A conversation caught my eye today. Zaluso Arts, a pioneering artist collective in Malawi, discussed a rather spicy topic on their most recent podcast episode. I silently but keenly follow them. Their work is broadening the prospects for art in Malawi, which is necessary and admirable.
The conversation fed the perpetual frustration I have with these topics; how quickly critique raises men’s defenses, how easily it triggers trauma, and the ways in which all of this works to fail us in making any progress towards societal healing. They remind me about the amount of work that needs to go into talking about talking about these things because as it stands, too much of it is lost in translation.
In their podcast, Zaluso engaged the idea of whether “no” means “no”, or means a girl is playing hard to get. Here’s the tweet:
The way this tweet was framed was troubling to me. I hadn’t listened to the podcast but I, too, tweeted my two-cents on someone else’s commentary, expressing my disappointment. In my mind, regardless of the content or the actual conversation, the way it was posed gave an inch to the very possibility that no can mean something other than no. I was filled with righteous indignation.
As justified as my reaction is, there are undercurrents in the conversation that I only noticed when I did listen. My radical, decolonial feminist politics informed my response in this way: that every man, under every circumstance must always, without fail, err on the side of caution and take every “no” exactly for what it is- a “no”. Nonetheless, here was a group of young Malawian men contending with the delicate nature of what it means to approach a young woman and understand what they’re saying when they say “no”.
This is where I stand on the matter. “No” means “no”. However, I know that this sort of response might be read as absolutism. There is an exasperation that people have over the politicization of things that they perceive to be mundane. “It’s really not that deep”. “We’re just having a casual conversation about dating”. “Not everything is political”.
But that’s the thing. For somebody who lives in a female body, who navigates a world of men with hungry eyes and hands that are usually strangers to restraint, everything feels political- is political. Political in that my “no” is often heard as a “try again”. Political in that it is grounded in broader discourse around consent, around female agency, around toxic masculinity. Apoliticality, given all of this, is defanged, rendered weightless. Everything that shapes us is part of history, part of culture, part of our positionality as it relates to power. Everything, even this conversation around playing hard to get, is political.
This tweet and, by extension, the conversation that the men on Zaluso were having, is rooted in a particularly gendered politic. Is she playing hard-to-get. Does the woman (or girl) secretly want what she is saying she doesn’t? The framing of the question is situated in the sort of hetero-normative understanding of romantic pursuit that Hollywood films are riddled with- that men are doing the pursuing, and women the batting of the eyelashes, the being swept off the feet. It casts the woman as speaking another figurative language than the one she is, in fact, speaking. Her “no” is a heard tantalizing flirtation that most men are conditioned to persist through until it is transfigured into a “yes”. But, as my colleague and friend, Asana Okocha, aptly put it, “you cannot turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’, but you can turn a ‘yes’ into a ‘no’.” (Because black women stay theorizing, even over glasses of Merlot).
So, can “no” mean anything other than “no”? The realistic answer to this is sometimes. The less-sexy side of the coin is that most times, she means no, but even those times, her rejection is read as a call for her pursuant to try harder, and often results in traumatizing sexually predatory behavior of the sort from which I, and many women I know, are still trying to heal. I think for this reason, it is best to err on the side of caution. Reading every “no” as anything but will always result in violence, but reading every “no” as a “no” will always allow for consent.
Perhaps it’s a question of mere semantics, of framing. Of thinking about how one might engage a seemingly frivolous idea of ‘how to flirt’ in such an age and moment as the one in which we live, when much of the world of men is parsing through the discourse of sexual advances, attempting to distinguish between the innocent and even enjoyable process of pursuing someone you’re attracted to, from the violence of rape culture that plagues all of our societies. It’s a delicate balance to strike and requires acute discernment. (The trouble is, however, that too many boys and men seem more preoccupied with trying to figure out how much they can get away with without being rapey, than they are about getting consent and having intimacy that doesn’t only center their pleasure).
I think Zaluso Arts has the opportunity to continue this conversation, and consider the political implications of these conversations. In doing so, I think it will matter for the space to be intentionally crafted to center the voices that are systemically marginalized (I was delighted, as I listened to the episode, to hear the young men talk about a ‘feminist-in-residence’ [even though the feminist in question didn’t say much that was radical]. The concept, as trite as it might seem, and as comically as it might’ve been said in the moment, makes me wonder what it might be to have a group of young men engage issues that are pertinent to them like sex, relationships and life, grounded in radical feminist theory. I don’t think at all that this group of men is there yet, but I suppose talking about it at all is a step in the right direction).
I am aware that there were women in the room, because there were a number of junctures in the conversation when the men referred to them. I grieved the absence of their voices, because we really cannot have exhaustive conversations about consent without women. I do, however, think it matters for men to gather together do the work, and talk about these issues without relying on female labour and expertise. I’d be curious to know what men’s conversations in general would look like if there was always a woman in the room.
In addition, I think it’s important for this particular group at Zaluso to hear the critique as an invitation to have conversations about these issues in a space and manner that we don’t often see in Malawi- especially not among men. These conversations are frustrating for women. It’s always taxing, because they are always, always, riddled with the perception that any sort of advocacy for women and resistance against patriarchy is an attack on maleness and masculinity. It’s always women starting them and when we do, we are often met with rebuttals, defenses, excuses, explanations (from men and women alike, because women, too, can be agents of patriarchy). Even after this debacle, I am baffled at how many young men have, with committed fervor, come to the defense of the Zaluso team. They forget that every moment when a woman speaks up is a moment of bravery. They forget to meet it with kindness and treat it with grace, and instead launch into attack and launch into the sort of gas-lighting that patriarchy teaches them.
It’s disappointing that they don’t posture themselves to listen. It matters for them to listen. For them to pause and consider what even the most radical among us have to say, regardless of their experience with and aversion to feminism/womynism (for whatever strange reason), or any other advocacy that centers marginalized gender identities. Remember that we speak up because there are some things that are so insidious in our societies that they are consistently and unquestioningly upheld. “Playing hard to get” is, unfortunately, one of those. Because whatever side of the coin it is we’re discussing, it’s something we have a relationship to.
Topics like these raise our defenses because they beg us to question ourselves. They force us to think about the times when we might’ve been complicit. They force us to consider that perhaps there is, in our past of what we’ve thus far perceived to be harmless flirtations, a transgression that’s violent, and consistent with rape culture. They force us to confront the monsters in ourselves. It’s difficult, when we are the protagonists in our own narratives, to consider the fact that we might be the villains.
One thing that was clear from this podcast episode was that young Malawians need shared language for these ideas. I know that the language of those of us who busy ourselves with advocating for these sorts of things (including some of the language in this piece) can sometimes be inaccessible. But I think we need to try, and translate our Laurels to Yannies. Make sure that we are having conversations and hearing one-another. So that when a question like “does ‘no’ mean ‘no’” rightly triggers a woman, that visceral reaction is seen as what it is- a question that undermines her agency, and is riddled with so much experience of unwanted advances that are, in fact, consistent with rape culture.
I’ll curiously watch this space, and hope that as they grow, they will strive towards listening, aligning themselves with continuing their work from a posture that leans towards justice.