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«Just Say No? The Use of Conversation Analysis in Developing a Feminist Perspective on Sexual Refusal CELIA KITZINGER and HANNAH FRITH Discourse ...»

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Discourse & Society


Just Say No? The Use of Conversation Analysis in Developing a Feminist

Perspective on Sexual Refusal


Discourse Society 1999 10: 293

DOI: 10.1177/0957926599010003002

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Email Alerts: http://das.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Subscriptions: http://das.sagepub.com/subscriptions Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Permissions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Citations: http://das.sagepub.com/content/10/3/293.refs.html Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 A RT I C L E 293 Just say no? The use of conversation analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal Discourse & Society Copyright © 1999 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA CELIA KITZINGER and New Delhi) Vol 10(3): 293–316


[0957-9265 H A N NA H F R I T H (199907) 10:3;

293–316; 006824]


A B S T R A C T. This article aims to show the value of conversation analysis for feminist theory and practice around refusal skills training and date rape prevention. Conversation analysis shows that refusals are complex conversational interactions, incorporating delays, prefaces, palliatives, and accounts. Refusal skills training often ignores and overrides these with its simplistic prescription to ‘just say no’. It should not in fact be necessary for a woman to say ‘no’ in order for her to be understood as refusing sex. We draw on our own data to suggest that young women are able explicitly to articulate a sophisticated awareness of these culturally normative ways of indicating refusal, and we suggest that insistence upon ‘just say no’ may be counterproductive insofar as it implies that other ways of doing refusals (e.g. with silences, compliments, or even weak acceptances) are open to reasonable doubt. Finally we discuss the implications of our use of conversation analysis for feminist psychology, both in relation to date rape and more generally.

K E Y W O R D S : conversation analysis, date rape, dispreferreds, feminism, refusal skills, young women The teaching of ‘refusal skills’ is common to many date rape prevention, assertiveness training and social skills programmes for young women. The assumption underlying such programmes is that young women find it difficult to refuse unwanted sexual activity. A common goal of such programmes is to teach women to ‘just say no’, clearly, directly, and unapologetically: they aim to ‘provide women with the skills to avoid victimisation by learning to say “no” effectively’ (Kidder et al., 1983: 159).

The aim of this article is to show the value of conversation analysis (CA) (Psathas, 1995; Hutchby & Wooffitt, 1998) for feminist theory and practice in the Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 294 Discourse & Society 10(3) area of refusal skills training and date rape prevention. We review the existing CA literature on how people ‘say no’ in ordinary everyday interactions, and consider what we know about how such refusals are done both in relation to what young women already know about ‘saying no’ and in relation to the educational literature on refusal skills. Illustrating our argument with our own data, we first support the claim that young women do indeed find it difficult to ‘just say no’ to unwanted sex, and we outline some of the explanations commonly offered for why this might be the case. Second, we draw upon CA to offer an alternative explanation for this difficulty. We show that the empirical findings of CA demonstrate that refusals are complex and finely organized conversational interactions, and are not appropriately summarized by the advice to ‘just say no’. Third, we use our data to show that young women already have, and can explicitly articulate, a sophisticated awareness of these culturally normative ways of doing refusals and we suggest that it is precisely their knowledge of the cultural rules documented by conversation analysts which explains why they do not ‘just say no’ in response to unwanted sex. We suggest that date rape prevention (and similar) programmes which insist upon ‘just saying no’ as appropriate behaviour are deeply problematic in that they ignore and override culturally normative ways of indicating refusal. Fourth (and with important consequences for education in refusal skills), we use the conversation analytic research on refusals to show that it should not in fact be necessary for a woman to say ‘no’ for her to be understood as refusing sex and that insistence upon ‘just say no’ may be counter-productive insofar as it implies that other ways of doing refusals (which do not include the word ‘no’) are less than adequate. Finally, we discuss the implications of our use of conversation analytic work for feminist psychology, both in relation to young women’s experiences of date rape, and more generally.

We would like to emphasize that our focus here on the conversational problems entailed in ‘just saying no’ does not mean that we have no other criticisms of date rape education and refusal skills programmes and their theoretical/political rationale. Many of them (e.g. ‘Sex Respect’, cf. Driscoll and Greig, 1994) are based on right-wing fundamentalist Christian ideas of chastity and sexual continence with which we are in profound disagreement. Many offer the teaching of refusal skills as an alternative to contraception (e.g. Campbell and Barnlund, 1977) or to safer sex (e.g. Howard, 1985b), while we would advocate the wider availability of contraception and information about safer sex practices. Even those programmes which operate with a broadly liberal or even feminist perspective often raise concerns. In particular, we would draw attention to their implicit (sometimes explicit) reliance on ‘miscommunication’ theory (Tannen, 1991), according to which date rape is often the result of miscommunication between the sexes: he misinterprets her verbal and non-verbal communication, falsely believing that she wants sex;

she fails to say ‘no’ clearly and effectively. As Carole Cocoran (1992: 135) points out, ‘most acquaintance rape programs stress misinterpretation as the cause of date rape and therefore suggest that the remedy lies in assertive verbal communication on the part of the female’. For example, assuming that there are differDownloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 295 ences of interpretation between men and women, the American College Health Association (cited in Turner and Rubinson, 1993: 605) advises women that ‘often most men interpret timidity as permission’ (which is why it is important to ‘say no when you mean no’). Consequently, women’s ‘undercommunication of disinclination to have sex’ is viewed as a contributing factor in date rape (Allgeier, 1986, cited in Murnen et al., 1989) and psychologists conclude that ‘if more women were able to communicate their disinterest [sic], more of the unwanted sex would be eliminated’ (Murnen et al., 1989). As we have noted elsewhere (Frith and Kitzinger, 1997), this theory places the burden of responsibility for date rape back on to women and obscures institutionalized gender power relations. As Ehrlich (1998) demonstrates, the miscommunication model of date rape is a useful resource for defendants in sexual assault tribunals seeking to construct themselves as innocent: complainants are represented as deficient in their efforts to signal non-consent.

