The conversation happened when I was an awkward, ugly, bookish teenager, ridiculously well-read but with no social skills, homeschooled half the time and attending community college the other half. I’d been homeschooled in an extremely conservative and paranoid group; my siblings were being brought up a little more loosely. The chastity swing-dances of which I’ve already written were a thing of the past, and I considered myself too old for them anyway. I had never been to a prom; I didn’t want to go to a prom, nor did I expect to be asked.
That’s what made it so funny when my mother walked into the room to have a talk with me.
“Will you go to prom with such-and-such?” she asked, mentioning a boy my brother knew who went to a Catholic high school.
I did not look up from my book. “What?”
My mother repeated the question.
“Did he ask you to ask me?”
“No,” said my mother. “It’s just a terrible situation. He asked a girl to prom, and she said no.” My mother paused as if this was very significant.
I kept my eyes on my book.
“So I thought he could go with you. You’re an older girl, in college. It’d be nice for his confidence. You know, this is very embarrassing for him. A girl is not supposed to say no, when a boy asks her to prom.”
My mother looked shocked that I’d never heard that rule. “You’re just not supposed to.”
At the beginning of this month I wrote a piece about so-called “incels:” men who believe they’re entitled to sex. I suggested that, in my experience, this is not a purely secular problem and a result of the “sexual revolution.” There are plenty of seemingly chaste Catholic men in my acquaintance that feel themselves entitled to a woman, and they don’t seem to notice that they’re sexually harassing her because they use the language of “vocation” and “God’s will” when they demand she submit. I didn’t think I’d be talking about such things again so soon.
But then the recent school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, occurred. Ten people are dead, and the killer in custody. The family of Dimitrios Pagourtzis is confused; they didn’t have a clue their gun enthusiast son would do such a thing. But it’s coming out in the news, that he specifically targeted young women who had said “no” to him.
Shana Fisher had been the object of unwanted advances from Dimitrios for four months before she lost her temper and confronted him publicly, embarrassing him. She was, according to her mother, the first victim and the reason that Dimitrios snapped. Then he went on to kill and injure other students he didn’t like; he meant to kill himself, but lost his nerve and surrendered. Reuters is reporting that this is the second school shooting by a young man who felt rejected by a girl “in recent months;” the other was in Maryland in March. The murder was killed by a police officer. The young woman who said “no” to him is dead.
The horrendous van attack in Toronto less than a month ago was perpetrated by a terrorist who said he was starting an “Incel Rebellion.” He wanted to punish women in general for not satisfying him. And he received all kinds of support from other so-called incels online. A frightening number of men believe they’re entitled to women, and that hearing “no” entitles them to commit acts of violence.
Most women know this. We grow up with it. We’re not supposed to say “no.” We’re supposed to say “yes” so that boys and men aren’t embarrassed, and we tell our daughters to say “yes” so that boys and men aren’t embarrassed. Embarrassing a man is a far greater social faux pas than inconveniencing a lady. It’s not the only faux pas we must not commit, of course. There are so many. Don’t be loud but don’t be mousey either. Don’t be aloof, but don’t show too much interest. Don’t look frumpy but don’t look trashy. Skinny girls need to eat a cheeseburger, fat girls need to have a salad. Above all, whatever you do, don’t say “no.” Because men can’t take “no” for an answer, and you might embarrass them.
And this is not just a problem with the secular world– in Catholic circles like the one I grew up in, it sometimes involves telling young women to guard their chastity by not wearing this or that, not going there, not staying out past this hour, not raising our voice– but not by saying “no.” Girls aren’t supposed to say “no.” You might embarrass a man.
And if you embarrass them– well, men don’t know how to take embarrassment either. They think they’re entitled to not be embarrassed. They just might try to embarrass you back. They might do far worse than that.
We parents need to teach our daughters it’s okay to say “no–” indeed, it’s often virtuous to say “no.” Say “no” and stick with your “no.”
Far more importantly, we need to teach our sons to accept “no.” They must learn that it’s a normal part of life for girls to say “no.” “No” doesn’t mean “try harder,” it means “no.” And sometimes, hearing “no” when you want to hear “yes” is embarrassing. Embarrassment is an emotion that hurts, badly. Sometimes that hurt can make you angry. But embarrassment and anger are normal emotions that can be dealt with. They’re no excuse to be violent or try to exert dominance. Women don’t owe men sex, affection or dates to the prom; we also don’t owe men a life free of difficult emotions. Men and women owe one another courtesy, charity and respect, not subservience.
No one should ever be killed for saying “no.”