For the most part Megan McArdle writes about economics. Her columns are usually enlightening and engaging.
In a recent column on rape culture, she also offers a valuable insight into psychology.
She does so while explaining why women have difficulty saying No and why their word is not always respected.
In the terms I have most often used on this blog, the meaning of the word No depends in part on the default position. In olden days, the default was No. It did not need to be stated or asserted. It was understood that women would not be offering their sexual favors to men they just met. If a woman did not explicitly say Yes, it was assumed that she was saying No.
In those antediluvian times the issue was not whether or not women liked sex as much as men. It was assumed that sex for a woman was not the same as sex for a man and thus that the difference needed to be respected. Better yet, as McArdle explains, it was a time when everyone knew that “nice girls don’t.”
In that time, women were protected and cosseted by colleges.
Skip forward twenty-five years to McArdle’s generation. By that time nice girls who didn’t have sex were denounced as repressed prudes, suffering from severe neuroses. What was lost was choice. A woman could either have sex and like it or be denounced as a repressed neurotic. Virginity became a four-letter-word. No girl wanted it; all girls wanted to rid of the taint of virginity.
Describing the atmosphere when she entered college a quarter century ago, McArdle analyzes the difference:
My generation drank more than our mothers had, so that women were more frequently incapable of saying no, or much of anything else. There were no parietal rules to keep us out of each other's rooms, or force us to come home at an early hour. Nor could we fall back on "nice girls don't"; we had to refuse this specific man each time, not on the grounds that some external force was stopping us, but because we simply didn't want to have sex with him. That's an uncomfortable conversation, and modern though we may be, most of us still hated uncomfortable conversations, especially if we'd had a few and just wanted to go to sleep.
I'm not calling for a return to single-sex dorms, curfew rules, and the presumption that "nice girls don't." I'm just pointing out that these things gave our mothers an easy way to say "no" that didn't have to be explained or defended, and wouldn't be taken as a specific rejection of this person right in front of you. We were chanting a slogan designed for a world that no longer existed. In the world where we lived, it required an assertiveness and a confident self-knowledge that a lot of 19-year-old girls found hard to muster. It required actions we weren't always willing to take, like loudly saying "no," and leaving if he persisted. In other words, it left us vulnerable, though not in the same way that our mothers had been.
In the new culture the import and impact of saying No changed. A woman who said No was no longer asserting her virtue; she was effectively branding herself a repressed reactionary. Moreover, saying No was no longer respected as her policy. It was something that a man would take personally.
No had become a personal rejection. A woman who was presumed to like and to want sex as much as a man was not rejecting sex per se; she was rejecting the man.
As McArdle astutely observes, rejecting someone personally is far more difficult than asserting personal virtue or having to be back in the dorm by midnight.
For that reason, more than a few young women, she explains, have yielded to a man’s sexual advances when they had no desire to do so.
She does not quite say it, but when No is a personal rejection the recipient of the rejection risks getting angry. It is fair to say that members of the more vulnerable and weaker sex are instinctively programmed to avoid provoking the anger of someone who is stronger and more powerful.
If so, a woman might say Yes when she really means No. At that point, the notion that No means No loses some of its force.
How does one solve this problem?
McArdle believes that young women need to learn how to be more forceful and more assertive. Since she just argued that it is enormously difficult for young women to do so, one is left puzzled.
A more sensible solution is for young women not to allow themselves to get into positions where there might be any ambiguity. One understands that feminists will bridle at the notion that a woman ought to restrain herself when matching a man shot for shot. To their minds a woman should be free to get drunk, get naked and get into bed with a man and not be violated.
In the abstract, they are correct. No behavior is an invitation to rape.
And yet, if the woman finds herself incapable of saying No, the situation becomes murkier.
Would it not be better for young women to follow their mothers’ advice?
That means, not putting themselves in situations where the only thing that might stop them from being raped is a single word, a word that they will be hesitant to assert.