Last year, my 10-year-old daughter, Liza, came home from school one day bursting with excitement. “The 5th and 6th grade dance is next week!” This was HUGE news. As the week progressed, I could hear Liza and her friends making plans for the pre-party, the post-party sleepover, the hair-dos, and the outfits (none quite as cool as the pin striped jeans and fluorescent knit tie I donned at my first middle school dance). And then, the day before the dance, Liza told me this: “The rule at the dance is that if a boy asks a girl to dance, she HAS to say yes.” (Insert sound of record player needle scraping across album as everything comes to a screeching halt).
ExCUse me?!? What year is it?! No. She must have misunderstood. “That can’t be true, kiddo,” I replied. “No, really,” she said. She went on to tell me that a couple of years back, a middle school boy ran around the dance feverishly asking every single girl to dance, and every single girl said no. Well-intentioned adults, worried about the boy’s self-esteem, had instituted the new policy.
Let’s talk about this policy. I mean, 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. That seems like problematic layer #1.
Then there’s layer #2. 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 to be honored. And it is imperative that we teach our boys how to receive and respect “no,” to retain their self-esteem in the face of disappointment, and to maintain respectful behaviors, at all times. In a culture where 1:4 women will be sexually assaulted by a man, this just seems painfully obvious.
While this policy was intended to be gentle and protective, it is actually dangerous. The message I hear in this policy sounds something like this: “Girls you may not want to be touched by this boy, but if you say no you will hurt his feelings, and obviously it is your job to take care of his feelings, so we expect you to say yes, no matter what. And boys, because we know you are so emotionally fragile, we have created a rule to make sure you never have to feel disappointment.” Girls in our culture, through this kind of policy and a million other overt and covert messages, are taught that we are responsible for others people’s feelings, and should forsake our own in the name of caring for others. I told Liza all of this in 10 year old language, ending with the conclusion that she had full permission to say no at anytime. To which she replied with a sly smile, “But what if I want to say yes?” You go, girl!! And this leads me into problematic layer #3.
When we have to say, we never get to say yes because we want to. Without being able to say “no,” we never really get to say “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? Butterflies, sweaty palms, awkward smiles, nervous small talk, shallow breaths, unperceivably 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 be).
That is a rich, wonderful moment when we feel ALIVE. I want my daughter to have that moment. And I told her so. If you want to say yes, say yes because you mean it! And enjoy it.
This school policy hit me particularly hard because, as a therapist with a specialty in reawakening sexual desire, I sit with woman after woman in therapy who says she doesn’t want to have sex with her partner, anymore. After years of saying yes even when they didn’t want to because they felt like they had to, these women lost their authentic “yes.” Why do women feel they have to? Oodles of women tell me they feel like it is their job because they don’t want to hurt their partners’ feelings, for which they feel responsible. Sounds like the middle school policy, doesn’t it? When we don’t allow ourselves (or each other) to say no, then we lose the capacity to really say yes. And that’s a serious loss, because sex from an authentic yes is just as good as dancing with your middle school crush.
One last dissection — here’s problematic layer #4: 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 it robs the initiator of an authentic yes dance, 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, INTIMACY. And we can only get there by giving voice to our authentic no, when that’s what we feel. The authentic no, the moment of painful rejection, that’s ALSO a rich, wonderful moment when we feel alive. Well, ok, maybe it’s not a “wonderful” moment…but it is rich and alive. We can’t protect ourselves, or each other, from pain and still feel alive (more on this in future articles. It’s a biggie). 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 our authentic voice, no matter what it says in the moment, is our greatest gift to give.
If you have lost your authentic yes, start by looking for and honoring your authentic no. You’ll give your yes permission to be real, again.