The AOI Crowdsourced Guide On How To Deal With Saying And Hearing No

by Debasmita Das and Anahita Sachdev


Consent, like Anu Kapoor would say in Vicky Donor, is a tedha-medha sperm. Everybody thinks it’s simple- there’s a yes, no and maybe. But a yes isn’t a yes forever, a no doesn’t mean never and a maybe can be inside a yes or outside a no. Most importantly consent is not like Amitabh Bachchan in K3G – keh diya toh keh diya types. Meaning, it is not irrevocable or absolute. Rather, it is something we figure out at many different romantic and sexual junctures – from first move to middle of making out, during a one-night stand or an NSA or long term relationship or whatever else involves sex.

No should be simple. But we all know it is tricky. If you are on the receiving end of a No, you may feel hurt, rejected, disappointed, angry, understanding or confused. You may also end up not hearing the no if you’re not respectful of consent.

If you are the one saying no, you may feel feel awkward, worried, relieved or guilty. You may end up being mean or insensitive. Or in wanting to avoid that you may end up not being clear enough.

But let’s start at least by discussing it in all its nuanced glory, no? We talked to a few people about this saying and hearing of No to understand what goes on a bit at different points.

1. When you are just not interested

“I had to say no six times”, says Meneka (21, bisexual female) who had a difficult time when one guy just didn’t know when to stop. “I was at a metal concert.” (Yes, she’s a rocker chick) “He said something like- ‘I don’t see chicks head-banging much…can I buy you a drink?’ I said no. He insisted there was nothing sexual about this – some bullshit natak it was. Finally, he said ‘Can I buy you water at least?’ I said fine! I just wanted to get rid of him. But if I said, yes, thanks, it would have been disingenuous. If I take someone’s free drink, there’s a whole male-female codebook there that I just didn’t want to mess with.”

Seerat (21, heterosexual female) talks about the lover boi turned stalker boi situation she had to face. “I was organising an event in my college when a senior came up to me saying I’m the most beautiful person he’s seen. I appreciated his compliment so I just thanked him. Later, he sent me a Facebook message saying that he was in love with me. I said something like ‘thanks, but I’m not interested in you that way’. He started waiting for me at the college gate. It became almost stalker-ish and eventually I had to block him. I had to speak to another senior who asked him to stop, before he finally did. When I happened to see him a year later, he apologized for coming on too strong. He’s still on my blocked list on Facebook, but it’s fine”.

Our take away – When someone refuses to hear your no- what do you do? Keep saying it – politely but firmly. (It gets easier and sometimes it really gets through).

2. When you don’t want to change the equation

Say you have a friend and you like it where it’s at, but he/she wants something more. You don’t want to hurt them. So how do you say no, when you don’t want to change the equation between you both?

Zeynab (20, Heterosexual, Woman) said no to a friend who made an overture. “At first, he was really confused and seemed in denial. I told him, chill. We’re friends so let’s just keep it like that. He got the point but wanted to know why and asked if I was scared or afraid. I guess I should’ve been firmer in the sense that he thought it was only a ‘no for now.’ I didn’t want it to go anywhere, which he didn’t get. I guess I learned the best way is to just say no as clearly as possible. It’s easier to say no when you’re not connected. With a friend you worry about hurting their feelings. But the firmness is necessary.”

Aadil (22, heterosexual, male), wanted to take his friendship to the next level. “We’d recently become friends. I wasn’t romantically interested, but I was physically attracted. One night at a party she got quite drunk. When someone asked if we were hooking up, she mysteriously said that we weren’t yet. Later, when I brought it up, she didn’t believe me and said she’d check with her friend who confirmed it. Then she apologized, saying she was not interested in being physical- wanted to be great friends instead. I was disappointed but I didn’t think I was losing out on much by not sleeping with her. I loved to have her as a friend. I can’t really blame her for the way she turned me down- she was drunk and she apologized too. But I wouldn’t have said ‘I don’t believe you, let me check with my friend’. That’s almost saying that I made it up. I would’ve done the same but wouldn’t have announced that.” (The fact that she in turn asked Aadil out three weeks later and that they’re still together is a different matter)

Nishant (22, heterosexual, male), asked his good friend out. She’d just come out of a relationship and said she didn’t want to take it forward at the moment. “Not now, maybe in the future – but I can’t make any promises”, she said. Her reasons were very justified but I didn’t like the idea of keeping the possibility hanging for the future. If you say it outright, at least the other person will know it’s not going to happen. If you say maybe in the future, that person will think that they can always try again.

3. When you’re interested but not ready

When you don’t feel ready and just want to take it slow, do you ever just want to say ‘It’s too soon’? Or ‘No, but just for right now’. Is that leading someone on? This isn’t the easiest thing to say out loud but here is how a few people did it.

