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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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Our claim here is supported by the findings of Amy Gervasio and Mary Crawford (1989) who have reviewed research on how people evaluate so-called ‘assertive’ behaviour. It seems that what experts think is healthy assertion strikes others as ‘aggressive’ and ‘rude’, and they suggest that one reason for this is because it breaks the rules of normal conversation. The evidence is that ‘just saying no’ is Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 306 Discourse & Society 10(3) rude, and that young women know this. 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.

It should not be necessary for a woman to say ‘no’ in order for her to be understood as refusing sex Thus far we have shown that conversation analysts have demonstrated that refusals follow a normative pattern, and that young women are able to articulate at least some features of this pattern in their own talk about refusals. There is, however, a crucial feature of refusing which we have not yet mentioned, although it has important implications for refusal skills training programmes based on the slogan, ‘Just say no’. Simply put, the word ‘no’ is neither sufficient, nor necessary, for a refusal to be heard as such.

Most date rape (and similar) prevention programmes have incorporated the idea that saying ‘no’ is not sufficient for a refusal to be heard as a refusal. The widespread use of ‘token resistance’ (saying ‘no’ but meaning ‘yes’) has been welldocumented and studies have repeatedly found that about 40 percent of US female undergraduates report saying to their dates that they did not want to have sex when actually they ‘had every intention to’ and were ‘willing to engage in sexual intercourse’ (Muehlenhard and Hollabaugh, 1988; Muehlenhard and McCoy, 1991; Sprecher et al., 1994). Because women sometimes apparently mean ‘yes’ but say ‘no’, refusal skills teaching often encourages women to disambiguate genuinely meant no’s by reinforcing their meaning with (for example) a firm tone, eye contact, or other forms of non-verbal communication (e.g. physically leaving the room, slapping the man). A ‘genuine’ no is supposed to be clear and definite in order to distinguish it from token refusals.

But while refusal skills education acknowledges that saying ‘no’ is not sufficient for refusal what it does not usually acknowledge is that saying no is also not necessary for refusal. Indeed, the slogan, ‘just say no’ puts the word ‘no’ in pride of place as the key semantic component of a refusal. This is mirrored in virtually all date rape education (and other refusal skills) programmes; an ‘explicit and audible NO’ is part of the operational definition of a ‘refusal’ in the study by Warzak and Page (1990), and the teaching of ‘how to assertively yet emphatically say “No” ’ is the key pedagogic aim of the self-help book by Smith (1975). Yet, CA demonstrates conclusively that it is not necessary to say ‘no’ in order to refuse a request effectively, and to have a refusal heard as a refusal.

In fact, neither of the data extracts quoted earlier (Examples 3 and 4) to illustrate the key components of refusals includes the word ‘no’. In both cases, however, the person addressed apparently understood them to be refusals, and responded as though the speaker were refusing the invitation. Let us look at

another example in more detail:

Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 307 Example 5 A: If you wanted to: ‘hh you could meet me at UCB an’ I could show you some a’ the other things on the computer, (.) maybe even teach you how to programme Basic or something B: (0.6) Well I don’t know if I’d wanna get all that invo:lved, hh’hhh!

(Davidson, 1984: 108; transcription simplified) In this extract, A’s offer to show B some things on the computer is not immediately accepted (note the short pause ‘(.)’ which follows it). A then modifies the invitation, offering to even teach B how to programme Basic. But still, B doesn’t respond immediately: A’s offer is met first with a short pause, then with the word ‘well’ (the preface), and then with the statement, ‘I don’t know if I’d wanna get

all that involved’. Note that B does not say ‘no’. Nonetheless, most of us will recognize that this is what B means – as, indeed, A does. The extract continues:

A: It’s really interesti:ng.

In other words, A ‘hears’ B as refusing (even though B hasn’t actually said the word ‘no’), and tries to persuade B (‘it’s really interesting’): the effort to persuade someone indicates (obviously) that you understand that they don’t want to do it, but that you hope you can change their mind. So, B has successfully communicated a refusal, despite not saying a direct, clear, and immediate ‘no’.1 Conversation analysis shows that this is absolutely normal: this is the way most refusals are done, and they are heard (or, as conversation analysts say, ‘oriented to’) as refusals in the course of ordinary conversation. (For other examples see Davidson, 1984; Heritage, 1989; Antaki, 1994). This is even the case for parents refusing children’s requests. In a study of over 100 request sequences transcribed from audiotapes made in the homes of 4-year-old boys and girls in Aberdeen, Scotland (across a range of different social class backgrounds), Wootton (1981) found that the word ‘no’ was notably absent from many of the exchanges in which children’s requests were refused, and that parents generally followed the normative pattern for refusing (delay, preface, palliative, mitigated or qualified refusal, account) which we have already identified.





So, the evidence is that people usually hear refusals without the word ‘no’ necessarily being uttered. In fact, people often respond to just one part of the refusal sequence as signalling refusal in and of itself. For example, one of the most potent indicators of refusal is a delay in responding. According to Davidson (1984: 103) ‘a silence offering immediately after an invitation, offer, request or proposal may be taken as displaying that it is possibly going to be rejected’. In fact, a pause of two-tenths of a second seems to be taken as evidence for an invitation rejection coming up (Levinson, 1983: 336). The following examples illustrate the way in which speakers, having issued requests or invitations, attend to pauses (in which their conversational partners could speak, but do not), as foreshadowing refusals. (Remember that (.) means a pause of less than two-tenths of a second, and longer pauses are indicated in seconds and tenths of seconds.) Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 308 Discourse & Society 10(3)

–  –  –

In these three examples, speakers, hearing the silences which follow their requests or invitations, indicate that they are anticipating refusals. The third example is interesting because the speaker attempts to forestall rejection by dealing with what might be causing it (the belief that perhaps there isn’t enough room for her guests). It is common to find that when people issue invitations, offers, requests or proposals and are met with brief silences, they reformulate or elaborate on the original invitation so as to make an acceptance more likely – as A also does in Example 5. The very fact that these ‘subsequent versions’ (Davidson, 1984) are produced demonstrates, of course, that the initial silence was heard as heralding a refusal. So CA indicates that a brief pause (of no more than two-tenths of a second) following a request or invitation is often, in and of itself, heard as implying refusal.

