Recently, a woman friend told me about being invited out on a date. It is a story from more than twenty years ago. She was sharing it as part of a larger conversation we were having about relationships. It’s not a dramatic story. It isn’t a story that was difficult to tell. Which makes it all the more instructive because it is so innocuous.
Twenty years ago, a man she didn’t know well, asked my friend out. “Would you like to go out to dinner?” he said to her. They were in the process of closing up at the end of the day at a conference where they and others had been working together. My friend said “Thank you, but no.”
The man then came back the next day in the course their interactions and said, “Are you sure? I’m only asking for you to go to dinner.” The implication being, “Just take a little time to get to know me. If it’s not right for you, no big deal.”
She again said “No, thank you.”
For most men, this may seem a very simple exchange. Stories like this can sting a bit, reinforcing our personal histories of rejection and the attendant sense of loss. But it seems pretty commonplace, yes?
Meanwhile, the incel movement declares openly that men who don’t get selected by women for sex have every right to be angry and violent about it. And to prove they believe they have this right, they commit mass murder. The rise of incels and other masculinity extremists means it’s well past time to for men to start talking and self reflecting about what happens for us when a woman says, “No, thank you.”
I mean besides, “ouch.”
What if boys and men, early in our dating lives, could learn to consider the vast landscape of reasons why a woman might say, “No, thank you” to our offers of, requests for, intimacy? To begin with, we could ask ourselves why so many of us view the impact of a women’s “no” primarily through the lens of our own personal wants and needs? I’ve had this self-centered response more times than I care to admit. Especially when I was young. If men begin to question why we often are this way, things will shift. We can start considering a larger set of issues. Namely, the lifetime of inflection points that inform a woman’s choice (or a man’s choice, or a non-binary person’s choice) to say no to our offers of intimacy.
This is a conversation we really need to be having with other men, with our sons and with the women in our lives. The fact is, women’s reasons for saying “no, thank you” may have a lot less to do with who we are as individuals, and a lot more to do with the culture of masculinity men have collectively created, and are collectively sustaining. If we can, in good faith, make an effort to learn about the impact our culture of masculinity has on women’s lives, we can dial down our reactivity when we get told: “no, thank you.” Learning about our culture’s impact on women’s lives is the personal work we need to do if we are to successfully oppose the incendiary rage of Incels and other masculinity extremists who think all women owe them sex. And THAT, we damn well need to be doing.
No human being is required to provide a reason for saying no to another person’s offer of physical or emotional intimacy. “No” is its own reason. No is the alpha and omega of any human interaction.
But any conversation about “women’s reasons for saying no” must begin with this: No human being is required to provide a reason for saying no to another person’s offer of physical or emotional intimacy. “No” is its own reason. No is the alpha and omega of any human interaction. Learning to respect everyone’s right to say no to an offer of intimacy is a crucial relational benchmark for us as a species. A relational benchmark that we have woefully failed to achieve.
That said, let’s return to my friend’s story.
She and I talked about the brief exchange she had with this man. She then talked about why, in those days, she often said “No, thank you” to men seeking a date. In the initial moments, her reasons included:
- I was moving to a new state to start my internship.
- Dating had always seemed like a distraction from focusing on my education.
- I felt no strong attraction.
- I had been raised to be careful about men.
The first three were clear and pragmatic reasons for a no; based on the life of a busy woman who was focused on her own priorities. This is something which, by the way, many men can never quite seem to fathom. Namely, a heterosexual (or bi-sexual) woman with no particular need for a male partner in her life.
The fourth reason she gave for saying no is seismic in its scale. It is the issue many women consider in these moments; safety. These four reasons together formed the context from which her answer emerged almost automatically as, “Thank you, but no,” but there were other things specific to this particular man in these moments that she also recalled. These are things men often fail to notice but that many women see right away.
Take for example, the circumstances in which he invited her to dinner. They were the last two people in the conference space for the day, doing a final clean up when he made his invitation. Whether he was aware of it on not, he was standing between her and the door. She had already been tracking the exits because this is what women do when they are alone with a man they don’t know well, but now that he asked the question, she became even more aware of his position between her and the door.
“Thank you, but no,” she said. She sensed that her answer didn’t land well. Perhaps he was disappointed or embarrassed, but they didn’t discuss it further. She made it her goal to finish and get out the door without delay.