Nitin (22, heterosexual, male)- “I was a clueless teenager in my first relationship. When my girlfriend wanted to get physical, I had to politely turn her down because I genuinely didn’t know how to go about making out and stuff. I think it’s always better to stop and educate yourself before doing something that could lead to something stupid. When I told her this, she said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll help you’. I insisted that I didn’t want to. We could do it eventually, sure, but only once I was okay with the idea. Obviously she was upset at first. But then she said it was strange but nice to hear a guy say that – usually it’s the girl that wants to wait. ”

Barbara (22, bisexual, female): “It was the first few weeks of our relationship. We were just getting to know each other. We got quite far that night but I told him that I didn’t want to have sex. He said that it was fine and didn’t bring it up again. After a while, I felt bad because he’d planned this surprise getaway and I was like abhi isko bura lagega types. So I told him, ‘You know what? I don’t mind.’ It wasn’t anything he did – just me guilting myself into saying it. I remember his reply so clearly. He said it should never be ‘I don’t mind’ but ‘I want to’. He would never make me do something that I just ‘didn’t mind’. We get it a lot that we should not lead someone on, and feel obligated to say yes sometimes. But why should that be if you’re not ready? Love making is not a barter system”.

Anindya (21, heterosexual female) recalls, “When I was dating this guy in college, one night I sneaked up to his room. The original plan was to come back down in time for curfew but another friend convinced me to stay for the whole night. It was really weird for me because he and I had made-out and things but we’d never gone past that. That night things got a little heated and when he asked me if I wanted to have sex, I kind of pushed him off and said ‘No, I’m not ready for this.’ He just said ‘Okay.’ I feel that one of the reasons he was trying to do it was to keep up with the expectations the other boys were throwing at him. Moreover, I didn’t love him and I think I knew it. I didn’t want to have sex just for the sake of it when it meant nothing.”

4. (Not) In The Mood For Love

You’re in a relationship with someone. But there are times when you’re not quite feeling it or you’re caught up. What’s a good way of saying ‘uh…can we just not?’

Joya (20, not-straight, agender) “My recent situations have been the most equal and respectful sexual situations I have had. There was experimentation that involved us doing something – but we’d just ask if it was ok. And if either wanted to stop, they would stop. I guess for me there’s just been good understanding.”

Mindi (25, queer, female) “When you’re in a long-term relationship,you understand each other better and tend to be more instinctual in understanding your partner’s needs. So the actual use of a word like ‘no’ isn’t everything. Sometimes something subtle does it. Sometimes you have to communicate a little more. I’d care about not hurting my partner’s feelings when saying no. You develop your own language, so to speak.”

Bhakti (22, bisexual, female): “In my experience, many guys don’t get non-verbal cues. For some, no is not really no- they think it is always teasing and playing hard to get. Even my current boyfriend sometimes genuinely doesn’t seem to understand that this is where it’s not okay. I try to make it sufficiently clear that there’s no playful no in my case. Since this is his first relationship, I’m helping him figure out boundaries. We’ve sat down and talked about it- we’ve set verbal and non-verbal cues and it’s a very personal conversation that only two people can have.”

Roohi (21, heterosexual female) says, “Whenever we watch movies, my boyfriend and I always end up making out. But once I really just wanted to watch this movie. Instead of saying no outright, I gave him a very half-hearted kiss. Us waqt toh he didn’t say anything, he was really quiet and all. I thought,” Oh wow serious ho gaya“- but I still payed attention to the movie. After the movie was over he was still quiet. I sometimes tell him he’s not spontaneous enough. He said, “Now that I was, you rejected me.” Later on we talked it out- he said I could have been nicer about it, I said chalo sorry.  Maybe I didn’t say no in a respectful way? Maybe I should have just outright said ki nahi I don’t feel like it, right now, why not later and all. This has happened the other way round too when he said no to me. I guess when you reject a sexual move it can be hurtful. You might think they’ve understood but they really haven’t. I think though, it’s going to cause some hurt and you just have to say it without beating around the bush.”

5. When you’re just somehow uneasy

In some situations, you just feel a no – you may not know why, but you just do. What do you do?

Ankita (21, Queer, female) talks about her first intimate situation with her first boyfriend. “In my head, he was older and more experienced, and no matter how uncomfortable I felt, I didn’t think I had the right to stop him. He didn’t stop to ask or acknowledge my discomfort either. Part of me thought it’s about time I stopped being such a naïve person. Now I know that you only learn about your sexuality in situations where you have agency. Even with other men, there have been situations where in my head I’m screaming at myself to say no. And none of them paused at any sign of discomfort.” But it’s been different with women for her. “With Navya, this woman I slept with, I was more comfortable. She asked and asked whether I was okay with it, which is maybe why I could actually say ‘no’.”

Prithvi (22, heterosexual male) “Someone made a sexual advance towards me- there was a clear power disparity between us. It was a mix of pleasure and fear at the same time. My mind was frozen. In that moment, I had no precedent to what was happening- I didn’t know where it was going, I didn’t know how to react. When the hand came to touch me, I did try and put it away. I would say ‘Let it be’ or ‘We don’t have to’. Doing that once should be enough. I didn’t want to completely end the relation between us so I did it courteously, with a smile on my face. But the other saw this as encouraging or flirtatious. Or maybe they weren’t actually listening. When they did it again too, I’ve decided that is baar toh pakka I won’t allow it. But ultimately one feels powerless and gives in. If I can go back, the only thing I can do is be aware of what’s happening. No one had spoken to me about sex and sexuality. So I would educate myself about it so that I would know how I’m supposed to feel.”

A lot of the time this uneasiness comes from their being no room for your No. When our hesitation and non-verbal no’s are ignored, we often lose the confidence to say No outright. It’s something to remind ourselves – to understand what is being communicated and to communicate what we really feel, slowly but surely.




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