It Applies for Men, too: The Absence of ‘NO’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Yes’

A major communication breakdown around sex led to a break-up. I didn’t ask; he didn’t say no.

A number of years ago, I was briefly involved with a totally delightful man: sharp, sexy, sexually compatible. Alas, our relationship was short-lived when we had a major communication breakdown around sex. I didn’t ask; he didn’t say no. Here’s what happened.

A boundary was set.

We had had a date planned for a particular evening. It was early on in our relationship, and the chemistry was scintillating. Earlier on that day, he had sent me a text letting me know he had had a significant experience with another lover and was feeling very tender. Because of that, he wasn’t up for being sexual that night. That was fine by me. I enjoyed his company and was a big yes to where he was at.

Later that evening, the two of us began to kiss. One thing started to lead to another, and before I knew it, things were getting hot and heavy. His earlier words lingered in the back of my mind, but I — foolishly and naively — took his erection for a change in direction and figured his boundaries had just changed. It happens, right?

A boundary seemingly changed.

As clothes started falling away, we changed from one room to another, and he set a boundary. Using hands was fine; full-on sex wasn’t where he was at. Again, I was a yes to that. I love using my hands and was more than happy to continue in that way. Throughout the time in this new room, I noticed a nagging heaviness in my body. Something felt off. It was a strange mix of pleasure and inertia at the same time. I ignored the feelings and continued onward. I felt committed to what we were doing and didn’t think to stop or check-in.

After we had had our fun, we sat in his kitchen. Things felt tense, off. We bickered about something trivial (perhaps his furniture), and I ended up going home. The next day, we had a check-in, and he told me he actually hadn’t wanted to be sexual.

I was horrified. Ashamed. Hadn’t I done the right thing? Hadn’t we changed rooms? Hadn’t he set a boundary?

The absence of no doesn’t mean yes.

In that space, things began to untangle. I began to listen more, to sit with some big feelings of embarrassment and shame. On the one hand, he understood where I was coming from. He had had similar experiences with women where he thought there was a green light—or at least an absence of a red light—and forged on ahead. Through many discussions with friends—and with my own experiences—I’ve come to understand that for some, the absence of a no means it’s a yes.

For these people, a wishful yes is much better than a clear no. The result, however, is if neither party is on the same page, what they both end up getting through the interaction is not truly what either of them want. The yes a man receives is a false yes from a partner who couldn’t speak up (for many reasons). The opposite can clearly hold true, as was my case with my male lover.

When Men Aren’t Taught to Say “No” to Sexual Opportunities

My lover later revealed he had never said no to being sexual. It was really eye-opening to me. As someone who had turned down many sexual opportunities, I had never imagined the possibility that some men are trained to always be a yes.

Because he is a man with a high libido, my lover had moments of feeling incredible scarcity, so saying no was foreign. On top of that, there is often a long-standing belief that female sexuality is scarce, so a man needs to jump on any opportunity that passes him by. This means my lover felt compelled to be a yes even when he was a no.

Be a Man

It reminded me of beloved men I know who lost their virginity to girls they didn’t truly like or feel attracted to. Being a man meant getting laid. The sooner they could divest themselves of their pesky virginity, the better. On top of that, add societal pressure to define a man by his sexuality, and saying no is like whispering into a hurricane. It is lost the very moment it comes from a man’s mouth. More than that, it seems futile to say anything at all. After all, why would you say no if it meant closing down a defining moment of being a man?

The Shame of Saying “No”

I’ve been with men since who have turned me down for sex. In later conversations, they’ve revealed their vulnerability. As much as they didn’t want to think it, old societal beliefs of manliness kicked in. Would I judge them for not being virile enough? Would they be less in my eyes? In every case, I’ve been grateful for the no. Hugely grateful. Why would I have sex with someone who really didn’t want to, regardless of the reason? Some reasons are simple (fatigue, illness, lack of desire), and others have complex emotion underpinnings. All of those reasons are valid. In each case, the man has breathed a palpable sigh of relief. There was no need to save face. Our relationship was a safe place where all forms of yes and no were honored.

Verbal Check-Ins

For my own self, I realized how crucial it is to have verbal check-ins. Stop. See if the words uttered at the beginning of the evening still carry weight. Take a minute for the heat to subside. If hot sex is meant to happen, a short interlude won’t prevent it from happening. I’ve done this many times since, and I’ve always found a way back to the heat of the moment when there’s a yes.

And here’s the thing: if sex is truly not mean to be, it’s not meant to be. After all, I’d rather have sex with someone who not only wants to in the moment but is a radiant yes after it has taken place.


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