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The Power in the Word “No”

When I was a college sophomore, one of my Literature professors asked the female students in her classroom if they found it hard to say “no.” It seems like an easy enough question, but it still took me aback. The answer should be an immediate “no,” but all that was flashing through my mind were the countless moments when I was too afraid to say it. All I could think of was, “Yes, it’s hard to say no." It seemed all the female students were thinking the same thing because we slipped into uncomfortable silence. Ironically, none of us felt we could reply “no” to her question. 

 

When it came my turn to speak, I stuttered and my voice trembled. It was hard for me to give an explanation to my “yes” because the answer already spoke for itself. That “yes” was loaded with painful experiences that crawl up on me from time to time, when there’s only darkness invading my brain and loneliness enveloping my body. These experiences are things that I tuck away within myself, forbidding their escape by keeping them a secret. To voice them would mean to validate their existence, and it’s always been better to pretend that they’ve never happened. At least, that’s what I used to think. That’s the kind of mentality that still speaks to me from time to time, an inheritance from the society that swears to protect its women but creates self-doubt and fear in them. 

 

As I write this, one question comes to mind: why are women afraid of saying “no”? Like most things in life, it all begins with our society. In this case, it’s the misogynistic narrative that our society has implanted in women’s minds. It has become normalized to say things like calladita te ves más bonita to young girls. It might appear as an inoffensive statement on the surface, but that’s just a disguise. If you deconstruct its structure and analyze its message, you come to realize that it means several things: 1) your outer beauty is more important than having a voice of your own; 2) not having a voice of your own makes you beautiful; and 3) if you’re a woman, you’re not allowed to have a voice, let alone an opinion. This narrative stays in womens’ minds and it develops a parasitic relationship within us. 

 

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Women are taught that being liked, especially by men, is one of the most important things in the world. There’s this unspoken notion that states that being a “good girl” is more important than being yourself. What does it mean to be a “good girl," anyway? Does it mean that we have to be compliant in every situation? Does it mean that we have to agree with everything a man says, no matter how absurd or abusive? Does it mean that we must give up our voices and surrender to an oppressive silence? Does it mean that we need to give up our personalities in order to become a man’s perfect fantasy? What exactly does it mean to be a “good girl”? 

 

Being a “good girl” is just code for making yourself as inoffensive as possible to men. That way, you don’t intimidate them. You contort and bend yourself into a shape that makes them comfortable, that demonstrates that you’re “laid back,” “fun,” “easy-going,” and “cool.” That’s the kind of woman that our patriarchal society wants the one who doesn’t voice her thoughts, the one that’s afraid of being herself, the one that hides her power, the one that’s quiet and takes everything a man does to both her body and mind, as if that transforms her into some sort of martyr. Society praises and encourages submissiveness in women. 

 

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Maybe that’s why I laughed nervously when a group of older boys started tickling me just so they could feel my breasts when I was 11 years old, instead of saying “no.” I didn’t want to disappoint them. I wanted to show them that I was a “cool girl.” Maybe that’s why my female friends and I tolerated a “game” that our male friends played, where they got to touch one part of our bodies according to what day it was because it was “fun.” For example, Fridays were for slapping our butts. All of this, without our “consent.” We used to laugh it off, claiming that boys will be boys, that it was just a game, that it was normal. However, deep within us, we wished that it would stop. We felt uncomfortable, but we didn’t want to spoil their fun. 

 

Maybe that’s why I allowed a group of older guys to tell me that they liked seeing me in skirts, but that they could see everything underneath it. I allowed myself to listen to their “advice,” which consisted of them dictating what I should and shouldn’t wear, while they sexualized my 11-year-old body at the same time. I allowed myself to cry right afterwards without even understanding why I was so upset. 

 

Maybe that’s why my female friends and I, who were between the ages of 11 and 14, said nothing when a twenty-something male neighbor cruised around our neighborhood in his car while we played, blowing us kisses and saying things like: “Están bien buenas.” When I did have the courage to confess what was happening to an adult male, he only said: “It happens because you’re so pretty.” As if beauty has anything to do with being harassed and feeling threatened. As if we provoke sexual harassment and assault because we’re “so pretty.”   

 

Maybe that’s why millions of girls around the world are afraid to use their voices, afraid to say “no” in uncomfortable situations. We’re, subconsciously, afraid of not being liked by men. We’re afraid of doing anything that would make them believe that we’re “too neurotic,” “too much,” “too crazy,” and “too-too” of anything. It’s not because we want to be afraid. It’s because we’ve been taught to be afraid. We’ve been taught to protect men over ourselves. It’s scary to realize that once you become an adult and notice all the injustice around you. 

 

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In a sense, society is teaching men that this kind of behavior is normal. Men are given this power to do whatever they want and come out completely unscathed just because of their gender. Men are dominant, women are submissive. Men give, women receive. Men are powerful, women are powerless. If a woman does something that breaks away from traditional conceptions, she’s a rebel and in the wrong. If a man does the same thing, he’s a genius and treated like a god. This is the narrative that our patriarchal society distributes to keep the toxic balance that allows it to stereotype and divide everyone in specific boxes. 

 

Not all men have this misogynistic mentality, of course. Not all women are afraid to say “no.” However, even in these cases, the narrative is still alive in their minds. Society needs to reevaluate this sexist narrative in order to obtain equality and equity between men and women. Women should feel safe in their societies, not live in constant fear of what they say, what they wear, and what they do. Let’s encourage women to use their voice, to choose to protect themselves over abusive men, to feel safe when they say “no.” 

 

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“No, I don’t feel comfortable with this.” 

“No, I don’t want to do this.” 

“No, stop.” 

“No, don’t do that.” 

“No, don’t touch me.” 

“No, please respect what I want.” 

 

This is how we reclaim our power. Our voices give us power.       

Abigail F. Boneta is a 23-year-old writer and editor recently graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras. She majored in English Literature and Modern Languages with emphasis on French and Francophone studies. As an undergraduate student, she was a writer and junior editor for Her Campus at UPR. She was also an editor for Tonguas Literary Magazine. She seeks to expand her portfolio with more feminist articles and articles that tackle contemporary social problems. Her dream is to write and publish novels about Latino/a characters in genres like Mystery, Psychological Thriller, and Contemporary Young Adult.
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