When No Means No (Sexual Etiquette)

When does no mean no in a sexual context?  Is “always” always the answer?

If you ask me, “no means no” is an excellent rule when it comes to sexual matters, as I stated in a comment yesterday.

But sexual etiquette is more complex than we might want to admit, especially when discussing sexuality with our children. We talk about sex, or we talk about talking about it – the mechanics of it, and the emotional as well as physical aspects of health and safety.

So what about the shades of gray? Are we too embarrassed to address them or too ill-equipped? How do we properly approach issues of sexual safety and sexual etiquette?

Some remarks on the French Vogue cover (yesterday) expressed concern over what children might think about the couple shown in their domination-tinged embrace. Yet as I walked around my home last evening, glancing at assorted magazine covers, book covers, even art on the walls – to some degree one could say the same about almost anything these days – everything from a Rolling Stone Magazine cover to what passes for acceptable (bloody) television, not to mention violent video games.

So where exactly is our dilemma – or discomfort? The potential association of violence with sex, or just sex? Do we ever have nuanced discussions with our children about either?

Talking to Kids About Sex

I ventured a Google search on “talking to kids about sex” and another on “talking to teens about sex.”

What I found?

Interesting results. Talking to kids about sexting popped up before talking to kids about sex. Right there, we see another contemporary conundrum, and a whole other arena of sexual etiquette to address.

Talking to teens about sex yielded 62 million results (ranging from Oprah on relationships to the Mayo Clinic, and any number of major publications). As for talking to kids about sex, the query returned some 255 million results, with one of the better approaches I’ve seen offered by a Planned Parenthood article and video clip, using humor and pragmatism to help adults field frequently asked questions – and then some.

Out of curiosity, I searched on “sexual etiquette” as well as “when no means no.”

Sexual Etiquette

Apparently, there is no Emily Post of Sexual Etiquette, exactly. But my search came up with a few amusing sources, no doubt covering manners that most adults of a certain age have learned. Then again, our sexually active teenagers and possibly some twenty-somethings may benefit from:

  • AskMen’s Top 10 Common Sex Etiquette Mistakes – a highly readable commentary focused on issues like personal hygiene, not ripping your date’s clothing in the throes of passion, no taking calls mid-coitus, no springing a surprise fetish or two (without discussing first), warn before the big finish if you’re having oral sex, don’t be unselfish, and so on. Not exactly rocket science, but entertaining.
  • YourTango offers up oral sex etiquette – as do many guides, apparently. Huh. I didn’t anticipate that. Tissue by the bed, à la Charlotte in Sex and the City?
  • Lifescript’s 5 More Sexual Do’s – clearly reflects the advantage of the communication side of sexual activity, for example, talking with your partner before any sort of experimentation. Don’t most good manners hinge on observing, listening, and diplomatically discussing? Among the recommendations – do not scream out George Clooney’s name unless you’re, well, in bed with George Clooney.

Sexual Boundaries, When No Means No

All joking aside, we need to set boundaries even when we’re open to exploring them, and communicate – like adults – when we’re uncomfortable or unwilling to pursue an activity further.

Lifescript’s article offers this, which is essential:

Your partner should respect your boundaries… If he presses you at all, consider whether he’s the right guy for you.

My search on “no means no” resulted in a number of articles on date rape and what that means. How many of us talk to our kids about date rape? Shouldn’t we? Shouldn’t we let our daughters know that NO is their right?

Shouldn’t our sons know as well?

Why don’t we talk to our children – or each other – about issues to do with “coaxing” or coercion?

Adult Sexuality – Real World

Most of us are embarrassed discussing sexuality. And we’re confused.

As women, we’re encouraged to flaunt it in some circumstances, and hide it in others. As a culture, we’re becoming more open-minded – publicly at least – about anything other than conventional sexual arrangements. The real world of adult sexuality is diverse; yet, we continue to cloak much of natural human behavior in shame and judgment.

And our children surely pick up on this. Can we blame them for getting mixed messages, and wondering what is and isn’t okay? What are they seeing in our homes? What if they see “too much,” however we might define that? What about disrespectful sexual behavior between parents? What if we find ourselves in a sexless marriage, or one in which affection has gone MIA?

What if we’re single and not dating? What if we’ve been on our own for awhile – as choice moms, as divorcees or widows, and we don’t know what we want to model for our impressionable sons and daughters?

How much do we share – and when? Is what we say contradictory when it comes to what we do – and in some instances, is that a better idea than being more transparent?

Can we at least begin to talk to each other, as adults?

Parents Model Sexual Behaviors

If we believe that our children watch and absorb our values as well as our habits and behaviors, shouldn’t we model the sexual etiquette we’d like them to emulate – eventually? Sexual behavior that is respectful, and naturally – takes into consideration the age of a child.

What this means to me won’t be the same as what it means to you, but we should think about it.

My guidelines?

I firmly believe that a rotating bedroom door is a less than stellar example. Dating? Sure. Sleepovers with the flavor of the month?

Not so much. I believe children should have a sense of stability and security, and should feel physically safe. If your thing is variety and no strings, fine. But in my opinion, your children don’t need to see it or live it simply because you do.

What Kids Think of Our Partners

I hardly think that any of us needs to be celibate if we choose otherwise, though compatible partners are not a given. Then there’s the challenge of having a social life if you’re a single parent and you’re financially or logistically constrained, and your kids are with you most or all of the time.

Might I suggest you’ll have to get creative with your arrangements?

In my own experience, discretion is advised. Bringing another adult into the mix can become complicated in more ways than one, as children will grow attached in some cases, resentful in others, not to mention learn behaviors by observing ours. I will add that children may pick up on situations that we, as adults, don’t notice. Kids can offer valuable input into our dating relationships. We should pay attention to their responses and instincts when we’re dating – for their safety and our own.

We also need to instill responsibility with regard to sexual etiquette – feeling our way, perhaps, as they mature and we mature in our relationships and choices.

Teens, Alcohol, Coercion, Saying No

Let’s be practical. Anyone under the influence is less inhibited. And passion – in and of itself – is pretty heady stuff.

But “no means no” is a rule I consider helpful – and essential. That includes explaining to sons and daughters that anything resembling coercion may not constitute violence, but it nonetheless has no place in a sexual relationship. And alcohol – as well as passion – may encourage getting oneself in tricky situations.

So where is the line between “coaxing” and “coercion?” What about situations of so-called implied consent?

How many adult women have difficulty with this very issue?

If you ask me – at any age – if coaxing is required for sexual activity, then you’ve got the wrong time or the wrong person, much as the Lifescript article suggests. If one partner is uncomfortable or unready, that should be the end of it. When alcohol (or other substances) gets involved, unfortunately judgment may be impaired, which is too often used as an excuse.

Alcohol is never an excuse for what amounts to rape.

And this potentially dangerous combination – substances and sex – is yet one more subject to discuss honestly with our children. The possible fall-out is too great not to.

I will add another related point. Women should remind themselves that dinner doesn’t “buy sex,” that feeling cornered doesn’t require sex, that consensual truly means both parties want to engage in a way that is comfortable for each, at that point in time.

What if we looked at the other side of “no means no” and tried to clarify with this guideline?

If the answer is a clear, definitive, lucid yes, at the point in time during which you want to engage, then yes.


It’s a no.

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© D. A. Wolf



  1. says

    Serious issues and you bring up the most important issue of parents talking about sex with their children. Just where do kids learn about this stuff? And I don’t necessarily mean the mechanics, although that seems to be lacking too. God, doesn’t anybody know what the fraenulum is?

    Considering the Far Right’s (and now Republican’s) stance on all things sexual (abstinence only: no sex at all!), I would think it is more important than ever for parents to figure out what’s necessary to ensure their children turn out to have a healthy approach to sex and relationships. No means no. Putting your partner’s pleasure ahead of your own. The journey is the reward. Giving is more gratifying than receiving. Kama Sutra position #43 may result in a sprained ankle without proper warm-up. Yes, you can look at pictures in magazines, watch movies, even check out some online porn but that doesn’t truly tell you what’s going on behind the scenes, in people’s minds. As I commented yesterday, passion is physical and the uninvolved observer looking at the magazine cover may interpret it as violent when in reality it is just steamy.

    Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right.
    – Woody Allen: from the film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972)

    Thank you Ms. Wolf for raising the issue of communication. Open and honest dialogue is important. By the way, my safe word is “apples”.

    I’m reading wb :-)

  2. says

    My mother tried to explore the topic of sex via pamphlets (not conversation, which would have been awkward). My school taught me the biology of sex in sex education. But no one discussed how to communicate about sex – with anyone.

