. To compound matters, we don’t just have to deal with such stereotypes and their consequences from others, we also internalize them and run the risk of unconsciously hindering ourselves. 

Paired people were more likely to endorse direct verbal and indirect nonverbal refusals, whereas single people were more likely to say they would use direct nonverbal refusals. Perhaps single people are less comfortable being open, not wanting to hurt the other person’s feelings with a direct refusal but wanting to be clear with a direct nonverbal refusal, whereas those in couples are either accustomed to discussing sex decisions, and/or have developed a private set of indirect nonverbal cues both to avoid the discomfort of discussing sex as well as to tactfully provide unspoken cues.

It’s interesting that indirect verbal cues were not identified in the study, such as making excuses, blaming refusing sex on some other issue or reason. Future work here would be interesting to look at sexual communication around refusal in better understanding the types of communications people actually use in real-world settings, or more naturalistic research studies which could use detailed vignettes or role-playing, or even real-world studies of actual couples.

There’s no question that discussing problematic aspects of consent and refusal without blaming victims is essential. We haven’t done a good job on this, in spite of being aware for a long, long time. We can look at both sides of the interaction with candor in order to address these issues permanently. For example, people often do not feel comfortable saying no, but direct verbal refusal may not seem the best course of action, and it may not actually be the most successful approach.

In friendship situations people may consent when we don’t want to have sex because we don’t want to hurt the other’s feelings by direct refusal. Power dynamics in workplace settings present parallel challenges to for consent and refusal. Having a way to say no and also protect the relationship is most important at such times when desire may be mutual but having sexual contact ill-advised, while maintaining a zero-tolerance policy for abuse, assault and harassment and providing tools for preventing harm from taking place.

Studying consent and refusal helps us work out ways to navigate the stormy waters of interpersonal relations when things are not clear cut. Data on consent and refusal can inform training programs for rape and harassment prevention, can be used by individuals for personal reflection and change, and can inform the discussion of consent and refusal on a systemic level.

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