Language: Does "No" Really Mean "No"?

Language: Does "No" Really Mean "No"?

An excerpt from Kenneth Guest’s Cultural Anthropology, chapter 4, Language: How Do Systems of Power Intersect with Language and Communication?:


Does "No" Really Mean "No"? Don Kulick's (2003) study of the use of the word no in sexual relations considers how words can take on different meanings depending on the gender of the speaker and the listener. What does "no" mean when a woman says it to a man who desires sex? In court cases involving rape or sexual harassment, men regularly state that they have misunderstood a woman's refusal of their sexual advances. They often blame the victim for not being clear enough with her "no."How can this miscommunication be possible? After all, "no” means "no." Or does it?

According to Kulick's findings, some men apparently think a woman's "no" actually means "yes" or "keep trying" Kulick suggests that men don't hear the actual word but instead hear what they think the word is supposed to mean. Specifically, his study suggests that men in a patriarchal (male-dominated) culture may not even hear a woman's "no" because it does not make sense within their cultural expectations of what a woman is supposed to say. Because U.S. culture casts women as sexual objects, "no" does not meet the cultural expectations of what a woman is or how a woman should behave. Within U.S. cultural formations of gender roles and sexuality, women are imagined to say "no," to resist, when they actually mean "yes." Is it possible that based on their gender, the men and women in your class might even react differently to hearing the results of this study?

The power of culture to shape the meaning of language can have implications for men as well. Men in U.S. culture are expected to say "yes” to women's sexual initiatives, never "no." With a “no" the man risks undermining his masculine identity, perhaps raising questions about his sexuality. A simple and straight forward linguistic expression --No!-- struggles for clarity in the murky cultural context of gender relationships and power (MacKinnon 1993). As U.S. colleges and universities struggle to address widespread incidents of sexual harassment and abuse and seek to empower students to communicate more directly and successfully about their intentions and desires, attention to the intersections of language, gender, and power become increasingly important.

Guest, Kenneth. “Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age”. Language: How Do Systems of Power Intersect with Language and Communication?. Ed. Peter Lesser. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2017. 125-126.


For more information about Guest's book, please see his short video.


Recommended video: Cultural Influences on Gender Roles


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