The production of palliatives in response to an invitation, offer or request is also generally heard as a refusal in and of itself. In an example cited by Antaki (1994: 81), N responds to a lunch invitation (after the short pause we know to be typical of refusals), ‘well, you’re real sweet, hon:, uh::m’: note the preface (‘well’) and the palliative, which in this case takes the form of a compliment. This is all N says, but it is enough to constitute an implied refusal, as we can see from the response of the person making the invitation: ‘or do you have something else’. If, in everyday conversation, a simple palliative is heard as implying refusal, then young women who respond to sexual invitations with palliatives like ‘well, I do like you’ or ‘it’s flattering to be asked’ should likewise be heard as implying refusal – especially if these responses are preceded by a couple of tenths of a second of silence.

Furthermore, in ordinary, naturally occurring speech, weak agreements (such as half hearted ‘yeah’s or ‘uh huh’s) are often heard and reacted to as if they imply disagreement or refusal (Pomerantz, 1984). In the extract which follows, A asks B to telephone someone tonight. Notice that B says ‘yeah’ (which sounds like Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 309 a – not very enthusiastic – agreement), but A (after waiting a short time, perhaps to offer B the opportunity to say why s/he isn’t keen to make the call), reacts as though B had said ‘no’: ‘Plea::se’, A begs.

Example 9 A: ‘hhhhh Uh will you call ‘im tuhnight for me, B: eYea:h, (.) A: Plea::se, (Davidson, 1984: 113) Here we have a ‘yes’, which is understood by the person making the request as if it were a refusal. We can see why this is if we compare it with conversations in which requests are accepted (see Examples 1 and 2 cited earlier): the evidence is that acceptances (real ones – that is, ones which are understood as such by the person making the request) occur quickly and without delay. This explains why, in Example 9, A understands the delayed and weak ‘acceptance’ as a refusal. In sexual situations, too, then, we might expect weak or delayed acceptances to be heard as refusals.

In sum, refusals do not have to be – and generally are not – emphatic, direct, and immediate ‘no’s. In ordinary conversation they are signalled by relatively subtle cues such as pauses, palliatives, and even weak agreements. It is clear that the word ‘no’ is not a necessary semantic component of refusals. It is not normally necessary to say ‘no’ in order to be heard as refusing an offer or invitation – pausing, hedging, producing a palliative, and even delayed or weak ‘acceptances’ are typically understood as refusals in everday talk.

Conclusion and implications To conclude, then, if we read the literature on young women’s sexual negotiation in conjunction with the conversation analytic work on refusals, then it seems that young women responding to unwanted sexual pressure are using absolutely normal conversational patterns for refusals: that is, according to the research literature (and our own data) on young women and sexual communication, they are communicating their refusals indirectly; their refusals rarely refer to their own lack of desire for sex and more often to external circumstances which make sex impossible; their refusals are often qualified (‘maybe later’), and are accompanied by compliments (‘I really like you, but...’) or by appreciations of the invitation (‘it’s very flattering of you to ask, but...’); and sometimes they refuse sex with the kind of ‘yes’s which are normatively understood as communicating refusal. These features are all part of what are commonly understood to be refusals. Yet the feminist and the date rape prevention literatures (and refusal skills training programmes more generally) present refusals of this kind as inadequate and insufficiently communicative. By contrast, we would suggest that young women are communicating in ways which are usually understood to mean refusal in other contexts and it is not the adequacy of their communication Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 310 Discourse & Society 10(3) that should be questioned, but rather their male partners’ claims not to understand that these women are refusing sex. As conversation analyst Michael

Moerman (1988: 45) puts it:

In any society, the recurrent and systematic attainment of misunderstanding between members of social categories who regularly converse with one another must thus be regarded as an artful, complicit, and damning accomplishment.

The conversation analytic literature leads us to question the source of men’s alleged failure to ‘understand’ women’s refusals.

If there is an organized and normative way of doing indirect refusal, which provides for culturally understood ways in which (for example) ‘maybe later’ means ‘no’, then men who claim not to have understood an indirect refusal (as in, ‘she didn’t actually say no’) are claiming to be cultural dopes, and playing rather disingenuously on how refusals are usually done and understood to be done. They are claiming not to understand perfectly normal conversational interaction, and to be ignorant of ways of expressing refusal which they themselves routinely use in other areas of their lives.

While feminists have enthusiastically embraced the slogan ‘yes means yes, and no means no’, some anti-feminists have been virulent in opposition. For example, Gilbert (1991), criticizing the ‘radical feminist effort to impose new norms governing intimacy between the sexes’ (p. 61) complains that ‘the awesome complexity of human interaction is reduced to ‘ “No means no” ’. Conversation

analytic research (like the work on token resistance) suggests that Gilbert is right:

human conversational interaction is indeed intricately complex: ‘yes’ may sometimes mean ‘no’, ‘no’ may sometimes mean ‘yes’, and the word ‘no’ is not necessarily part of a refusal. What are the implications of this for feminism?



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