Just, right now, say it out loud. See how it feels, how you feel when you're saying it, how you hold your face and your body. How does your voice sound when you say it?
Do you feel powerful? Defiant?
What did you think of, when you said it? Of things you'd like to say no to, but can't? Of incursions against your body, your time, your schedule, your budget, that press upon you every day? Of the constant fight for your own space, your own needs, your own rights?
Do you think of tedious dates you went on because it would have been mean or stuck-up to refuse them? Of unfulfilling or unwanted sex it was easier to endure than refuse, for the sake of the relationship? Of late nights worked and family events missed because you felt 'no' would endanger your job? Of volunteer burnout as 'just one more little thing' is heaped on the already-overworked individuals who pitch in to keep things running for everyone else? Of words like 'helium hand' or 'voluntold' that mask the common practice of tapping the same small population for an expanding set of tasks?
We are not taught that 'no' is a sacred birthright, that we have not only the right, but the obligation, to establish and defend our boundaries. We are, instead, taught that our needs are secondary to getting along. And getting along means that the person with the most power, the most force of personality, the most control, sets the agenda for everyone else, even against their wishes and interests. We do not resist it, because the current drives so very hard against those who stand up in it.
One of the hardest parts of training newbie Safety Staff is teaching them to put their own needs at the center of their service. We are there because we WANT to be there, because we WANT to help, because it is important to us that others be safe, and happy, and healthy. It seems counter to this to stop me and say, "I know I am supposed to be working tonight, but I am exhausted and at the end of my reserves. I need to sleep instead." But that, right there, which happened at the last festival I worked, is exactly right. In that moment, I needed to be told 'No' by someone who knew herself and her limitations far better than I could. As a leader, 'No' is music to my ears even when it snarls my schedule, because it means that the people working with me are caring for themselves and respecting their own boundaries.
As a woman, it's even more gratifying to hear another woman offer a clear and unapologetic 'no'. I have struggled, as have so many of the women I know, with the delineation and defense of my boundaries. I sat on airplanes while men sitting next to me took up the armrest and half my seat as well, but I said nothing because it would be 'rude' to defend the space I paid for. I just gave up and let the guy on the dance floor keep his hand on my ass because I didn't want to be That Bitchy Prude. I worked late hours and gave up my evenings because my bosses felt it was 'unfair' to ask married co-workers to give up time with their families.
Over and over, I sacrificed what I wanted and what I needed, because I could not reach and hold 'no'. Because I attached all the guilt that comes to women who are 'standoffish', 'bitchy', 'rude', or 'ungrateful' to it. Because I let others establish how we would share the common space and resources and tasks. Because I internalized the relentless social message that I do not have the right or agency to refuse any treatment, any task, any expectation. Because, at the heart of it, I had never considered the possibility that my time, my needs, my rights, were equally valuable to anyone else's and deserving of equal respect.
I started saying 'no'. First, it was a sharp "No!" to obvious incursions. "No, and let go of me RIGHT NOW." It was the 'no' that comes with the threat of a short sharp punch to a sensitive body area. But then, as I got used to how 'No' felt, I was less moved to give it sharp edges. "No, I can't stay late tonight." "No, I don't want a free sample." "No, I'm not interested in going back to your tent." Firm, clear, unambiguous.
To be honest, it isn't easy. People push back against it. They say, "But why not? You're usually so helpful." They say, "What will one little date hurt?" They say, "Why do you have to be so contrary?" They say, "Can't you just try it out and decide? Don't be so negative!" And still I smile, and I say, "No." No excuses, no apologies, no dissembling. I generally don't even offer an explanation, because that leads people to think that you're open to negotiation.
It's both liberating and terrifying to claim agency like that.
Now, I feel moved to tackle the larger refusals. Because once you have mastered, "No (I do not owe you a date just because you got up the nerve to ask)," you can tackle, "You may be a nice guy and all, but women are not beholden to men for sex or companionship simply because you don't go around raping and beating us." Once you have mastered, "No, I cannot work late tonight (just because you think a single woman's plans are inherently malleable)," you can begin to reach for "I am a valuable employee and deserve equal respect and compensation to any of my co-workers regardless of gender." Once you have mastered, "No, I will not attend church with you this Sunday (because your church teaches that people I love and value are worthy of scorn and hatred)," you are ready for "I believe that faith is a deeply personal choice and that it is not an appropriate guide for public policy or legislation, and reject attempts to use the false idea of a universal morality to create laws."
And most liberating of all, I find that "No, thank you, I don't want that free makeover/perfume sample/'health survey'," is growing up to be "I reject your right to establish a universal standard for health or beauty based in an idealized body image, appearance, skin tone, or gender identity. No, I don't want your magazine model beauty and your Ten Tips For Perfect Abs and your sixteen-page foldout article on how to camouflage my flaws or 'tone my trouble areas'. I am beautiful in myself, and I choose to determine who I shall be and how I shall live."
That is where I hope to end up. It is a long and arduous process and I am only partway there.
But it begins with a single word, a word I urge you to say, once more with feeling: