The Right to Say No


Boston. -- In America, it's become the sound-bite lecture, the bumper-sticker sermon, the generic sexual advice offered to young girls everywhere. Just say no, they are told, just say no. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world.

But sometimes, if you back up and widen the lens, you can get a better look at that world. You can see just how easy it isn't.

This is what happened in Beijing. The international community assembled for the women's conference finally agreed that a woman's human rights included her right to be free of sexual "coercion, discrimination and violence."

In the most controversial provision to come out of the health committee for conference approval, the nations declared that equal sexual relationships between men and women required "mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility." For the very first time, they asserted that women across this world have the right to say no.

To imagine how radical this proposition is in parts of the globe, think about posting it on a tree in a village where wives are infected with AIDS because they cannot even say the word "condom" to a husband. Think about reading it at the wedding ceremony of a child bride. Or to a woman sold into the sex trade or told by a boss how to keep her job.

Such ringing U.N. declarations don't bring about swift cultural change. The millennium-old belief in "marital rights" can easily overwhelm the first tenuous idea of a new-fangled "woman's right." As Lori Heise, a health-policy analyst just back from Beijing says, "The concept of consent has a different meaning in a culture where a woman has no choice but to concede."

Women do not always have the language to describe their own experiences, let alone the support to change them. When a researcher interviewed Iranian women who had been married as children she heard the same wedding-night stories of violence. But only the women who had subsequently moved to America used the word "rape."

Still, the U.N. words are not just directed at the most traditional pockets of the world. A continuum of sexual coercion stretches across the globe, across time as well as space, evolving at different rates of speed out of the same traditions.

In America, the very definition of sexual coercion is still being debated. It's not even 20 years since Oregon changed the common law that said a woman could not be raped by her husband. AIDS counselors tell us too how many American women feel powerless to protect themselves.

Today, we are more likely to believe that "if she said no, it's rape." But it is still easier to convict a stranger. The creation of new phrases like "date rape" describe a changing norm. But they also circumscribe the "gray area," between consent and force, between "she asked for it" and "she said no."

In the work place, sexual-harassment laws are not even a generation old. The women who finally spoke out against Bob Packwood's sexual misconduct implied a great deal about the changing boundaries. But their reticence and their fear of labeling his behavior as coercive, says something as well about how difficult this change is.

A gender gap exists in this country, too. In last year's Sex in America study, 22 percent of American women reported being forced to do something sexual while only 2.8 percent of the men said they had ever forced a woman. And yet, not long ago, when Antioch College tried mightily (if a bit grimly) to create an elaborate sex policy based on consent, the country broke out into nervous laughter about "sexual correctness."

There is a world of difference, literally, between places on this planet where females do not have the barest right to say no and America where girls are being instructed to just say no. But there is a line from one place to another. There are teen-age mothers in this country -- most of whom have been impregnated by men in their 20s -- who do not feel strong enough, or supported enough, or hopeful enough to determine their own lives.

In China, the women of the world began to rewrite the sexual script. They asked what sexual relations would look like if women had the permission and felt the power to say yes and no. They have made the intimate and complex connection between equality and sexuality. Just say no? There's no "just" about it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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