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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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Other possible palliatives would include accompanying a refusal with a delayed acceptance (‘not today, but tomorrow’), or with the offer of an alternative (‘I can’t come round to your place, but why don’t you come round to me?’) (Antaki, 1994: 79); and/or (iv) accounts, i.e. explanations/justifications/excuses for why the invitation is not being accepted such as a prior engagement or commitment as in Examples 3 and 4. It is common (as in the preceding examples) for people to present accounts which suggest that the person refusing the invitation cannot accept it (rather than that s/he chooses not to), i.e. that they are unable rather than unwilling. The advantage of this account is that it has a ‘no blame’ quality, which avoids the implication that the invitation is unattractive or unwanted: it functions to constitute a refusal while avoiding negative or critical consequences (Potter and Wetherell, 1987: 86). It is also common for refusals to be qualified or mitigated in some way (as in ‘I don’t think I can make it this morning’ in Example 4).

Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 302 Discourse & Society 10(3) In sum, then, careful attention to the details of naturally occurring conversation shows that it is conversationally most unusual to ‘just say no’. Rejections and refusals are commonly delayed and indirect and follow a typical pattern which generally includes delay in responding, some kind of prefacing of the refusal (with words like, ‘well’, or ‘ahhh...’), a palliative remark, and some kind of account aimed at softening, explaining, justifying, excusing, or redefining the rejection. It is important to note that refusals are almost always accompanied by explanations or justifications (Labov and Fanshel, 1977: 86–8). This is what conversation analysts mean when they describe rejections as ‘dispreferred’ actions.

Actions which are characteristically performed straightforwardly and without delay (like acceptances) are termed ‘preferred’ actions, while those which are delayed, qualified and accounted for are termed ‘dispreferred’. The concept of ‘preference structure’ is widely used in CA: another example of a ‘preferred action’ is agreeing (e.g. with someone’s opinion), which, like accepting an invitation, is usually carried out quickly and directly; disagreeing, by contrast is described as ‘dispreferred’, because it is characteristically marked by the same pattern (of delay, prefacing etc.) that we have noted in refusals. Note that the terms ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred’ are not intended in any way to refer to the private desires or psychological proclivities of individual speakers: they are simply descriptive of the different ways in which acceptances and refusals are routinely done in ordinary talk (including the acceptance of invitations the individual may actually want to reject, or the refusal of invitations s/he may wish to accept).

This analysis of ordinary (non-sexual) conversational interaction offers an explanation of why it might be difficult for people to say clear, immediate and direct no’s (whatever their desires) in sexual situations. Quite simply, that is not how refusals are normatively done. As we have seen, refusals are usually delayed and indirect, and this means that immediate and direct no’s, particularly those for which no explanations are provided, are often experienced as rude or hostile (Heritage, 1984: 268). Advising someone to ‘just say no’, then, may not be very good advice. In sum, CA shows that communicating a refusal is a far more elegantly crafted interactional activity than we might have imagined, and that it is not adequately captured in the simplistic advice offered by refusal skills training programmes to ‘just say no’.

Young women talking about refusals display their knowledge of the cultural rules documented by conversation analysts The data we have collected are based on tape-recorded interactions in which young women talk about doing refusals. Data in which refusals were actually being done by young women would show that they, like other competent members of their language community, have an implicit understanding of the culturally accepted rules for refusals, as documented by conversation analysts. Our data, by Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 303 contrast, in which young women talk about doing refusals illustrates the extent to which they are able to articulate and to make explicit these normative conversational patterns.

