National Post

Wednesday, March 03, 1999

The many meanings of 'no'

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Last week, nine Supreme Court of Canada judges unanimously declared that "no means no." Nice theory. Except that, like other political slogans, it has little relevance to real life.

The CBC technicians currently walking the picket line don't believe that "no means no" when the company says there's no additional money in the till. Their response has been to turn up the pressure. The Parti Quebecois doesn't believe that "no means no" when a majority of Quebec residents vote against separation. Its response is to try again later. Toddlers learn quickly that "no" doesn't always mean "no" when Mom denies their first request for a cookie.

Life is all about persuading other people to do what we want. If "no" always meant "no" there would be no reason to negotiate, no hope of compromise, and no progress in human affairs. Wars would never end and medical discoveries would never occur if humans were so easily discouraged.

Where sex is concerned, matters would indeed be less complicated if every person, male and female, always meant what they said. But people often lie to themselves about their desires, and they frequently have reasons to be less than candid with their partners.

It's astonishing that the same feminists who complain that there is a sexual double standard nevertheless insist that this double standard does not affect women's behaviour. In a culture in which promiscuous males are called studs while promiscuous females are considered sluts, women have an incentive to be less than forthright, to say "no" when what they're really thinking is "maybe" or "let's wait and see."

Many women do mean it when they say "no." But others are buying time while they make up their minds, and still others enjoy being pursued. In her just-released book, Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, dissident feminist Cathy Young argues against " 'no means no' absolutism." Ms. Young points out that, in a survey conducted in the mid-1980s, "60% of sexually active college women admitted that they had on occasion said 'no' while fully intending to have sex; nearly all had said 'no' when they weren't sure."

In the real world, sexual relations involve nuance, complexity, and contradiction. At the same time that a person is delivering a verbal "no," their facial expressions and body language may be sending opposite signals. And while no woman deserves to be raped because of what she's wearing, it's naive in the extreme to deny that our attire transmits sexual cues.

Shania Twain's short dress and thigh-high boots at the Grammys last week made it clear she is not shy about asserting her sexuality in public. Therefore, it might be reasonable for a potential suitor to assume that Ms. Twain holds liberal sexual views. On the other hand, such a suitor might be surprised to discover that Ms. Twain's private persona is rather different from her public one.

Sorting out what a potential sexual partner actually wants is difficult. For the unsophisticated, inexperienced, unintelligent, or socially awkward among us it is especially challenging. With four previous sexual assault convictions on his record, the accused in this case is nobody's idea of a poster boy. But although the Supreme Court has convicted him of sexual assault in this instance, it must be stressed that the man did not violently rape this complainant.

She testified that she said "no"on three occasions, after which he ceased his groping, lifted himself off of her, and put his penis back in his pants. Rather than initiate forcible intercourse, the accused backed off. He then tried to clumsily compensate her by giving her $100, and later called her at home to inquire after her well being.

But the Supreme Court gives him no credit for finally getting the message. Indeed, throughout the judgment, sexual assault complainants receive every benefit of the doubt while accused persons are given no quarter. The court says her assessment of the situation need not be "reasonable" (it doesn't matter whether a woman actually is in danger of being physically harmed, what counts is that she thinks she is). Yet he is expected to take "reasonable steps" to ascertain her consent and is expected to heed "common sense."

Did the Supreme Court really mean to suggest that, when confused about a woman's willingness, men might as well go ahead and have sex -- since they'll be treated like rapists anyway?

Andrew Coyne will return March 8.

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