Our argument here does not rely upon the idea that there are gender differences in the expression or understanding of refusals. Rather than attempting to define gender differences in talk, or to characterize the interactional styles of men and women, we explore the ways in which young women themselves talk about sexual refusals. Drawing on the conversation analytic literature, and on our own data, we claim that both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, and we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.

Young women find it difficult to ‘just say no’ to unwanted sex It is common for women to report that they find it difficult to refuse unwanted sex (e.g. Campbell and Barnlund, 1977; Howard, 1985a, 1985b; Warzak and Page, 1990), and victims of sexual assault often report feeling that they had ‘failed to make their refusal sufficiently clear’ (Cairns, 1993: 205). Forty-five percent of participants in one study (Warzak et al., 1995) ‘reported that they lacked effective refusal skills’ and 77 percent of all participants in the study ‘responded in the affirmative when asked if they had an interest in learning more effective refusal skills’.

Our own data from focus groups (cf. Wilkinson, 1999) with 58 female school and university students support these findings. There are many discussions throughout our data about the difficulty of saying no (see Frith and Kitzinger, 1998; Frith, 1997, for more details). For example, in the following extract, Tara and Pat recount how difficult they find it to reject someone sexually, even at a fairly early stage in the proceedings.

Tara: My male friends are always thinking, you know, that I’ve... I’ve got that sort of problem where somebody’s keen, I just can’t... I just can’t say to somebody, ‘look, sorry, I’m not’, and I’ll end up... I’ll avoid it in the end, but I’ll quite often end up Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 296 Discourse & Society 10(3) speaking to them for hours and hours, and I’m just thinking like, ‘I really don’t want to be here; I want to be doing something else’ [...] I just can’t drop it.

Int.: Why?

Pat: You don’t want to hurt their feelings. [...] I really try and avoid ever having to be in the situation of having to say to somebody, ‘look, no, I’m sorry’ [... ] I wouldn’t really risk to have a sort of a flirty jokey sort of conversation with someone that I don’t know very well in case they suddenly just say, ‘okay, how about it?’, and then it would just be like ‘uuuuhhhhh!’.

For both Tara and Pat, then, saying ‘no’ is so difficult that they try to avoid ever having to do it. In the following extract, another young woman describes the problem of trying to refuse particular sexual activities once a sexual encounter has commenced.

Liz: You’ve sat there and all through it you’ve been thinking ‘I don’t want to do this, I should have said no, I should have stopped him before, and I can’t stop him now, because we’re half way through the swing of it all, and I’m just so stupid. Next time I’m just going to sort it all out...’ [...] But you never do....

Asked how one might go about refusing sex with men, one young woman resorts to fantasy as the only way she can imagine of doing this successfully.

Sara: Have a supersonic button, right (laughter), and then, just before you have sex, and you didn’t want to, you could press it and vaporize them.

Of course, this is not the only way in which young women talked about refusing sex. Sometimes, they say, refusing sex is a relatively simple matter of just saying no: ‘you just get straight to the point’ (Jane); ‘I personally feel that I could say no, and I have done’ (Jan). Quantification of our data (i.e. what percentage of women report finding it difficult to refuse sex and what percentage report finding it easy) is, however, not a straightforward counting exercise. Some women avoid ever commenting directly on the relative ease or difficulty of refusing sex, and many say at one point in the group discussion that it is easy, and at another that it is difficult. On one occasion, for example, Liz, comments that a forthright no is simple and effective (‘that’s what I said to my present boyfriend, “I’m not having sex with you” ’); later she talks about finding refusals difficult and embarrassing (‘it just doesn’t seem right to say no when you’re up there in the situation’). These contradictions and ambiguities arise, we believe, because talk is not simply a transparent report of experience; rather it is doing interactive business between focus group participants. Handbooks which advise researchers on how to conduct focus group research often warn against the dangers of inappropriate quantification of focus group data (e.g. Morgan and Krueger, 1993: 14). According to Morgan (1988: 119), ‘numbers and percentages are not appropriate for focus group research and should not be included in the report’. Others (e.g. Krueger,

1988) are inclined to admit some quantification, but disagreement centres around whether the group, the participant, or the participants’ utterances constitute the appropriate unit of analysis. For the purposes of this article, then, we consider it sufficient to note that there are relatively few occasions on which Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 297 the 58 young women in our study reported that they felt able to say a clear and direct ‘no’, and fewer still instances of actual examples from their own experience of times when they had done this. Many researchers would see young women like these as prime candidates for sexual assertiveness training courses where they can be taught how to ‘just say no’.

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