Of course, young women describing the doing of refusals do not sound like academic conversation analysts. We would be very surprised if one of the young women in our focus groups used terms like ‘dispreferred’, or ‘palliative’, in discussing the refusal of unwanted sex. Nonetheless, we show here that it is possible to identify, in young women’s talk about the doing of refusals, a great deal of ‘common-sense’ knowledge about how refusals are normatively done – and that this can be characterized as a lay version of conversation analytic theory. (For a more detailed discussion of the relationship between ‘common-sense’ and ‘expert’, e.g. conversation analytic, knowledge about communicative norms, see Kitzinger, 1998.) In this section we show how young women’s talk about refusals demonstrates their sophisticated understanding of culturally acceptable ways of refusing – understandings which map on to the empirical findings of CA, but which are often at variance with the simplistic prescriptions of date rape education (and similar) programmes.





First, although young women do not, of course, use the term, they know that refusals are dispreferred conversational actions, i.e. that they necessitate a great deal more interactional work than do, for example, acceptances. Whereas date rape prevention programmes insist on direct and straightforward no’s, young women display their sophisticated knowledge about talk in interaction by describing feelings akin to wrongness, rudeness or foolishness which accompany the unvarnished ‘no’, and by insisting on the need to explain and justify their refusals.

Liz: It just doesn’t seem right to say no when you’re up there in the situation.

Sara: It’s not rude, it’s not rude – it sounds awful to say this, doesn’t it.

Liz: I know.

Sara: It’s not rude, but it’s the same sort of feeling. It’s like, ‘oh my god, I can’t say no now, can I?’ In general, the young women in our focus groups characterized explicit refusals of sex as having negative implications for them. Later in the same group discussion quoted earlier, Sara comments that ‘they’d probably think you were really arrogant if you turned round and said, “I’m not going to have sex with you though, alright” ’, and Liz agrees with her, saying, ‘you’d feel a right prat’. In another focus group, Rachel admits that ‘I’ve very rarely said to someone, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested at all” ’, and Megan agrees that to make such a clear and direct statement would make her ‘feel a complete charlie’. In sum, these young women’s talk about the rudeness and arrogance which would be attributed to them, and the foolishness they would feel, in saying clear and direct ‘no’s, indicates their awareness that such behaviour violates culturally accepted norms according to which refusals are dispreferred actions.

Second, in line with their understanding that refusals are dispreferreds, young women often insist that it is necessary to offer accounts (reasons or excuses) for Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 304 Discourse & Society 10(3) their refusals. This again runs counter to the advice offered by many date rape and refusal skills training programmes. The slogan ‘just say no’ implies that nothing other than ‘no’ needs to be said. Consider, for example, the ‘positive selfstatement’ offered by Muehlenhard et al. (1989) as part of their cognitive-behavioral treatment programme for women at high risk of acquaintance rape: ‘I have a right to say no without explaining my reasons’ (Muehlenhard et al., 1989). As a statement of the rights of an individual, this is certainly true, but it is equally true that to say no without explaining one’s reasons is conversationally very abnormal. Young women are clear that refusing sex is something for which reasons are needed. They point out that ‘just saying no in a relationship is not enough if you’ve got a good relationship’ (Wendy); Jan says, ‘I think it’s better if you try to be nice and explain why [you are refusing sex]’; and Jill describes how she would respond to unwanted sexual pressure by saying ‘ “oh no, I don’t want to have sex with you because...” and then explain it’.