    Communication is ideal, but still not easy. I wish I had been taught about the emotional aspects of sex versus just the physical/biological stuff. Ultimately, it is the emotional side of things that leaves a lasting impression.

    You bring up an important topic! Let’s face it – in our culture – it is still a challenging subject to address.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Ah, pamphlets and sex ed! (Don’t we still try to rely on those two, not to mention “ask your other parent” or assuming they’ll learn from friends?

      I agree, Robin. Not easy to communicate on any of these dimensions, but somewhat easier when we start younger (and talk constantly).

  3. BigLittleWolf says

    I don’t want to imply that it’s easy, Mr. Belle. It isn’t. Even for a “liberally minded” parent like myself.

    The Planned Parenthood article offers excellent tips for getting started along with a youtube video that is amusing and useful. Simple things that give us a sense of where to begin, in ways that are age appropriate.

    And the Lifescript piece had a few nuggets that are useful for adults when it comes to saying no to what we don’t want, and exploring a little more with our partners when we do. Without question, communication is key – and there are ways to communicate that are more effective than others, clearly.

    Besides, what long term relationship couldn’t do with a little sparkle in this area now and then?

  4. says

    If I may say some words on the « no means no » issue, I would voice that I see two quite different kinds of situations, depending on whether or not you’re already lovers with the one to whom you say this “no.” I mean, all those having been in a long relationship, marriage or whatever commitment, implying more or less regular lovemaking, know very well what I will say: Being “in the mood for love” is very far from being a binary defined kind of thing.

    Sometimes the “no” of your partner can simply mean “well I don’t really know if I’m in the mood for this right now.”

    But If I completely agree that any kind of physical forcing is to be condemned (and it’s good that laws allow this on both shores of the Atlantic even for married people), there may be couples where one tries to bend the course of events by some coaxing, until the “no” turns to “perhaps” and finally goes to “yes” and leads to some delightful intercourse, that may be different.

    Now the “no” to the complete stranger hitting on you is of course of a totally different kind.

    One of the very tricky situations, and we know that courts have not always been clear with that, is the one concerning the limits that one should be always totally entitled to apply in any flirtatious playing. In other words, a woman should always have the right to stop a bantering game even should she be the one starting it in the first place. We could think of the movie “The Accused” where the woman goes to a bar to have a little fun and relax, she engages in flirtation, and the results are horrible.

    The rest of the movie shows what a fight it was in America to get people to understand, be it in court or outside of court, that it’s the perfect right of a woman to be playful and flirtatious without finding herself under an obligation to indulge in sex, or worse – entitling the man she flirted with to force her into doing so.

    In France, with the exception of those that Frenchwomen call les lourds (the heavy ones), a woman’s “no” is generally acknowledged for what it really is: NO! But we have our bad guys like any other country, and I wouldn’t presume to account for their behaviors.

  5. says

    This is a critical and thoughtful post, D.

    As you know, my kids are still quite young, but I already fear that I’m going to struggle with these conversations. I never really had these discussions with my own parents and it has taken me a long time to talk about sex without blushing (okay, sometimes I still do).

    This might sound silly, but the first step I’ve taken with my own kids is to use the proper words for all of their body parts. And when my oldest son (now 5) asks me frank questions, I try to answer honestly (without going into too much detail).

    I figure if I start out slowly with their small questions, I’ll train myself to handle bigger discussions as they grow. Here’s hoping that works.

  6. says

    I worked as the Director of a sexual assault program when my 2 sons were almost teens. Mortified would be the word for them when I showed up at school to do educational programs. I’ve always stressed the consent notion and talked to them about understanding the female side, and just as important, the knowledge that sex is more fun when consensual. I wanted them to protect themselves from pressure, misinterpretation and crossing that occasionally fuzzy line.
    I’ve always been an advocate of sex ed and have had open talks with my sons for years. Now I want to foster a continued conversation with adults–who are less informed and comfortable with sex than I had ever imagined.

    Another topic you bring up is dating with children in the house. Mine were teens when I divorced and there were not men in the house but the youngest, in high school, was exposed to my dating and knew that I spent the night away. I don’t know how much it bothered him. They are fine with my dating but uncomfortable with any hint of their 58 year old mother as a sexual person! Eeeew! Gross would probably express their sentiment. Yet, as you noted, I want them to see positive sexual relationships at any and all stages of life!

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