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Respectful relationships start with making it safe to say ‘no’:

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

A lesson in consent for a culture that can’t handle rejection

Primary school aged children playing tag.

My family says that when I was very little, I used to talk to anybody. I’d walk right up and ask to play with other kids. Yet sometime early in Primary School, that changed. There was no specific incident I can recall that changed things for me. I just developed more social awareness, learned to be concerned about the possibility that someone might say no and felt that this would be embarrassing.

By the time I was midway through primary school, it was hard for me to go up to a group of kids I didn’t know that well and ask if I could play with them. If my usual friends happened to be away for the day, I’d hover around another group awkwardly, too scared to approach. It was easier not to ask and simply hope for an invitation, than to risk being told no.

It’s hard to put yourself out there and ask for two reasons. Firstly, rejection hurts. Whatever messages I’d internalised from watching people get rejected had taught me that it’s embarrassing, shameful even. Rejection, as I saw it, was akin to failure.

But equally uncomfortable was also the prospect that a group might allow me to play with them even though they really didn’t want to and I’d be imposing on them the whole time. Because when we understand rejection as something that causes the other to lose face - something that makes them feel bad, then well meaning people often try to avoid putting others in that position.

I’d been in that situation myself on many occasions. As a kid who was always keen to do the right thing, I’d let someone join if they asked to, even if that person wasn’t somebody I was comfortable playing with. Because we were taught it’s not nice to tell someone no. But really, was it any nicer to let someone join and secretly resent them being there the whole time? Was it nicer to secretly move your game to a different location the next day, in the hopes that kid wouldn’t find you and you wouldn’t have to let them join again?

Our culture hates to say no

Saying no is something many of us find difficult, which is unsurprising. We have a culture that has demonised rejection to the point where we feel hurt when someone says no to us, and individuals dismiss their own comfort and boundaries in order to not have to say no. We internalise this view that it’s a terrible thing to be rejected and that you’re not allowed to say no to someone simply because you’d ‘rather not’.

And when you think about all of that, these messages we’ve internalised from our earliest interactions in the playground, and fast forward 10 years from those playground interactions to teenagehood - it makes a lot of sense that we end up with difficulties when it comes to practising sexual consent.

There are so many ways these messages could end up playing out in damaging ways. How many people do you think have done things in the bedroom that they weren’t that keen on, simply because it felt easier than saying no?

What should we be teaching young people when it comes to rejection?

We need to be careful how we frame rejection. Leading parent educator Michael Grose posits that rejection is good for children, as long as we teach them how to cope with it. Psychologist and mental health advocate Guy Winch suggests parents talk to their kids about rejection at every age. He encourages parents of children struggling with social rejection to focus on the peers who do love and accept them.

But what if we took this a step further? What if we taught our children to actually value a ‘no’? What if, rather than conceiving being knocked back as something to feel bad about, we focused on the positives. If somebody says no to playing with you, they’ve just prevented you from making them feel uncomfortable. And if they happened to say no to deliberately make you feel bad, well, they’re not someone worth playing with anyway and they’ve saved you a lot of pain in the long run.

What if we took a growth mindset approach and encouraged children to look at social rejection as a learning opportunity? A ‘no’ can be a chance to reflect on their own behaviour, and whether they might have done something to make the other kids uncomfortable. A ‘no’ can be an opportunity to grow resilience and learn how to frame setbacks positively.

"Oh, you hogged all the best cars last time you played with Jenny? Could that have made her feel sad? Well it makes sense that she doesn’t want to play ‘cars and trucks’ with you today. What might you do differently next time you play ‘cars and trucks’ with someone?"

"Andy was being mean and leaving you out? How did that make you feel? I’m sorry they made you feel like that. Somebody who makes you feel like that isn’t going to be a good friend are they? It’s actually good to find that out. Who can you play with that makes you feel confident and happy? They’re going to be better to play with aren’t they?"

Learning to value a ‘no’ is great when it comes to social rejection, but it’s even more invaluable when it comes to romantic relationships.

“A girl saying no to you is far better than someone saying yes in the moment and then regretting it later, or forever.” - Lucas (he/him)

It’s not the worst thing in the world to hear ‘no’ and we need to be careful to ensure we don’t conceive it that way, especially when it comes to sex. The person who is afraid to ask because they don’t want to be told ‘no’ at best just misses out, but at worst, they mistakenly assume somebody wants something. A person who never learns to handle rejection might push for a yes, or not leave room for a no.

That’s why it’s paramount that people get comfortable hearing and accepting rejection. But hearing ‘no’ is not the only barrier we need to overcome when it comes to building a consent culture. We also need to empower people to say no to things they aren’t comfortable with.

Schools might be doing a lot to foster respectful relationships between students, but they’re also often sending unhealthy messages about consent.

If we push students into playing with others they don’t like, or feel comfortable around, what message are we sending? Sure, there are times when children need to learn to get along and learn to work together with different people, but teachers already do this through group work in class. Do we need to be making the playground one of those times?

When it comes to relationships between students, we need to take care not to send the message to a young person that their comfort is less important than potentially offending another person.

Imagine the kid who wants to play with you is really bossy and always takes over. You don’t like playing with them because it’s not fun when they join. You might not have the language for it, but it doesn’t feel right - they make you feel small. But you're a good kid and you’ve been taught it’s rude to say no to someone, so you stifle your instincts and let them in.

Sure, it’s only the playground and this is the small stuff, but fast forward 20 years and substitute that bossy kid for a controlling partner. I’m by no means trying to oversimplify the complexities of abusive relationships here - there is obviously so much more at play. But it’s hard to deny that, if only a little bit, the expectations within schoolyard interactions play into how we relate to one another down the track.

