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Why Can’t some Men Understand that No means No?

Why does a woman saying ‘no, I’m not into you’ still translate to ‘please try harder’? We should be past this fragile egotistical behaviour in 2024. 

Let me give you an example. A mutual friend sets me up on a date with a London tech bro – we’ll call him Jack. He promises that Jack is smart and attractive, that ‘he buys pitted olives from Wholefoods’ and ‘shares a three-bedroom flat in Hampstead with only one flatmate’. Therefore, this is a man who should not be passed upon. On the date, before we even sit down, Jack drops into conversation how much he earns. (He would want me to clarify that it’s a lot). I quickly realise he isn’t someone I want to spend time with, and no amount of money will keep me there for a second drink. I stay for what feels like a socially acceptable hour before making my swift exit. Later, he texts to say what a great time he had. He asks if I want to join him the following evening. ‘I am busy’, I say. He texts an unsolicited paragraph about his work, which I ignore. A few days later, he follows up with a gif of a desert. Again, I ignore it. A final text, he found me ‘nice and funny’ and would be ‘really keen’ to see me again. This time I spell it out for him ‘Thank you, but I am not feeling it. Wish you all the best.’ 

A few hours later, our matchmaker friend re-emerges. He tells me Jack has been in touch to say that ‘he wasn’t that keen on me’, that I don’t ‘seem very nice’, and that, poetically, ‘the balance of her arrogance to kindness is just too out of balance’. The mutual friend finds the situation ‘hilarious’ and refuses to speak up in my defence. 

Women still cannot win. Far too often, the question is still not do I like him? but rather, how do I let him down without hurting his feelings? Women are expected to tailor their behaviour to appease a fragile male ego, and even the most kindly phrased rejection might be met with resistance. 

Some men find it difficult to believe that their advances could be refused and respond with denial. Things like ‘she says that, but I know she’d be down for it’ or ‘she’s just confused’. They adopt a paternalistic attitude: women don’t know what they want, and men know better. ‘No’ becomes an encouragement to try harder. In-person confrontation, in such cases, can even become dangerous. How many times has a feeble ‘I don’t want to’ been followed by a forceful kiss? By sexual assault? Is it that difficult to understand that a woman may not want to kiss you or have sex with you? Is it that difficult to listen to and respect her wishes?

Some of this behaviour arises from an excess of confidence that borders entitlement. Masculine entitlement is present across other aspects of daily life.  According to a collection of studies, men are more likely to apply for jobs they are underqualified for compared to women. On university courses, men tend to overestimate, and women underestimate their academic abilities. If we translate this confidence gap to the dynamics of modern dating, it provides a possible explanation for why some men ignore or discredit women’s decision to terminate their interaction. As a society, we should be working to boost women’s confidence, but men also need to be reminded that while confidence and perseverance are generally positive traits, this is true in moderation and without ever infringing on someone else’s personal wishes. 

Other times, men perceive romantic rejection as a personal attack against their ego. Some follow it up with verbal or physical retaliation. Verbal retaliation is demeaning; it involves depreciatory name-calling against the woman, attacks against her personality, and the predictably dismissive ‘I didn’t like her much anyway’. Such was the case with Jack. Physical retaliation is even more serious, with physical violence, sexual assault and even murder remaining a real threat. According to the UK Femicide Census’ most recent statistics, 110 women died in 2020 by the hand of men in the UK, of which 57 were killed by current or former partners. Recently, in London, a 15-year-old girl was murdered by a boy who was unable to accept romantic rejection. Rejection should not be taken so personally nor avenged with such violence.

For these reasons, some women prefer to avoid rejecting anyone outright. Instead, they continue to engage politely and hope that the man’s interest will fade with time. This may end with being called a ‘tease’ and treated unkindly regardless. Others choose to ghost, although this, too, is seen as disrespectful and opens them up to criticism. The truth is that there is no way to win. Some men do not like hearing the word ‘no’, and so however it is delivered, it will be wrong. 

While there are people who speak up against this type of behaviour, many stand aside and let it happen. My friend, the matchmaker, for instance, did not take a stand against Jack because he didn’t want ‘to break his fragile ego’. ‘You upset him’, he told me, like it was my fault I hadn’t liked him, my responsibility for not prioritising his feelings above my own. ‘He won’t take it well if I say anything negative to him.’ But people should be held responsible for their behaviour. Those who remain silent about attitudes like Jack’s are complicit in perpetuating them. They are not ‘hilarious’, as my friend called it. They are cowardly and cruel, and they live on a spectrum of which the extreme is sexual assault and femicide. We cannot wait for these extremes to occur before taking a stand.

Of course, not all men live in the mysterious land where ‘no’ means ‘try harder’. I have been lucky, and my life has been well sprinkled with men who are respectful of women’s wishes and who understand that no means no. Who understand that women are not confused or playing games when they say no. They understand that it is not a personal attack but that they may not be a good fit. There are plenty of these men around. No harm is done, and they move forward. This form of thought, I hope, will one day take over all of the others. While things are already improving, there is still a long way to go. Initiating discussion around this topic and holding people accountable seem like good places to start. 

With so many men still unaccepting of rejection, to do so requires courage. It comes with the awareness that verbal or physical retaliation might ensue. Yet it is 2024: we should live in a world where everyone is free to say ‘no’ to unwanted advances without worrying about repercussions. There is only one meaning, and that is no. Move on.