There are a lot of different stories bubbling lately, both erotic and not, both intensely personal and not. Unfortunately, I am not a one-track person; I digress easily, ramble often, and multi-task always. None of these traits are strengths in writing. If there are too many ideas, I struggle to write, because I must focus on one topic and ignore the rest of the clamornings. But this week I feel pushed, shoved really, to focus on a problem I can't seem to conquer... how to say "no."
"No" is a word of power. It's about consent and ability; it concerns agency in a way "yes" doesn't always.
I worked through college at a fine(r) dining establishment, run semi-corporately, and we had a rule -- to always say "yes" to any customer's request. Customers had power, or at least, corporate and management for the restaurant gave them power. Management told us that saying "no" meant punishment, or even possibly getting fired. So we bowed to the every demand of every customer, and of course, management. I said "yes" to unreasonable requests, to personal questions, and at times, to sexual harassment. I didn't have the power to say "no" without losing my job. I could not say "no" to racist jokes or angry, demeaning rants. I couldn't say "no" to anything.
I grew up in Mississippi until I was fourteen, the daughter of two parents born and raised in the deep South. I was socialized in a culture of debutantes, Junior League, and very gendered notions of what a woman's role should be in society. My mother didn't know how to say "no" to my father, even as he became increasingly aggressive and violent toward others, even as he gambled and lost a small fortune in the stock market, remained unemployed, and drained her bank account and my college savings dry. Saying "no" meant divorce, and my mother, her family, and many of her friends carry antiquated ideas about women with young children who leave their husbands. Even now, after her divorce, my mother doesn't know how to say "no." She works herself into the ground, as a secretary/bookkeeper to her brothers' firm and a caretaker to her family. She is constantly in a state of frustration and stress, and I cannot say how many times I have asked her -- why do you not refuse? Why do you not refuse to manage the personal accounts of your brothers, to run at your mother's every whim, to work for much less than what you should be paid? But she feels she must fulfill her obligation, as a sister, a daughter, a mother. She must put family first. She must pay back the unspoken and uncounted debt she owes her family for taking her in as a divorced woman. She doesn't feel like she can say "no."
I grew up learning that a girl, a woman, says "yes." A mother, a wife, especially has no room to say "no." She must say "yes" to her family's needs and desires, putting her husband and children first, because "no" is not what a "good" wife or mother says. It's about agency, a very gendered notion of who should and who should not have agency.
The only time a girl can say "no" is when facing a boy who wants to sleep with her -- simply because males have libidos which take their agency, leaving girls with the power (nee the requirement) to say "no." But sex and agency and consent are tricky. A girl can say "no" and still get harassed or even raped; she can say "yes" and still be slut-shamed. So there's really no "no" there.
Against this backdrop, which has influenced me in ways I can't imagine, I have a "yes" personality. I like to help. I like to get involved, and God knows I have too many interests, making it difficult (if not impossible) to invest in all of them. I do well in the service industry (and in non-profit) because I like to say "yes." I like to make people happy. I like to provide comfort and support. I don't like to argue, don't like to confront. These are all traits our society associates with femininity, with women's roles.
I have been an older sister figure to many passing through my life, often when they were in a state of crisis or change -- coming out, growing up, leaving relationships, dealing with stress. I have provided an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, sometimes out of love, and other times out of my own feelings of obligation. I have trouble saying "no" to someone in need.
I have trouble saying "no," period.
I didn't know how to say "no" to my boss at a non-profit agency when he made sexist, racist, ableist, transphobic, and generally hateful comments to me and to others in front of me every day. When I said "no," he increased the attacks -- and I didn't feel like my refused was even heard. So I left a job I loved.
I don't know how to say "no" to my mother when she makes hurtful comments -- when she rejects my friends, when she puts me down for being queer, when she acts like an asshole to other family members in front of me. I avoid her. I ignore her. I internalize the stress, run away, and try not to explode.
And now, at the end of a four year relationship with someone who has become increasingly dependent and lecherous, I'm learning again that I must find the ability to say "no." When I did say "no," all she would have to do is keep pushing -- and I would eventually say "yes." But now, as I have let her, enabled her, to wear me down, to leave me constantly stressed and angry, I am learning that I have to re-learn consent.
All relationships have a component of consent. I understand that abuse is, intrinsically, nonconsensual-- even the strongest person can feel trapped. I get that addiction is, unfortunately, much the same way. There's an element of self-policing, a panopticon-level of fear. I am afraid, because "no" in my relationship with her often leads to fights, to confrontations, to pain, to guilt. Saying "no" for me is inextricably intertwined with guilt, whether with her or with anyone else. I say "no" to a sick co-worker who wants me to work for her, and I am assuaged with guilt. I say "no" to my mother, and there are waves and waves of guilt.
I said "no" to her today, and as I write this, I am trying to stay angry enough, to stay rational enough, to know that I don't have to feel guilty -- it is my agency to protect myself from being used. I have every right to say "no."
She'll call today, tonight. She'll show up at some point, and I'll still be struggling. I can only run so far for so long; I cannot avoid her. I cannot avoid my own guilt.
Nor can I afford to keep avoiding the damage she is inflicting on my life. After watching her do to me the same thing my father did to my mother, I am determined to learn to say "no."