I’ve been thinking about the word “no” lately. A lot.
It comes with the territory of working in the domestic violence field.
I’ve gotten used to entering in paperwork that documents strangulation, human trafficking, and other atrocities. I have to. It’s my job, my $16.20-an-hour-plus-benefits job, and if I thought about every person who was on those forms, every instance of violence, violation, endangerment, or the other fucked up shit, I wouldn’t sleep. I would ruin my relationship with my boyfriend. I would have problems eating, enjoying sunshine, and smiling at all the puppies that are out and about on the hiking trails. I’ve managed to tune a lot of it out, compartmentalize my work, but it still gets to me, how many people couldn’t say no, couldn’t leave, couldn’t escape.
Something really got me recently though. I was listening to The Heart podcast, a beautiful, tender, hilarious, and marvelous podcast about sex, love, intimacy, gender, genitals, and humanity. The producer, Kaitlin Prest, created a series called “No” and it brought me back to so many places in my life. She discussed how hard it is to say the word. How she practiced for years saying no. How men ignored those no’s, selfishly, to achieve what they wanted- a blowjob in a basement, sex that would ruin a friendship, a massage that had boundaries clearly marked and then steamrolled over.
It brought me back to the thousands of instances where I wish I could have said no or felt safe doing so. When men would catcall me on runs in high school, I wish I could have rejected their harassment that made me hyper-aware of my body, my changing body that already betrayed me with periods and breasts and all these things that made me want to dig a hole in my yard and come out in a decade or two- no.
I vividly remember sitting on my couch in my apartment my final year of college with my then-boyfriend Chris. He said, on an otherwise nice afternoon, “You would be so much sexier if you exercised more”. I should have said no, walked him to the door and shut it and ended it there. I should have rejected his judgement, his shaming of my body, the softness and fullness of parts of it that I sometimes still struggle to embrace even though I am beautiful. I remember blushing and feeling humiliated and like I had done something wrong, because male attention was still such a focal point of my life. I had been raised by television, magazines, my friend group, everybody, that men wanting you was right, good, important- that it validated my existence. I had given this man a lot but it was not enough and that was my fault.
Except, it wasn’t. It was his fault because he had issues about being a short dude so he would comment on my body because his was short and thin and didn’t make an effort to do anything about it- it was easier to let me know how I was supposed to act and look.
I was working at the Forest Service, where a tall, beady-eyed, parasitic man named John who worked there, who was friends with the boss, would corner me in my front desk, which only had one entrance, and say things about my body and make me feel like I needed to take a shower after. I worked hard to speak up for myself, but he lingered for two years afterwards, and I deeply regret not telling him to his face that he was a loathsome creep, no. (Also, a big fuck you to the Forest Service for never doing anything about John, who also was a fucked up grade A creep to many other women in my office.)
It’s so fucking hard to say NO. I almost cried as Kaitlin described on her podcast being harassed by a dude in a basement who asked her, repeatedly, “give me a blowjob” and how hard it was for her to refuse again and again, because this disgusting, selfish man kept wearing her down, until she did it, because she felt like she didn’t have options.
I have done many things I never wanted to. I have been made to feel many things I never wanted to. My life has been struck through, like a streak of quartz, diamond-hard in rock, with shame, humiliation, frustration, anger, and insane amounts of un-quelled fear. I have been violated, my body disrespected, in more ways than I want to count- the men ganging up on me at a bar after one of them grabbed my ass so I couldn’t call out which one trespassed on my body. The guy I went to elementary and middle school with who made fun of me and called me names, who years later humiliated me in new ways, over a decade down the road, by touching me in a bar in Bozeman, Montana. I didn’t say NO because he was big, heavy, and because I also fell down a rabbit hole of new grief, because he had made me feel awful so long ago and now I was being subjected to fresh feelings of awfulness by this selfish bastard.
I still am bad at saying no when I should. I like pleasing people too much, I like keeping things even and nice and smooth. In the moment, as a woman, it is safer to stay quiet, it doesn’t put me or my loved ones in danger. It doesn’t rile people up or harsh the vibe. It’s exhausting and not sustainable and yet almost every woman I know lives their life with this weight of this problem with them, whether or not they acknowledge its presence.
This isn’t a post about resolving to start speaking up more – that would be a bold faced lie if I typed it and left it here on this blog. I’ve been vulnerable on this platform blog for years and I can’t pretend to suddenly be strong, armored, and actively making up for all the time I’ve lost being disrespected, violated, ashamed, and made to feel that my body is not mine.
I do genuinely enjoy asserting my space and what I feel. Putting out my pointy elbows at a concert so men don’t crowd my personal space, calling out men who say sexist, wrong things, and always looking out for other women or other vulnerable people. I don’t mind sharing my past traumas with men and other women so they know that they’re real, and I don’t mind making people uncomfortable with these memories. I don’t like silence- it cloaks and obscures realities. I found it comforting in a dark, fucked up way, to hear Kaitlin’s “No” podcast discuss what so many women like me experience. Maybe talking about my experiences on this blog will comfort somebody else.