Written by Dr Jessica Eaton
Director of VictimFocus
Senior Lecturer in Criminal Psychology
1 November 2019
What is token resistance?
‘Token resistance’ is the act of pretending to resist sexual advances when really, you want to say yes.
The term ‘token resistance’ has been used to describe the way women and girls supposedly ‘play hard to get’, ‘act coy’, or ‘play it cool’ when men or boys show them attention or proposition them.
Make no mistake, there is societal pressure on women and girls to do these things to appear chaste, innocent or hard to obtain. They are often advised to ‘play hard to get’ when men or boys they like ask them on a date, ask for their number or come on to them.
Key studies in psychology from the 1990s onwards have shown that both men and women are likely to consider a woman’s rejection of sexual advances to be ‘token resistance’. Studies have found that when women reject sexual advances with anything other than crying, shouting and fighting back – it can be seen as token resistance from a woman who ‘wants it really’.
This blog will outline three key reasons why we need to talk about token resistance and the impact this concept is having on the prevalence and perception of male violence against women and girls.
1. It is fucking everywhere
Token resistance really is everywhere. It features in soaps, music videos, films, stories, fairytales and music lyrics.
When I give speeches, I often joke that every single romantic comedy you have ever watched is based on the concept of token resistance.
(Warning: I’m about to ruin romcoms for you for the rest of your days)
However, whilst people always laugh along when I talk about the tragic storylines of pathetic men who find a single, outgoing woman and then harass her for 90 minutes until she ‘realises’ she wants to marry or fuck him – this really is no laughing matter.
Consider how many romantic comedies you have watched which begin with a single woman who is working in a new job, just moved to a new apartment, just broke up with a shitty ex. Starts okay, right?
But the storyline changes quickly with the introduction of a man who would like to date/marry/fuck the woman.
Annnnnnd literally the rest of the film plot is the story of a man who:
- Turns up at the woman’s workplace
- Calls her repeatedly
- Leaves her hundreds of voicemails
- Follows her to a park
- Turns up at an airport to stop her from going on a once-in-a-lifetime journey
- Writes letters to the woman
- Sends her flowers
- Engages in huge public romantic gestures until the woman gives in
- Flies to the woman’s parents’ holiday home in France to ‘surprise her’
- Learns a skill or joins a class/club to follow the woman
- Stalks her location and turns up there
- Contacts all of her friends and family to tell them how much he loves/wants her
- Stops her wedding to a man she loves
- Manipulates or lies to the woman
- Pretends to be someone he is not to trick the woman
The list is fucking endless. Those of you who watch a lot of so-called ‘chick-flicks’ will be able to write a list as long as your arm.
I’m sorry to break it to you: but those behaviours are not romantic at all, they are harassment.
The real kicker is that once the ‘token resistance’ of the woman has been overcome (read: her ‘no’ is ignored and then she is ground down until she literally can’t take anymore) – the plot of the film usually shows the woman ‘realising’ that she does want the man and then finally saying ‘yes’.
Yes to the sex, yes to the marriage, yes to moving in with him, yes to being in a relationship with him or yes to abandoning her career and family to move across the world with him for some reason. YAY.
Token resistance features heavily in films. But it also features in music videos and music lyrics.
I mean, how can we forget the rapey lyrics of Robin Thicke when he said:
Tried to domesticate you/ But you’re an animal/ Baby, it’s in your nature/ Just let me liberate you/ I know you want it/ I know you want it/ I know you want it/ But you’re a good girl
Music video upon music video of men wooing, following, stalking and harassing women in which the woman is seen to be enjoying the attention.
Even fairytales contain copious amounts of token resistance in which traditional female characters reject or ignore the advances of male characters who then woo them or win them over until they marry at the end. Most first generation Disney films are about the conquest of a woman.
Token resistance is embedded into so much media and into so many accepted narratives about sex, love and dating that it is likely to be having an immense impact on society.
Arguably, it is.
2. It is teaching men and boys that no means yes, or maybe, or try again later
Humans learn much of their knowledge about love, sex, dating, romance and respect from other humans. Whether that’s their role models, parents and friends or from music, film, soaps and media depictions of relationships.
Token resistance is not just a concept taught to women and girls who are taught to be scared of being seen as ‘easy’. This concept is taught simultaneously to men and boys who wonder how to capture the attention of that woman or girl they fancy.
Whilst a girl may watch a scene of token resistance and think, ‘So that’s how I’m supposed to act when a boy asks me out!’
A boy may watch the same scene and think ‘So that’s what I’m supposed to do when a girl says she isn’t interested!’
Instead of teaching boys and men that no really does mean no, the constant depictions of token resistance teach boys and men that women and girls don’t really mean no.
In token resistance, no means:
- Try again
- Try harder
- Say something else
- Keep talking to me
- I like you but I’m playing hard to get
- I want it really
Feminists often discuss how we will ever change the rape culture which exists in our world. How do we reduce or eliminate sexual violence against women and girls? How do we get abusive men and boys to understand that no means no?
