Heads up: This article talks about sexual assault.
“Your no makes way for your yes. Boundaries create the container within which your yes is authentic. Being able to say no makes your yes a choice.”
- adrienne maree brown
The word no was not a part of my sexual vocabulary for years. After traumatic experiences during which my no was not respected or I was not given the opportunity to say no before my boundaries were crossed, I didn’t see the point in saying no. Why try to voice a no when it seemed like partners weren’t listening to or caring about my preferences anyways? Always saying yes seemed easier than facing the reality that my nos had not been valued before and could be stifled again.
Disassociation also prevented me from being present enough during sex to voice my no.
What is dissociation?
Disassociation is defined as a detachment from reality. It is a defense mechanism; a threat is perceived, and our brain detaches us from the moment and takes us out of our body to get through the threat. Many people disassociate during a traumatic event, and those who do so are more likely to disassociate after the event as a coping mechanism. People may disassociate when confronted with a trigger that reminds them of the traumatic event or during sex.
During my first rape, I felt like I was floating above the bed, watching as someone hurt me. The memory of the actual event is blurry and much of it is blocked out because I was disassociating and not in my body enough to experience what was happening. This became a pattern for me. I would float out of myself and watch as people had sex with me. The word no wasn’t an option if I wasn’t “there” in the first place.
I let my experiences with rape and sexual assault, in which a partner’s pleasure was treated as more important than my wellbeing, dictate how I viewed myself, as someone unworthy of personal sexual pleasure, only there to please my partner. As a woman, I was taught this narrative surrounding sex my whole life; it deemed me the object of sexual desire, not an active agent in it. I felt like, in order to be an ideal woman, I needed to say yes to whatever a partner wanted.
The meaning of “no”
In our white-supremacist, patriarchal, able-ist culture in the United States, the nos of people with marginalized identities have historically been and continue to be disrespected. The forced sterilization of Black women and institutionalization of disabled people, among other examples, show the historical roots of silencing certain people’s nos.
The unjust socialization and stereotyping of certain groups can make it even harder for members of marginalized communities to say no in the first place. For example, stereotypes of Asian women as passive and docile don’t set Asian women up with the tools to know how to advocate for their own wishes in sexual situations. When compliance is expected, it can be increasingly difficult to feel comfortable and empowered saying no. Additionally, many Black women may feel disempowered to say no to sex because law enforcement has a long history of failing to protect and support Black women who report crimes, and at times even prosecuting or becoming violent toward them instead (Check out Survived and Punished for more information about the criminalization of survivors of domestic or sexual violence). In order to create a culture of consent that empowers all people, we must recognize the ways that history, culture, and oppression impact different people’s experiences of navigating consent.
U.S. culture associates no with negativity. People may take a no as an insult, a mood-killer, or an offense. We can’t predict how someone will react to our no, which can lead to feeling out of control, a feeling especially triggering for survivors. However, always saying yes is a false illusion of control and actually leaves us at the mercy of our partners. It reduces our humanity and robs us of being seen in our full personhood, as people who have specific likes and dislikes. We all deserve to have boundaries, be able to communicate them, and have them respected by our partners.
I am beginning to recognize the power and beauty that exists in the act of saying no, and hope to encourage this recognition for others. As adrienne maree brown says, being able to say no makes way for a yes. By learning to say no and articulate my boundaries, my yes becomes valuable. What if we saw a no not as an insult, but as a gift? When we say no, we give partners the gift of knowing our full selves. What an honor it is to let someone in on our preferences, making space to be fully present in our sexual encounters. How powerful it is to say yes after saying the necessary nos to get there!
Becoming aware of what you want in the moment
Learning to say no takes practice, and I encourage you to join me in practicing this vital skill.
What do I like and not like?
The first step on the path to saying no is to learn your personal sexual preferences. Below are some exercises to try to learn your body and its wants.
Do a sensual body scan. Starting with the top of your head, move down your body. Get specific, noticing the many parts of your body and possibilities for pleasure. Where would you like to be touched? How would you like to be touched there? What parts of your body are off-limits, ones that give you no pleasure to stimulate? What ways of being touched are turn-offs for you? Try outlinings your body on paper and highlighting your “yes” areas in one color and your “no” areas in another color.
Make a list of your sexual nos. What are the things you have no interest in trying? What are things that you have tried that you do not want to do again? What are things you know trigger you that you want to avoid? Avoid placing judgment on yourself and remember that no one person can like everything. You deserve a partner that honors your dislikes.
Make a list of your sexual yeses. What have you always wanted to try? What have you tried that brought you pleasure? What do you know your body responds positively to? What turns you on to do to a partner or have done to you? Again, avoid judgment. We don’t kink-shame here! Everyone has unique preferences and your desires are beautiful and valid!
Mindfulness and sexual healing
Is it a no or a yes?
After always saying yes and going along with what partners wanted, it was hard for me to recognize what my boundaries were and when I actually wanted to say no, especially in the moment. To do so, I had to move away from disassociating during sex and work on being in touch with my body, its sensations, and its desires.
Mindfulness is the skill of being fully present and aware of our space and our surroundings and accepting reality without judgment. In the same way I might use mindfulness to ease anxiety before a big presentation or when my mind is juggling a million little things and I need a mental reset, I can use mindfulness during sex to be fully present. Mindfulness during sex can help us remind ourselves of the ways the sex we are having now is very different than a sexual assault. It can also allow us to access a greater experience of pleasure that is all encompassing. Research shows that women who engage in meditation exercises such as mindfulness have increased sexual function and desire.
So, how can we use mindfulness to have more pleasure-filled sex? Mindfulness gives us the ability to be present with the sensations and feelings during sex, thus able to figure out what we like and don’t like.
If you are engaging in sex and find yourself unsure of what you want or falling into the pattern of going along with whatever a partner wants, mindfulness can be used to get back in touch with your body. It can be helpful to take a pause and ask yourself the following questions to figure out if it is a “no” or a “yes” moment.
How to say no
Even when I was aware that I wanted to say no, it was difficult for me to actually articulate this to a partner. I would often become overcome with fear and shame, frozen and unable to come up with the words to convey that I wanted to stop. Brainstorming different ways to say no has been helpful in learning to articulate my boundaries. Having a script to rely on makes it less scary and more doable.
A list of different ways to say no:
Healing isn’t linear, and learning to value your own pleasure takes time and effort, but it is worth it. Let’s move toward creating a world where all people can live their most sexually empowered lives!
This article was written by Alex Aiello. Alex (she/they) is a born and raised New Yorker, sociologist, educator, and sexual pleasure activist. They graduated from Davidson College, where they studied Sociology and Gender and Sexualty Studies and was President of Students Against Sexual Violence. Alex now works as a healthy relationship educator, giving workshops in high schools across New York City.
More resources about mindfulness and sex: