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Not Saying No, Does Not Mean Yes

It was ten years ago. She was 27 and he was 60. He was a powerful man who could advance her career, and she was willing to meet with him in the hopes that a professional opportunity would materialize.

She was not even remotely attracted to him. Still, she agreed to join him for dinner in his hotel room, hoping that this small sacrifice might yield a greater success for her future.

As the evening wore on, she excused herself to use the restroom, feeling relieved that the dinner was almost over. But when she re-emerged and was faced with the realization that he expected much more more than dinner, she felt obligated to follow through with it.

Her immediate thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Followed afterwards by: “I had this coming, for going to his room!”

Then: “I put myself in this bad situation, and bad things happened.”

And finally, “I deserve this.

When asked whether she had wanted to have sex with this man, her answer was, “No, not at all!” But in her mind, she was convinced that she had no choice, because she had “brought this on herself.”

This story probably sounds familiar to many women out there reading it, as it did to me. And while I have heard many others like it, what strikes me is that this woman still does not recognize that she was a victim of a power dynamic. One that is repeated in every industry and system from small to large; from families and schools to religious systems and entertainment industries, and everything in between. And what’s more, this type of “blame taking” on the part of the victim actually contributes to the perpetuation of the problem.

We can’t put our finger on how, when, or where we become conditioned to “take the blame” for a powerful man’s “misinterpretation” of a relationship. Perhaps it is a lack of education at home, or an internalized determination of our own worth? Could it come from the bombardment of sexual images and messaging we get from the media, or is it something so implicit in our society that there is no way around it?

Upon further inquiry, the woman in this story again stated that she did not want to have sex with this man, but that she “didn’t say no,” and therefore couldn’t consider herself a victim.

But not saying no does not mean yes.  And I would bet money that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of women out there have experienced this very same moment of “not saying no” because she feels some sense of obligation, responsibility, or just plain fear.

Fear of losing a job.

Fear of not getting a promotion.

Fear of losing a marriage.

Fear from feeling cornered or trapped.

And so on…

To my mind, the two statements “I didn’t want to (have sex with him)” and “It was consensual” don’t even remotely go together.

Not saying, “No” is not consent.

But if the woman herself cannot see the larger social implications of blaming herself and concluding that she is obligated to this man, how can we expect the paradigm to shift?

It is up to all of us to bring awareness to our deeply flawed societal conditioning around sex, power, and perceived blame and obligation. We need men and women to see the issue clearly, to recognize that it goes deeper than just one (or even a dozen) individuals. It will not change by expecting only the power abusers to change their ways. We must also help women change their understanding of their own value, their relationship to obligation and feelings of responsibility.

Powerful men can manipulate women for many reasons, and one of the reasons is that many women don’t feel they have the option or right to say no. So once the encounter is over, women are even less able to feel they can claim to be a victim—because they didn’t say no.

Did you read this story and find yourself in agreement? On the side of one person or the other?

….What if I told you the woman in this story is Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels), the adult film actress who was interviewed about her encounter with Donald Trump?

Take a moment to sit with your internal response to this.

Non-judgmentally notice if your sense of empathy or resonance shifted.

I encourage you not to judge yourself if you notice a little “Yeah, but…” type of thinking:

“Yeah...but she’s a porn star, so she has sex for a living.”

“Yeah...but what did she expect?”

“Yeah, but…”

If we acknowledge some women as victims of sexual harassment or assault but not others because of how they dress, act, or what they do for work, we are as much a part of the problem as anyone or anything else.

And while I can’t say that it’s true for every woman who chooses to become a prostitute or to work in adult films, I can confidently say that many of them end up in these professions as a byproduct of feelings and behaviors that resulted from earlier sexual trauma or traumas. As one survivor described it to me, “After my sexual assault, I decided to be fully in charge of my sexual life. I vowed never to be vulnerable again.” And later (after going through the TIMBo trauma recovery program), “I now realize, that wasn’t really living.”

Unfortunately, many victims engage in behaviors or learn to associate with communities that contribute to the societal problem. Fashion, diet, and entertainment industries contribute to girls and women seeing their physicality as the measure of perfection and worth. Graphic sex scenes widely broadcast on many popular television shows, from Game of Thrones to American Horror Story, depict a sexuality devoid of connection or intimacy (at best) and the objectification of women or even violence (at worst).

Graphic pornography is tragically easy to access by young people on computers, ipads, and phones—and the message about sexuality and the “worth of women” serves as part (or even most) of our children’s sex education. Desperately trying to learn how they belong in the world, girls objectify themselves over social media, dressing provocatively and striking hypersexualized poses in selfie after selfie. The task of creating a shift in our culture seems insurmountable. The messages we receive and the actions we take, including the industries we support, all create an ever-perpetuating snowball effect.

I don’t have the answer. I wish I did. But I do know we can start with one person at a time. We can help women and men to see themselves, and each other, empathetically and wholly. We can help repair relationships, so that we see another’s worth not as something external to us, but as integral to our mutual existence as kindred human spirits.

It may take lifetimes, but if we can start by first transforming the individuals and their immediate communities, the messaging and industries of our entire culture will gradually change as a result.

Let’s start now. Let’s see Stephanie Clifford’s story as an opportunity to acknowledge that change is necessary—whether she recognizes it or not.

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