When a man asks a woman (or anyone else) on a date, it is never a simple request. There is no such thing as “just dinner.” When we make such an invitation, we are asking another person to be open to possible emotional or physical intimacy. Because it‘s about intimacy, it activates each persons’ histories, both good and bad. These histories can include past lovers, family relationships, friend’s experiences, work relationships, momentary experiences on the street, even what we witness as children; literally every relational moment that has lead up to now. Our histories of sexual or relational trauma leap to the forefront immediately. All of this happens in an instant.
When a woman answers “No, thank you,” it could be the result of a previous ugly interaction between her and a man we will never meet; a man who created an inflection point in this person’s life that informs how she calculates her response to men seeking intimacy. And while these kinds of previous bad interactions can be huge, up to and including domestic violence or rape, they can also be smaller than that. They can be a single bad interaction, one small ugly moment.
And before we say, “But I’m not the guy who did that,” we need to take ownership of something that many of us angrily refuse to accept.
And before we say, “But I’m not the guy who did that,” we need to take ownership of something that many of us angrily refuse to accept. On a very real level, we are that guy. A lot of the deeply negative inflection points that impact women’s views of intimacy are born out of our dominance based culture of masculinity, or man box culture. This bullying and abusive culture of masculinity continue to exist because men, in general, have not demanded we create something better.
Every day we collectively fail to stand up to the very public harassment and abuse that the worst among us heap on women; harassment the rest often witness but collectively fail to challenge in any effective way. Things like locker room talk, cat calling, rape jokes; the daily denigrations of women that are so deeply embedded in how we’ve all been taught to perform masculinity. The use of “bitch” and “pussy” as the way to insult other boys and men. The nasty ways we talk about women behind their backs. The way we encourage each other to have contempt for women even as we seek sexual intimacy with them. “Yeah, I’d hit that,” and so on.
Abusive, harassing men do not represent the majority of us, not by a long shot. But because millions of the rest of us stay silent, we allow a smaller population of bullying alpha males to define masculinity as a culture of aggressive dominance. We help sustain a world where the worst among us feel empowered to grope women, rage at women, attack women and degrade women publicly. We make a world where our President can feel perfectly comfortable saying “I moved on her like a bitch” in casual conversation. We create a world that is safe for Incels, MRAs and MGTOWs, but not for the women they stalk, troll and assault. In this way, all of us create the world of ugly inflection points for women that result in “No, thank you” being many women’s default responses.
Even our very invitations are a source of stress and anxiety for women. Too many women have turned down a request to go on a date and a man who was friendly a moment before, becomes abusive, revealing his reactive response to her decision in a flash. “Why are you so stuck up” he might say. A woman’s “No, thank you,” can instantly result in an alarming level of reactivity and aggression from men, an utter failure of emotional self-regulation. Maybe the man gets insistent. “I’m only asking for dinner.” Or he gets hurt, crestfallen and sad in an ongoing way. Or maybe something truly terrible happens. Assault. Rape.
The price women pay for being asked out and simply saying “No, thank you,” the resulting emotional work required of them by men who react badly, can be an exhausting inflection point that impacts every interaction thereafter, informing women’s future choices. An abusive response to a “No, thank you” need only happen once or twice for a human being to remain forever wary of that question over the course of their lifetime. The joy of connection and discovery is suddenly replaced by being so very careful. A woman might then dress intentionally to deflect attention. She might hide her beauty and joy. She might avoid eye contact, avoid the gaze of men. Many women are already making these choices. And it’s our fault.
The man in my friend’s story approached her again the next day after she had said “Thanks, but no.” When he added, “I’m only asking you to go to dinner,” the implication was, “Give me a chance. I can change your mind.” For my friend, that I can change your mind cemented her choice to say no. This is because it carried the suggestion that perhaps she didn’t know her own mind on the matter of choosing a potential partner or even wanting one at all. It was a diminution of her agency. In asking a second time, he failed to consider her context, her history, her professional and personal priorities, her position and her hard-earned authority in the world. At that moment, he didn’t notice he was again blocking the door.
