The Power of “No”
This is part of a mini-series on sex critical feminism I am doing for this blog. This first piece is an edit of my submission to the Self-Love issue of The Bandit Zine. I took a chunk regarding sex positive feminism out as I feel differently regarding my politic and my experiences with dating and relationships and wish to tackle all of that in another blog post in this series. I will also be discussing practicing creating boundaries and consent in daily life and asking my brilliant friends their thoughts and experiences with navigating sex positive and sex-critical feminism and trauma.
Once, someone told me, “For an anarchist, you have a lot of rules.”
And it’s true. I am contrary. I often refuse things and to engage in typical 20something activities and behaviors. I have boundaries, limits, standards, policies, beliefs, ideals, rules of engagements, preferences. I reserve the right to change any of them or all of them at any moment’s notice according to my discretion. I do not apologize for this. I feel empowered and confident in my sense of self that the control I practice in my daily life gives me. Frankly, I say no (and nah, and nope, and nuh uh, and-), and I say it A LOT.
I feel very strongly that I do not owe anyone an explanation for my No’s . They are mine to give and give as freely as I wish. I take care of and love myself with my No’s.
However, that wasn’t always the case. It was part of my awakening as radical woman of color to be confident in saying “No”. So it is unfortunate to me that so little is talked about or even understood about the power of “No”. It is a wall I’ve come up against many times in radical and social justice-oriented communities.
It is common knowledge that right to choose and consent and to say yes to things considered taboo by mainstream society is an integral aspect of radical identity politics, and rightfully so. In a world where the freedoms and identities of marginalized people are restricted, our choices limited and controlled by those in power and their exclusionary, restrictive mandates, our voices and identities stifled and silenced, bodies shoved away in the darkness and erased, “yes” is very often liberation, and we say it loudly.
“Yes” to sex, to reproductive health rights, to racial justice, to queer relationships and love, to body hair and modifications, to revealing outfits, to genderfucking body expressions, to another cupcake, and another, and another, and another! We often define ourselves by this practice of “yes,” by doing what we’re told we shouldn’t, by going against oppressor values and mores and pursuing our desires and wants to the fullest. We associate “No” with the way we’ve been restricted and held back by majority culture, so it often isn’t thought of as a good thing, let alone liberating . So why — no, HOW is “No” a practice of self-love?
Around the age of 2, children typically learn and start to exercise their “No’s” . It is understood as their first navigation of boundaries, independence and freedom of choice. However, when I was young, I learned very quickly that “no” was not for me. “No” was my father’s favorite answer, to a sick degree. I, however, as the good Dominican daughter, was not allowed a “no .” “Sí, Mami y Papi” was the most favored term that could come out of my mouth . I had to go to events and places I didn’t want to go to, eat things I didn’t want to eat, say things I didn’t want to say, show face to people I didn’t want to show face to. A level of being told what to do is understandable; children need direction and guidance, and taking your lumps is integral for growth and to understand the responsibilities and realities of the world. However, a lot of it was just unnecessary and more nefarious and undermined me and blurred lines for me as a young girl. I was not taught that I had rights to boundaries or bodily autonomy and the ability to choose what I wanted for myself, I had to do whatever I was told. A rift was soon created between what I truly felt I wanted to do and how I wanted to conduct myself, how I wanted to be treated and touched, and how I was supposed to let other people treat me and touch me, how I was supposed to act and conduct myself. To my detriment, they were two radically different things.
This kind of upbringing is not without context. As women in a misogynist society, we’re taught to be compliant, submissive, never unwilling, and most certainly never defiant, stubborn, obstinate, or opposed, especially to the wills of a man and patriarchal society at large . A “bitch” is often a woman who does not say yes but instead puts her foot down, insists “No” and does instead what she pleases. Like the adage goes, while a slut is a woman who practices her right to say yes, the “friendzone” is when a woman practices her right to say no . We are demonized for essentially not being empty, mindless dolls, mere vessels to fill and meet the desires and expectations of other people at any given moment in time . We upset social order completely when we dare to have our own desires for lives we plan on leading our way, our own minds and dreams we plan on feeding, our own steez to be on . “Yes” in that context is submission, is willingness, is giving in, and therefore viewed as passive and feminine . “No” is defiance, it is refusal, it is denial, it is restriction and is seen as too masculine and assertive for women.
So it goes, this kind of socializing is not without incident. Women are undermined and thus made too afraid to stand up for themselves or create standards to protect themselves lest they be seen as difficult, prudish, frigid, snobbish, or “bitchy.” We often don’t know when abuse or harassment happens because we’re so removed from our right to protest, create boundaries, understand what we don’t like and don’t want and to have limits so that when the line is crossed we have no clue.
As an Afro-Latina, there is a racial dynamic as well. The “Good Nigger vs . The Bad Nigger” is based on Black people’s willingness to submit. We are meant to be shuckin’ n’ jiving, saying, “Yes, massa,” and bowing our heads down to the wills of supremacist culture upon our bodies . In an article on the “Jezebel” stereotype of Afro-diasporic peoples as found on Ferris University’s Jim Crow museum website (that I stay quoting all the time), it states, “From the end of the Civil War to the mid-1960s, no Southern white male was convicted of raping or attempting to rape a black woman .” That is to say, a Black woman doesn’t even have the word “no” in her language . We are supposed to say yes to the genocide of our children, to medical experiments on our bodies, to lack of access to proper health care and education, to racist jokes and language and supremacist ideology and so many more abuses and humiliations. The moment we’re too much, when we’re too headstrong, the moment we speak out against our victimization and mistreatment, we have to be tempered and broken and destroyed, subjugated to white society’s will, ire, and punishment. Our rage is not respected nor seen as righteous; it is dangerous. But we know our rage, our refusal, our “no” is our liberator.
“No” as exerted by marginalized communities — or us as individuals over ourselves and our lives — is the most amazing and revolutionary thing. I remember the moments I felt so lost, used, vulnerable, and angry when I said yes because I didn’t yet know how to say “no”. Now that I do, I’ll never stop saying it.