I was thinking today about how life choices which involve saying ‘no’ to things need to be made and reaffirmed every day. I’m not talking here about choices in individual circumstances like ‘do I want to have sex with this person at this particular moment in time,’ but rather about major choices which people make to shape the direction of their lives. I’m wondering why it is that people who say ‘no’ to certain things are constantly questioned about it, while ‘yes’ is presumed to be the default.
I can think of a number of examples of this sort of thinking.
Let’s take a particularly contentious one for me right now, since I’ve been harassed about it literally every day for the last week: The choice not to have children. In our society, it is generally assumed that everyone wants children and is planning to have them. People who don’t have children, it is assumed, just haven’t gotten around to it yet. The default is ‘yes’ and people who do want children and have children don’t need to reaffirm their choice every day[1. Oddly, even though society assumes that everyone will have children, it doesn’t really go to any great lengths to support people, particularly women, who do have children. Curious paradox, is it not?].
People who say ‘no,’ on the other hand, we are constantly required to confirm our choice. We essentially have to make this choice every day; it is an active choice, rather than a passive one. It is assumed that we will change our minds. That our opinions will change later. That arguing with us will accomplish both of these things. I’m really not kidding when I say that the choice not to have children is one that people who do not want children are asked to make every day.
I was talking recently with a friend in a long term heterosexual relationship who was telling me about the tremendous pressure she feels, socially, to have children. And how that pressure in turn causes her to secondguess herself. Even though she doesn’t want children and has solid reasons for not wanting them, she constantly has to defend them, not just to people bothering her about it, but also to herself. And she constantly checks in with her partner to confirm that yes, this is a choice they are making together and they are still happy with.
Likewise, I choose not to drink, or, in strict honesty, to drink very, very rarely. (And by ‘drink’ I mean ‘drink half a beer approximately every two years.’) This is also a choice that I am required to make again and again; every time I attend a party, every time I go to a restaurant and the wine menu is brought out without any non-alcoholic options listed, every First Friday when I have glasses of box wine thrust into my hand before I can say ‘no, thank you.’ And when I do say ‘no, thank you,’ people either make assumptions about me or they pressure me. ‘Come on, one little drinky-poo!’ ‘A glass won’t kill you!’ ‘Why don’t want you want it?’
I see this also with people who choose to be celibate. It’s a choice they are forced to struggle with every day because of social pressure which also becomes internalised. The assumption, again, is that all people who are celibate will change their minds, are simply waiting to fall off the wagon and into the arms of a winsome lover. This is not helped by the mockery of celibacy and by the lurid reporting on celibate members of the clergy who choose not only to break their vows, but to do so by abusing and sexually assaulting children.
The choice to say ‘no’ is constantly questioned when it’s a lifestyle choice.
Of course, the choice to say ‘no’ is also always questioned when it’s a choice in an individual circumstance or moment, too. ‘No’ is a word that people do not like to hear and they will probe and push to find out why. Usually because they want to push someone into saying ‘yes.’ And I think it’s worth pondering that, how the default in society is ‘yes’ and why that happens and what we can do about it, because right now the world is a very unsafe place for the people who want to say ‘no.’
You’re allowed to say no. You can say it even if you change your mind later, which some people do. Some people who don’t want children in one stage of their lives decide later that they actually do want children, and they shouldn’t be penalised for that. People who don’t drink may, at some point, decide to start drinking. People who choose celibacy may later choose something else. A person who chooses not to have sex in a given situation might decide to have sex in a similar, but different, situation later.
Those are all ok. What’s not ok is trying to force the person who is saying ‘no’ into saying ‘yes,’ is demanding that people change their minds to align with the social default. People have their reasons for saying no, whatever those reasons are. Assuming that ‘yes’ is the answer erases all the ‘nos’ and also creates a dangerous situation in which people who do say ‘no’ are constantly forced to say it again, and again, again. To reaffirm it. To say ‘I really do mean no, as in ‘no.”
Wouldn’t it be better if the social default was neutral? If we didn’t look at a person and assume, for example ‘I bet this person will say ‘yes’ to a beer,’ but rather ‘I am going to offer this person a beer and see whether or not ou would like it’? If ‘yes’ had to be an active choice, rather than a presumed default? Wouldn’t this also allow people to celebrate and own their ‘yeses’ a bit more, as well? ‘Yes, I do want a beer, that would be lovely.‘