In healthy, respectful relationships, people need to feel safe to say no.

That kid, who feels too bad to tell the bossy kid no, they don’t want to play with them, might go on to become the teen who feels too awkward to tell their partner no when it comes to sexual touch, because they don’t want to hurt their feelings.

This is why it’s so imperative we shift away from the idea that a ‘no’ is offensive. Instead of telling young kids that it’s rude to say ‘no’ when you don’t want to play with someone, let’s respect their autonomy, and instead focus on teaching the kid who’s been rejected to value that no. I mean think about it - would you really want to play with someone who doesn’t want to play with you? Do you want to be around someone who resents you being there the whole time?

It’s a question I had to ask on more than one occasion to a friend describing their unhealthy romantic relationship - do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?

When someone says no they are keeping themself comfortable - which is going to be better for everyone involved. It’s something we need to encourage, not diminish. If people can learn to see the value in it, everyone’s relationships would be a lot safer and healthier.

Is it really more respectful to do things out of obligation in a relationship than to be honest about your own boundaries?

There are so many situations where it’s seen as socially unacceptable to say no. Invited to a party? Hard to decline without an excuse. Extra responsibilities at work - better not turn them down, even if you’re already swamped. Just one quick drink? You really don’t want to, but they’ve twisted your arm.

Let’s reimagine these scenarios for a second. Jamie’s not really big on parties and will feel uncomfortable the whole time he’s there. Is there value in him declining the invite?

Alex can’t possibly take on more work without having to rush things and do a poor job. Is it really beneficial for them to say yes?

You’ve pushed Kylie into another drink, but she’s done it because you asked, not because she actually wanted to. Do you really want her to stay?

What if, in each of those situations, we’d equipped people with enough confidence to respect their own boundaries and decline. I’d be thankful Jamie wasn’t enduring three hours of discomfort at my party until it reached a respectable time to leave. I’d prefer Alex do a better job at fewer tasks and be grateful they weren’t running themselves into the ground. I’d thank Kylie for keeping herself comfortable and sticking to her boundaries.

But it’s no wonder a no isn’t comfortable, when we’re constantly pressured to say yes. If you said no to more work, would your boss respect that? Have you ever caught yourself telling someone to just come for one drink?

When it comes to sexual consent it’s important partners feel safe to communicate a clear, respectful no.

Our discomfort in everyday scenarios naturally plays into the ways to we relate to one another when it comes to sex. How can we possibly expect that young people feel safe to say no in the bedroom, when they’re not comfortable in any other situation?

If we’ve spent years teaching someone that it’s rude to say no in day to day life, it seems unreasonable to expect that people will somehow just naturally feel comfortable saying no during sex.

Often, we don’t leave enough room for someone to say no. There’s a sense of pressure, or expectation. So when it comes to consent education, we need to examine and counteract this. If we make young people aware that that pressure is there because of the social expectations we’ve grown up with, that’s the first step to combating these damaging expectations.

We need to teach young people that pressuring someone into something isn’t a healthy way to relate.

There are so many opportunities where students could be following good consensual practices. Whether it’s pushing someone into sharing their chips, or pressuring someone to go and ask out that girl they like, we should be teaching young people that this isn’t ethical.

Sure, these everyday scenarios might seem harmless, but think about the message that accepting this sort of behaviour actually sends - that it’s okay to push when someone says no.

When putting pressure on someone who says no is tolerated in everyday scenarios, of course young people don’t understand where the line is when it comes to consent. How can we expect them to fully grasp the damage of coercion when coercing people into things is normal behaviour in day to day life.

If we want young people to learn to form healthier, more consensual relationships, we need to teach and model how to respect a no.

Parents and teachers can help young people learn by modelling and teaching young people how to respect a no. This starts with respecting the child’s right to say ‘no’ in certain situations. Of course, there are many situations when you can’t give kids much choice and the adult needs to decide, but there are also plenty of situations where we can give them some autonomy.

A student tells you they don’t want to go first any more? Say ‘no problem, thanks for letting me know’. Overhear a kid pushing another into sharing a sip of their coke? Remind them that if Jimmy’s not comfortable sharing a drink that’s his choice and it’s not kind to push him into it.

All of this is especially important when it comes to physical contact. Your kid doesn’t want to kiss Grandma? That’s fine, how about they just go up and wave and say hello. It’s so vital we respect this, because if we don’t teach young people they can say no when it comes to their bodies, and that other people shouldn’t be pushed into unwanted physical contact, how are they ever going to be able to navigate sexual relationships in a healthy way?

We also need to provide lessons in hearing and making space for a no.

Given the deeply ingrained reluctance to say no within our community, when it comes to sexual consent, a conscious effort needs to be made to make it safe to refuse.

Here are a few key points Relationships and Sexuality Education should be covering when it comes to consent:

  1. A yes given in the face of pressure isn’t a real yes

  2. Nobody owes you an explanation for a no

  3. ‘Maybe’ or ‘maybe later’ is a no and you shouldn’t ask again. You’ve already let them know you’re interested, so just let them come to you if they want.

We should also be teaching young people ways to ask questions that make it safer for someone to say no.

Instead of ‘do you want to come to Tom’s party?’ try ‘how do you feel about coming to Tom’s party?’

Instead of ‘can I share your Coke?’, ‘can I share your Coke, or should I get my own?’

Open-ended questions, or questions that provide options, leave far more room for an honest answer than yes or no questions.

Teaching young people to hear no and make space for someone to say no will be a huge step towards creating and fostering a consent culture.

Mel Brush (he/they) is a former high school teacher who now works in sexuality education.

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