Learning to Say No in 520 Languages

I’m Learning to Say No in 520 Languages


“How often do I hear my brain screaming NO as I smile and say yes? These random words are all “NO” in different languages. So I am learning to say no in 520 languages, most importantly mine, NO.”

Artist, Karen Gutfreund, works with unconventional materials: roof tar, bone, red food coloring, wax… Moving against standards and customs, is she saying NO even in the becoming and embodiment of her art?

She has good reason to go against the flow. We all do.

“Using hot political issues, I mix it up with text, pop culture images, stencils, and symbols to create works that are a combination of personal commentary, religious and moral teachings, political outrage and social observation,” she says. “Often the imagery and core meaning of the painting is very personal and emotionally gut-wrenching, so that not being able to discuss it verbally, I present it visually. Part humorous, part tragic.”

As she explains, the layering and mixed meanings echo and reveal the inner complexity of dreams, nightmares and emotions.

Her work strikes a chord with a piece I once read entitled, “Betrayed by the Angel”:

“I’m 25 years old. I’m alone in my apartment. I hear a knock. I open the door and see a face I don’t know. The man scares me, I don’t know why. My first impulse is to shut the door. But I stop myself: You can’t do something like that. It’s rude… He is inside. He slams the door shut himself and pushes me against the wall… Since he is being rude, it is okay for me to be rude back.”

Despite her revelation that rudeness can be good, it was too late. The young woman was raped.

Some feel queasy at self-defense seminars when told to gouge out an attacker’s eyes. “Could I do something less gruesome?” Advice from the expert: “He’s bigger than you. If you try something weaker he’ll overtake you and you’ll be raped or dead.”

I had it easier. But not really easy. He was a guy from church, and we were dating. At church we didn’t have double standards. Men and women were both told to stay pure. So inexperienced and naïve that when he touched me outside my clothes, but at “third base,” I froze in shock. Was he really doing that? I didn’t want to be rude. In guarding his feelings I paid a price, smacked with the label, “loose.”

Virginia Woolf speaks of the Angel in the House. Some scattered lines:

“You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her – you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House… She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish… She sacrificed herself daily… She preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others…

“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”

This piece was originally shown at “CONTROL,” an exhibition of  California women artists presented by The Women’s Caucus for Art at New York’s Ceres Gallery, February 1 – February 26th, 2011.

For more on Karen Gutfreund’s work go to her website.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on February 23, 2011, in feminism, gender, psychology, rape and sexual assault, sex, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I have enjoyed this post along with the lecture you have given in class on the importance of saying “no.” I can definitely relate to not knowing how to say “no” although I have also learned that the word “no” is an important aspect of growing up, especially as a woman. I’m not sure I can count the times I have done something that I didn’t want to do because I didn’t want to be rude. Unfortunately, some of these times were not all harmless to me and my body. Although these times where not something as serious as rape, they where times I remembered and think of till this day. I knew I had treated myself wrongly for allowing someone to kiss me or touch me in some kind of sexual way all because I didn’t want to be rude by saying “no,” but for some reason I still let it happen. I most definitely blamed myself for allowing something like this happen to me, so I did my best to never put myself in situations that made me feel vulnerable, and eventually, I have learned how to say “no.” Although I have learned these situations where not my fault, I can’t help but blame myself for not having the courage to say “no.” I still find myself having a hard time saying “no” sometimes, but luckily the events are not sexual and less degrading to my womanhood. I only wish I would have learned how to say “no” at a younger age. The importance of saying “no” should be emphasized to young girls beginning in elementary all the way to college. We all learn that “sharing is caring,” but we never learn to what extent and that our bodies are not included in that saying. I will most definitely pass the word down to as many girls as I can. “NO!”

  2. Brittany Bianchi

    Saying no. It seems so simple it’s a small word easy to say, yet it is probably the hardest word for me to say to people. When I say no to someone I feel guilty. I always feel like I should have said yes and then I feel bad. It really has to take something I absolutely do not want to do in order for me to stand up and say no. I say yes to so many things I do not want to do. I believe peer pressure in high school has a lot to do with why I have a problem saying no. The need for social acceptance and the want to be liked by my peers has made me say yes far too many times.
    When I was between the ages of 3-6 all I said to my parents and teachers was NO. I remember having countless conversations about me not saying the word no, my parents would tell me “you can’t say no to everything Brittany.” Or they would just make me do whatever it is they wanted anyway (go to school, eating my veggies, taking a bath.) I wonder if their fight with me about using no too often has actually had a negative outcome on my today, because it really is hard for me to turn someone down.

    “I’m 25 years old. I’m alone in my apartment. I hear a knock. I open the door and see a face I don’t know. The man scares me, I don’t know why. My first impulse is to shut the door. But I stop myself: You can’t do something like that. It’s rude… He is inside. He slams the door shut himself and pushes me against the wall… Since he is being rude, it is okay for me to be rude back.”

    This is so scary to me. I can’t tell you how many times I have been uncomfortable with a man talking to me, standing too close, being to aggressive yet I let it happen because it would be rude to express that I didn’t want this individual around me anymore. Would I be seen as a “bitch” if I told him to stop and leave me alone? I believe when men are rejected they turn it around on the woman calling them a bitch, cold, uptight, stuck up etc. I should realize this is just the man trying to take back control of the situation because when you say no and voice your opinion you have gained control over what you will and will not let happen to you.

    I hope someday I can get to the point where I am 100% comfortable saying no. As of right now I still feel some sort of guilt when I say the word.

  3. I really like this post and the lecture you gave in class. I’am glad I am taking this class because I have learned many things that never ocurred to my mind. I always thought that saying No was rude. I have learn that you always need to say the truth about how you feel in certain situations, and even if the other person feels bad well thats too bad because you shouldnt be in a place that you dont want to be, or doing something that you dont want to do. Reading the experiences from this women makes me realize that one always has to speak up for themselves otherwise no one will notice you, and they will end up raping you or violating your rights.

  4. Many people have trouble saying no. I am actually one of them. For example, a newly met friend asks me out for lunch, even if I don’t feel like going, I will still go. I hate saying no to people because I know it doesn’t feel good to be rejected. I believe people who have to same issue have the same reason as well. Not knowing how to say no may not seem to be a big deal in daily life. However, it could cause a big problem in some circumstances. For instance, like the post above, being raped. Yesterday I was at the health center in my college and I saw this catalog which said ”when no means no” on it. I thought it was interesting and meaningful. Saying no to protect ourselves are very important sometimes because we will never know what is going to happen.

  5. Emma Betancourt

    I too have been a victim of saying yes when I mean no. Not with rape that is (how horrible!) but just in general. Now that I think of it I have done this quite a lot. In my head I want to say no or even HELL NO but I won’t because I thought it wouldn’t be polite of me! Oh man, the tables are turning now and I am ready to yell out no :)

  6. As a rape victim myself I want to address that it is much easier to say you would gouge out your attackers eyes than actually doing it. There were many times before the attack where I had no doubt in my mind that I would be the girl that fought off the attacker but I wasn’t. It’s a completely different situation than one can ever play out in your mind. Saying that I also want to address that saying No as early as it becomes uncomfortable in any situation and risking being rude is better than wishing you had said no later on because at least by saying no at first you can be proud of yourself later.

  7. I liked this article and I liked the art you included in it. It is very important for ladies to be able to say No! When they say no they really need to mean it! I know how hard it is to say no sometimes, I just hope I can teach my daughter how to say no and protect herself if the need arises!!

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