The reality is, with relentless messages that no means yes and that they should simply keep trying and do something else to ‘win’ that woman or girl – we will never tackle rape culture. Men and boys are being socialised to believe that no means ‘yes but I don’t want to appear easy’.
3. It is contributing to the victim blaming of women and girls
Token resistance is embedded into our society. This means that millions of men and women have been taught or indirectly socialised that women and girls saying ‘no’ sometimes means ‘yes’.
We have been exploring the psychology of victim blaming and rape supportive attitudes for several decades now. Part of this research has been to explore how much the general public believe in rape myths such as:
‘Women say no to sex even when they want it’
‘When women say no to sexual advances, they are just playing hard to get’
‘Rape happens when a woman doesn’t say ‘no’ clearly enough’
These common myths directly relate to token resistance – and this feeds into the increasing levels of victim blaming of women and girls subjected to sexual violence.
For example, in the recent USA literature there is much discussion about a concept known as ‘sexual assault refusal assertiveness’.
Wait for it. Yep. It’s as bad as you think.
Researchers have been arguing that the reason women and girls are raped and abused is because they have ‘low sexual assault refusal assertiveness’ and therefore require training and education which helps them to ‘refuse’ an assault better.
In my own research, I found the opposite. My interviews with women who had been raped demonstrated that they had said ‘no’ to men several times in many different ways. None of their refusals protected them from the offender. Some women told me they had told the offender ‘no’ several times, then pushed their hands away, then moved away from them and then tried to convince the offender not to hurt them and it still hadn’t worked. This was true for women in stranger rapes and in domestic violence.
Clearly, their ‘sexual assault refusal assertiveness’ skills were fine. The problem here was the offender. The offender did not care that they said no. Suggesting that women and girls who are raped or abused had ‘low sexual assault refusal skills’ is most definitely a form of victim blaming which comes from the concept of token resistance.
Another example of the way token resistance feeds into victim blaming of women and girls is in the courtroom.
I often say that in the courtroom, whilst there are technical rules on what is and is not allowed to be used against the victim or against the offender – the majority of the rules protect the latter. For instance, you cannot use the ‘bad character history’ of the offender even if he has raped 5 women before, because it can ‘bias the jury’. In order to use this against him in a trial, you must have significant reason and prior permission.
However, the same process does not occur for victims, in which literally anything to attack their character or their history is admissible. What she was wearing, how many people she’s slept with, what kind of knickers she was wearing, whether she watches porn, whether she was abused in childhood and even whether she’s ever told her GP that she has mental health needs – these factors can all be used against the victim without prior applications or protection from the court.
It is therefore no surprise that one of the best defences in rape and sexual assault trials is to admit the sexual act occurred, but to argue that she ‘wanted it’ or ‘lead him on’ or ‘asked for it’.
Many years ago, it would have been a valid defence to argue that the offence never occurred and the woman is making it up. However, with the development of evidence collection and investigation techniques, this defence is no longer wise. Instead, it makes sense to admit or partially admit the sexual contact, but the claim that the woman consented or didn’t say ‘no’.
Concepts of token resistance rear their head in the courtroom on a regular basis. Women are accused of wanting the sex, asking for it, leading the man on, not saying no clearly enough, giving mixed signals, flirting with the man or even saying no when she really meant ‘yes’.
What can we do to combat token resistance?
As such a heavily employed belief in our society, it will be hard to combat. However, I do think there are some simple and practical things we can do to create change as soon as possible:
1. Talk about it openly and with as many people as possible. Most people don’t even know this exists, but once you point it out to them, they can see it everywhere.
2. Stop teaching oversimplified lessons on consent. Yes, I know it’s nice to believe that all we have to do is teach kids that ‘no means no’ and they will never grow into rapists and abusers. But consent is so much more complicated and contextual than what we are teaching. Why aren’t we teaching children about token resistance and how harmful this is?
3. We could start to challenge media representations of women who ‘want it really’ and instead show depictions of men and boys who do take ‘no’ for an answer and move the fuck on with their lives
4. Talk to girls and women about the social pressure to say ‘no’ when they are interested in men and boys – due to the shame attached to having sexual desires and sexual interests. In reality, no always means no. Men and boys should take no for a no. But it might be worth talking to women and girls about the way society teaches them that they are supposed to be ‘up for sex’ but also coy, protective and hard to get.
5. Talk to men and boys about sexual harassment and the way that movies, stories, soaps and music encourage them to harass and stalk women and girls even when they have said no. Get them to think critically about the amount of media and social norms expect them to keep pursuing women and girls who don’t want them, and how to deal with rejection respectfully.
Written by Dr Jessica Eaton
Director of VictimFocus
Senior Lecturer in Criminal Psychology