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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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This article has argued that young women find it difficult to say ‘no’ to sex at least partly because saying immediate clear and direct ‘no’s (to anything) is not a normal conversational activity. Young women who do not use the word ‘no’, but who refuse sex with delays, prefaces, palliatives and accounts are using conversational patterns which are normatively recognized as refusals in everyday life. For men to claim that they do not ‘understand’ such refusals to be refusals (because, for example, they do not include the word ‘no’) is to lay claim to an astounding and implausible ignorance of normative conversational patterns. We have suggested that the insistence of date rape prevention (and other refusal skills) educators on the importance of saying ‘no’ is counter-productive in that it demands that women engage in conversationally abnormal actions which breach conventional social etiquette, and in that it allows rapists to persist with the claim that if a woman has not actually said ‘NO’ (in the right tone of voice, with the right body language, at the right time) then she hasn’t refused to have sex with him.

Our analysis in this article supports the belief that the root of the problem is not that men do not understand sexual refusals, but that they do not like them.

Confronted with a date rape education ‘no means no’ poster campaign, seeking to disambiguate women’s refusals, nine male students at Queens University in Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 Kitzinger & Frith: Just say no? The use of conversation 311 Canada responded with posters of their own including slogans such as ‘no means kick her in the teeth’, ‘no means on your knees bitch’, ‘no means tie her up’, ‘no means more beer’ and ‘no means she’s a dyke’ (cf. Mahood and Littlewood, 1997). Similar evidence comes from a recent study of 16-year-old boys who were asked ‘if you wanted to have sex and your partner did not, would you try to persuade them to have sex? How?’: the researchers comment that there was ‘clear evidence of aggression towards girls who were not prepared to be sexually accommodating’ and quote interview extracts in which boys say that in such situations they would ‘root the fucking bitch in the fucking arse’, ‘give her a stern talking to’, or just ‘shove it in’ (Moore and Rosenthal, 1992, cited in Moore and Rosenthal, 1993: 179). The problem of sexual coercion cannot be fixed by changing the way women talk.

In the present study, CA has made clear that there are normatively understood ways of doing refusals which are generally understood to be refusals, and consequently we believe that there is no reason why feminists concerned about sexual coercion should respond to men’s allegations of their ‘ambiguity’ by taking upon ourselves the task of inventing new ways of doing refusals. As feminists, we have allowed men (disingenuously claiming not to understand normative conversational conventions) to set the agenda, such that we have accepted the need to educate women to produce refusals which men cannot claim to have ‘misunderstood’. This, in turn, has led only to an escalation of men’s claims to have ‘misunderstood’, to be ‘misunderstood’, and, in general, to be ‘ignorant’ about women’s (allegedly different and special) ways of communicating. Men’s selfinterested capacity for ‘misunderstanding’ will always outstrip women’s earnest attempts to clarify and explain.

The technical field of CA has not been attractive to feminists (but see Stokoe, 1998; Wetherell, 1998, for recent exceptions). Conversation analysis is often viewed as nit picking, obsessively concerned with details, and as unable to see beyond the ‘micro’ level of the 0.2-second pause to the ‘macro’ level of oppression.

It is so-called ‘critical’ discourse analysis (rather than the ethnomethodologically rooted variety drawing on CA) which is usually seen as most likely to advance political ideals. We hope we have illustrated here one way in which knowledge of the details of talk in interaction can help in formulating political arguments and practical programmes. Date rape prevention and refusal skills programmes need to be based on empirical evidence of how refusals are actually done and understood to be done, not on idealized prescriptions which fly in the face of cultural conventions. Educators have lamented the alleged absence of ‘an empirical basis by which to guide efforts to say no effectively’ (Warzak and Page, 1990: 134): the findings of CA provide just such an empirical basis. The slogan ‘yes means yes, and no means no’ may make a good campaign slogan, but it is neither a description of actual human behaviour, nor a suitable prescription for dealing with the sexual coercion.

We would urge feminist researchers to consider these and other ways in which a close attention to the details of language use in ordinary conversation may be of broader social and political relevance.

Downloaded from das.sagepub.com at New School Digital Library on September 14, 2010 312 Discourse & Society 10(3)

–  –  –

The authors would like to thank the members of Loughborough University’s Discourse and Rhetoric Group (especially Derek Edwards, Jonathan Potter, Mick Billig and Charles Antaki) and Women’s Studies Research Group (especially Sue Wilkinson and Cath Benson) for stimulating discussions which informed our writing of this article.





1. To be absolutely accurate here, we should note that we do not in fact know anything about what B intended to communicate – and indeed B’s intentions and desires are unknowable by, and irrelevant to, conversation analysts. Conversation analysts do not claim to be able to use what people say to read off psychological phenomena like intentions, desires, emotions, or other cognitions. The claim is only that A reacts to what B says as though B were refusing the invitation, and hence that the structure of B’s speech is the kind of structure which ordinary members of the speech community commonly orient to as a refusal. See Edwards (1997) for a comprehensive discussion of the relationship between talk and cognition.

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