Third, as conversation analysts have also claimed, young women talk about good excuses as being those which assert their inability (rather than their unwillingness) to comply with the demand that they engage in sexual intercourse: from the vague (and perhaps, for that reason, irrefutable) statement that they are ‘not ready’, through to sickness and menstruation. Several women reported that they relied on some kind of illness as an excuse: a ‘headache’ (Karen and Cath), feeling ‘tired’ (Cath), ‘knackered’ (Jane and Pam) or just feeling ‘really ill’ (Wendy). Other excuses which emphasized the practical difficulties which made them unable (rather than unwilling) to have sex were ‘you’ve got nowhere to do it’ (Ros), ‘you could get expelled’ (Zoe) or ‘you’re scared of getting pregnant’ (Rose). Note that these were offered by the young women not as genuine reasons for their not wanting sex, but as excuses which they believed young men would find relatively acceptable – and they sometimes made explicit their belief that the relative acceptability of these excuses derives from their focus on inability rather than unwillingness to have sex. Jill explains that saying no to sex with a boyfriend ‘not for any reason, but if you just didn’t want to’ could result in a partner becoming ‘really upset about it’. In order to avoid such an outcome, a plausible excuse is necessary. Pretending to be menstruating was one much-discussed excuse: ‘being on your period’ was seen as an effective excuse, at least in the short term, because ‘that would stop the boy from blaming you’ (Jill). These young women’s view that effective excuses are those rooted in inability rather than unwillingness conforms with the empirical findings of CA, but is at variance with the advice of refusal skills training programmes which often model statements of unwillingness as paradigmatic assertive behaviour (e.g. ‘I don’t feel like making out tonight’, ‘I don’t

want to get in bed with you tonight’, ‘I just don’t want to’, all from Smith, 1975:

246–7) Their refusals are also often qualified or mitigated in some way. One form of refusal which was very often recommended by young women in our focus groups was the ‘delayed acceptance’, i.e. the statement that one is ‘not ready’ for sex, or ‘not ready yet’. Cath comments that ‘one way is not to say “no” as in you never Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 305 want to, but “no” as in “not now” ’, and this was a very commonly reported strategy: ‘I’d say, “look, maybe sometime in the future” ’ (Michelle); ‘I’m not ready yet;

can we wait a while?’ (Sam); ‘I start by telling him that it is all too soon’ (Maggie);

‘just say you’re not ready yet, or you want to keep it for a special time’ (Zoe). The disadvantages of giving delayed acceptances as a form of refusal were also discussed at some length by the young women in our groups; the young women shared, however, a sense that delayed acceptances, whatever longer term problems follow in their wake, are more interactionally acceptable ways of avoiding sex than are explicit ‘no’s. Again, young women’s views about how refusals are done, while mapping nicely on to the conversation analytic literature, run

counter to the recommendations of the refusal skills literature which warns:

Telling the man that you do not want to have sex by saying things like ‘I really don’t know if we should do this’, ‘Not now, can’t we wait?’ or ‘‘I really like you but I’m not sure’ is not effective. All these statements can be misconstrued as meaning that you need a little more urging to be cooperative. (Wiseman, 1994: 65) Fourth, young women explicitly state that it is a good idea to offer (what conversation analysts call) palliatives in refusing sex. Young women report refusing sexual activity with phrases such as: ‘well, it’s very flattering of you to ask’ (Sharon), or ‘look, you’re a really nice guy and I do like you, but that’s it’ (Pat).

Phrases like these serve to ‘soften’ the refusal (Atkinson and Drew, 1979: 58); as Judy says ‘you’ve got to soften the blow somehow, haven’t you’. This search for palliatives or attempt to ‘soften’ refusals is often expressed as a concern to find ways of refusing sex ‘without hurting his feelings’ (Carla), and other research on young women’s sexuality has documented the extent to which this is a major concern for them (e.g. Howard and McCabe, 1990; Frith and Kitzinger, 1998).

According to Sharon: ‘If you have to reject someone sexually, then the best thing to do is to make it up to them in some other direction, so that you can reject someone sexually by offering them friendship back’. Again, as the extract from Wiseman (1994: 65) quoted here (‘I really like you...’, etc) indicates, palliatives are actively criticized in the refusal skills literature.

What these data illustrate, then, is that the young women in our focus groups have a sophisticated awareness of normative communication patterns around refusal which permit them not only (presumably) to do refusals in the culturally appropriate way, but also to verbalize some aspects of what is involved in doing this. Our data suggest that young women’s concerns about appropriate refusal technique are fairly sophisticated compared with the crass advice to ‘just say no’.

Date rape education (and similar) programmes are prescribing behaviour which violates basic cultural norms and social etiquette, and young women know this.



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