Like so many women, my friend grew up in a world full of warnings. Be very careful around men. Be very careful about how you walk down the street. Be very careful about your supervisors, your professors, your friends and your own way of showing up in the world. Get your education. Get your own agency. Don’t leave your future in the hands of a man, or you will be sorry. You will be lost. My friend saw the reasons for these warnings play out over and over again in the casual displays of power by men who were so deeply invested in patriarchy that the harm they regularly did to women seemed simply to be within their rights as men.
Which brings me to the growing educational disparity between men and women. So-called men’s rights advocates say women graduating from college at higher rates and with higher-level degrees is proof that the educational system has a built-in bias against boys and men. I would suggest a dramatically different frame. Women are more committed to the hard work of getting an education. And for good reason. They are doing this globally to whatever degree is available to them because it puts them on a path to liberation from controlling men. They all know this. Education and the economic power that results in freedom for women. They know that education will give them agency and financial power in a world where men still can not be trusted to treat them as equals. Education is a path to autonomy for women. It is a path to being able to say, “Thank you, but no.”
This speaks to a central crucial metric for heterosexual women when considering a date. Would this guy encourage my professional and personal independence or would he seek to control it? It is a question that plays out daily in personal or professional relationships between men and women. For men, it is critical that we acknowledge the damage we have done to women’s careers, agency and aspirations historically and are still doing right up to the present day. To our lasting shame, we continue to collectively give women a good reason to be wary of controlling men.
How men view women’s equality in our romantic relationships shows up in big ways, such as are both careers are viewed as equally important and in small ways, such as who gets to finish speaking or gets spoken over. A woman who is tracking these issues can make a fairly quick predictive analysis based solely on how we ask her to go on a date. This metric includes how we accept her answer. Of all the ways men might make women immediately wary, being emotionally reactive to a “No, thank you,” is a big red flag, as is not taking a no, regardless of how polished and charming we are in refusing to do so.
More importantly, a woman who is tracking power in relationships, who is tracking how we might view gender equality, will look for us to also seek acknowledgment for our own goals and aspirations. She will look to see how we negotiate over even small things, acknowledging the back and forth of balanced power in modern relationships. She will look to see how we co-create, neither seeking total control nor abdicating it. And we should be tracking these issues as well.
Collectively, men have yet to end our archaic domination culture of masculinity. A culture that contributes to our own deep isolation and unhappiness as well as that of women. And we could change any of this tomorrow if we chose. If men chose to end our collective silence on women’s rights, universal equity for women would the law of the land tomorrow. This is the amount of power we hold, but fail to exercise even on behalf of the girls and women close to us. We continue to blithely deny the real and present impact of patriarchy because it suits us to do so, blocking the door over and over again, without even caring to notice that we are doing so. Yes, men live in fear of domination and violence, too, but women live in fear of violence by men. We commit 80% of all violent acts. Our refusal to see fully the context of women’s lives erases women’s lived experiences, forever putting our own wants and needs above theirs.
Women are becoming more powerful. They and the men who are their allies are creating a world where abusive men are being challenged. This is leading to a crisis in masculinity. Angry retrogressive voices are calling for open war against women, LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, religious minorities and others and the outcome of this battle is by no means guaranteed to go well. Things could just as easily go very badly for us all.
Incels and other masculine extremists are proudly and publicly calling for a dangerous and violent gender war. Leaders in these movements are coldly weaponizing the trauma of boys and men brutalized by man box culture to drive their ugly political and social agendas. It is an assault on our larger democratic institutions clothed in the rage of sexual frustration and hate. And ultimately, it’s nothing new. Women have been the victims of men’s sexual frustration and rage throughout the history of the world.
It’s well past time for the millions of men who remain silent as the battle rages to stand up. We must stand and fight for the simple moral imperative that all people are created equal. That all human beings are deserving of autonomy, safety, respect and opportunity, equally. We must break out of man box culture and leave our centuries-old domination masculinity behind, creating in its place, masculinity of connection. We must use our power and our privilege to partner with women to heal our world.
And if we continue to fail in this, “thank you, but no,” is all we will ever deserve.
This article is paired with a second article titled: We’re All Incels on This Bus
Are you a man seeking to break out of man box culture? Are you tired of feeling alone? Reach out to The Mankind Project or another men’s organization. Men are waiting to help us do our work and find the human connection we all deserve. You just have to begin.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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