Teaching men to say ‘no’

(ed: I wrote this in 2011. It’s still relevant.)

People were people, again, recently–this time, a commenter got uncomfortable with the idea that his male Dragon Age (computer game) character might end up having carnal relations with another man in game, and wanted developers to prevent this from being possible. People told him to go stuff it, and hilarity ensued.

I think that the problem is that boys don’t know how to say ‘no’ politely.

Being hit on feels icky?

In the first Dragon Age, one of your (male) character’s (male) boon companions makes a pass at you. (In the new one, it’s apparently even more subtle.) You don’t want to alienate him–one of the ‘scores’ in the game is your friendliness level toward your companions–and so if you’re not into that sort of thing, you might feel some pressure to say yes. Agree to sex you don’t want, just so that someone doesn’t hate you.

It seems horribly unfair. Why must this guy hit on me? We were just friends, and now it’s all weird and strange and I feel like he might have some sort of power over me! Blackmail me, no matter what I say. Perhaps even force me to have sex against my will!

The women in the audience (and perhaps some men) are probably nodding around now.

The (straight) male privilege I’m highlighting is two-fold: lack of fear of rape, and lack of having to reject people nicely. The first one I am not well-qualified to speak to, and others have done a good job here, but I want to focus on the second part.

Men–boys–have plenty of fear of rejection. Everyone does. Boys have ways of joshing it off with each other, of psyching up for the possibility of being rejected, a whole framework for handling being rejected.

Rejecting is hard. Let’s go hunting!

The flip side–rejecting people–isn’t taught as thoroughly. In fact, given the drive for sex, and the small likelihood of successful relations early on, most boys are starved for the attention. Rejecting any advance feels like a bad thing. But there’s always people we’re not attracted to that ask anyway; it’s the nature of human society. And that’s okay, the not-being-attracted part, and it’s okay to say no to someone. It’s painful for both sides, but it’s okay; humans are humans, and not everyone is going to fit.

Since rejecting someone else is painful–at least for people with any empathy at all–it’s easy to grow callouses fast, as a form of armor against the pain. (It’s worse when you’ve been rejected before and know the pain you’re inflicting.) Callouses look like callousness: rejecting someone by humiliating them, by declaring them to be in an undesirable category, by making it all about them instead of about the pair of you. By making it the fault of the rejected*.

And this is the norm, for a long time. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t know that we’d make a good couple” doesn’t come until a long time after “Fuck off, you fatty!” or “Pfft. With you?” or even just That Look. (Not unless the boy has some good teachers.) It’s ‘normal’. It’s encouraged. “You really shut that slut down.” “Well, she had it coming. Who would date that?” “Yeah, I punched this guy one time because he said I had a nice shirt on. In that way, you know.” “Awesome, dude.”

But this isn’t going to win you any friends. It sure isn’t going to keep your companion on your side.

So now that poor, helpless gamer is stuck in quite a conundrum. He doesn’t want to fuck this man**. But he doesn’t know how to say no in this situation. He doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know–he just knows that he feels trapped. He can’t even see the problem. So it must be the fault of the rejected–that’s the pattern he knows.

This pattern is writ large in our society. “You can’t let a woman ask a man to dance! What if he doesn’t want to?” We mostly learned that one already. “You can’t have gays in the military–what if one of them comes on to a Marine?” Gee, I guess then the Marine has to learn how to say no, in a way that doesn’t harm unit cohesion. “You can’t have interracial marriages–it makes me feel icky. What if a black woman asked me out?” Well, maybe you should date her. Or maybe you should say no in a manner that doesn’t upset her. “You can’t let fat people think they’re sexual human beings who deserve to live! What if–”

It’s everywhere.

There is an important angle here that I’m glossing over–power, and the related concept of consent. When you reject someone, you wield power over them. (Fittingly, wielding power wisely is a fundamental lesson some RPG authors seek to teach.) But if the other person seems to hold some power over you–a companion who can blackmail you with the friendliness ‘score’, or a gay Marine who can impugn your reputation as a Fine Upstanding Straight Male–things get very muddy very fast, and people start spazzing out. Of course they never actually gave up the power, but if they think they did? Problems. Cornered rats. (You also see this with comedians that ridicule their wives, banking on the appearance of powerlessness to find humor.)

Instead, it’s important to emphasize that relationships are based on consent, and consent means sharing power. This is an alien concept to some folks, because sharing power means you don’t have it all, and sometimes you don’t win–and that feels like powerlessness if you’re not used to it. It take a level of sophistication not usually learned on the playground by little boys to realize that shared power is still power.

Solution space

The solution, then, is the Remedial Polite Rejection Curriculum, or RPRC. (I failed to come up with a clever acronym. Maybe you’ve got one.) We need training, now, that helps boys learn how to say no, firmly and politely.

Dragon Age, with its multi-choice dialog trees and friendliness scores, is probably a great training field for this. You’re getting live feedback whether you’re communicating with person, and whether it’s having the desired effect–maintaining friendship while rejecting advances. I’d argue that Dragon Age should have a lot MORE people hitting on you–all the time–people you can’t just blow off or call a fatty or punch in the nads.

You heard it here first. The only solution is more sex in video games, with partners who are real characters that have an impact on your destiny, rather than with glorified sex toys (cough GTA cough). Maybe if boys can learn in a controlled environment, they can apply those lessons to the infinitely more complex situations of the real world. Maybe it’ll even teach them to hear ‘no’ when it’s said to them.

(* If you think this sounds like the logic behind rape rationalization (“I had to/was allowed rape her. She was X!”), you’re right. As already stated, there’s a lot of overlap here.)

(** For gender you could substitute other not-attractive-to-that-specific-observer categories here. Race and body type spring immediately to mind. And I have to leave aside culturally-imposed conventions of attractiveness, or this essay really will get too long.)

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