Several years ago, my daughter and her friends came home from school buzzing with anticipation about their first middle school dance. As they chattered away about the event, they shared their anxiety about having to dance with someone even if they didn’t want to. As any self-respecting therapist/mother would do, I launched a conversation about honoring your boundaries, but I was quickly shut down when the girls told me there was a policy: if a boy asks a girl to dance, she should be kind and respectful and say yes.
While I tried to pick my jaw back up off the floor, the girls explained that a couple of years back, a middle school boy ran around the dance floor feverishly asking every single girl to dance, and every single girl said no. Well-intentioned adults, worried about the boy’s self-esteem, instituted the new policy. I have learned, since then, of many other schools that have instituted similar policies under the auspices of teaching respect, social etiquette, and kindness.
Let’s talk about these policies. There are the obvious problems, like the assumption of heterosexuality, and the assumption that the boys do the asking and the girls do the answering. Let’s call that problematic layer number one. Having these assumptions made explicit and formal to kids in formative young adolescent years via a policy instituted by the adults in power inevitably communicates the expectation of a narrow, traditional, prescribed gender role and sexual identity. For kids whose internal sense of self doesn’t match these expectations, these policies can create identity dissonance, confusion, repression, and shame.
Then there’s layer number two: the expectation that girls will say yes to be nice to boys. Especially in light of our nation’s recent increased awareness of the pandemic of sexual harassment, it is imperative that we teach our girls that it is their prerogative to say no to being touched in any way they don’t want to be touched, and to expect that their boundary will be honored. It is equally imperative that we teach our boys how to receive and respect “no,” to retain their self-esteem in the face of disappointment, and to learn emotional regulation and behavior management skills so they can behave respectfully when faced with rejection. In a culture in which one in three of women will experience sexual assault (according to a 2019 CDC report), this is critical.
Women and girls in our culture, through this kind of policy and a million other overt and covert
messages, are taught that they are responsible for other people’s feelings, and should forsake their own in the name of caring for others. I explained this to my daughter and her friends in 10-year-old language, ending with the conclusion that they had full permission to buck the policy and to say no at any time. My daughter replied with a sly smile, “But what if I want to say yes?”
You go, girl! This leads me to problematic layer number three of the “girls must say yes” policy. When we have to say yes, we never get to say yes because we want to; without the possibility of a no, there’s no meaningful yes. And do you remember what it feels like to really say yes? Remember being in middle school and dancing with someone you actually wanted to dance with? The butterflies, sweaty palms, awkward smiles, nervous small talk, shallow breaths, imperceptibly tiny steps inching you closer and closer together until Mr. Fiore tells you both to back up until he can see the light of day between you? Heaven! (Or “Stairway to Heaven,” as the case may have been).
That is a rich, wonderful moment of feeling alive. I want my daughter to have that moment, and I told her so. If you want to say yes, say yes and mean it! And enjoy it. Saying yes when you mean is it a portal to joy and connection.
I felt extra urgency to deconstruct this policy with the girls because, as a therapist with a specialty in reawakening women’s sexual desire, I see the painful results of this sexist message, the message that women should override themselves in service to others, years down the road. I sit with many women in therapy who say they don’t want to have sex with their partners anymore. After years of saying yes even when they didn’t want to in the name of protecting their partners’ feelings and playing their female role well — years of saying yes because they felt like they had to — these women lost their authentic yes. There is good reason for this loss: it is an adaptive response to a gender role that is taking away their right to say no.
Our primary need as human beings is to feel safe. When safety isn’t in place, all other needs take the
back burner. Ideally, we can keep ourselves safe by having boundaries; we can say no to what doesn’t feel safe or comfortable, and we can say yes to what feels enriching and fun. But if the capacity to say no is taken away, then we lose the option of staying safe by having pliable boundaries. Instead, we have to have a rigid boundary, a safe and solid wall of no. If the door can’t open and close, then the only safe option is to lock it closed. So much is lost: pleasure, sensual freedom, connection, playfulness, intimacy…but those needs are all secondary to safety, so they get sacrificed. That’s a serious loss, because sex from an authentic yes can be just as good as dancing with your middle school crush.
There’s one more problem—let’s call it layer number four. The “you have to say yes” policy is in place, at the school and in our culture, at large, presumably to protect the initiator. But in truth, it robs the initiator of an authentic yes, too. Every well-intentioned partner I know would rather have an authentic, active yes experience, on the dance floor or in the bedroom, than be the recipient of an obligatory, passive yes. The authentic yes has passion, life, zest, and intimacy. But remember, there’s no authentic yes without the option to say no. And the authentic no, the moment of painful rejection, can also be a rich and honest moment of feeling alive. Yes, it hurts. But we can’t protect ourselves, or each other, from pain and still feel alive. The authentic no, and the pain that comes with it, is intimacy, too, because it’s real. There’s no intimacy if we don’t show up for real. That’s why your authentic voice, no matter what it says in the moment, is your greatest gift to give. This is what I call Compassionate Authenticity: knowing that being your authentic self is the most compassionate act you have in you, because it is the root of aliveness and intimacy.
So practice listening for your authentic voice: your authentic yes, and your authentic no. Override the voice of internalized sexism that tells you it is your job to sacrifice your own boundaries, feelings and needs in the service of others. What does your core, true self have to say? If your true voice isn’t welcomed and safe in your relationship, then it’s not the relationship for you. If you are not with a well-intentioned partner who would rather receive a real no than a fake yes, then find yourself support to get out of that situation. But if you have the safety to do so, invite your authentic self to the table and tell her that she is welcome here. Tell her you want to hear what she has to say. And tell her you are going to buck the cultural policy and make room for your vibrant yes by empowering your no.
Post Script: I am thrilled to report that after talking with the well-intentioned staff member who instituted the “have to say yes” school dance policy, consensus was reached that there are better ways of working towards the desired goal of emotional wellness for all. The policy was dropped.