"I'm sorry, I have a boyfriend."
It's the classic line when someone asks you out and you're not interested. It's easy, it's succinct and it softens the blow of rejection. But by relying on the excuse of "having a boyfriend," a simple and valid "no" loses its power. And for many women and men navigating the worries of dating rejection, that's a big problem.
"No" should be enough: YouTube personality Doe Eyes recently became frustrated when a classmate of her daughter's kept asking her daughter out. He pursued her in the halls, on the bus and in countless love poems, despite Doe Eyes' daughter repeatedly saying, "no thanks."
In a video titled "Dear Boy Who Likes My Daughter," recently highlighted by Jezebel, Doe Eyes addresses the root of the problem: "You probably picked up from society messages about how when you want something you need to try harder, go at it, do whatever you can to get it, don't give up. Maybe it's for this reason that you repeatedly ask my daughter out."
But, Doe Eyes argued, there's a big difference between persistence and harassment. "If someone tells you 'no' in any way and you ask again, it's not cool, it's not attractive, it's not respectful, it's harassment," she says in the video.
It can be hard to take "no" seriously in a society where romantic comedies like Chasing Amy and 10 Things I Hate About You are plotted around the idea that "no" isn't always a definite shut door on a relationship. The "try harder" mentality "suggests that there is a point at which you 'win' in a very black and white scenario. As in, 'I get the girl or I'm a failure,'" Lindsey Doe, the mother in the video, told Mic.
For a lot of women, delivering a blunt rejection talk can be uncomfortable, unpleasant and possibly damaging for both parties. So avoiding saying "no," sociologist Kathryn Lively said on Psychology Today, is a socially learned coping mechanism: "As young children, girls are socialized to be nice and to be more in touch with their own and other people's feelings than are boys." Instead of "no," the go-to move is deflection, often in the form of "Sorry, I have a boyfriend."
Embracing a woman's right to refuse: In a recent recording, feminist columnist Terri Trespicio called out the tendency to pull out the boyfriend excuse whenever attempting to dodge an advance. "Telling a guy you aren't interested in him because you're taken, whether you are or not, undermines your respect and self-worth," Trespicio said.
"You're basically saying that any man's claim on you is more powerful than your own, even if the man does not exist."
By doing so, men continue to get the message that a woman's own preferences carry little weight. As xoJane's Alecia Lynn Eberhardt quoted from Tumblr, "Male privilege is 'I have a boyfriend' being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest."
Fearing the response: Unfortunately, the cure-all "boyfriend" or "recent breakup" responses are what we've come to lean on. "It's sad but true, but sometimes letting them know you're 'taken' is the only thing that gets them to leave you alone," Sarah, 27, who used the boyfriend excuse last week, told Mic.
"Saying 'I'm not interested' elicits responses of' 'Why not? Is it because I'm short/tall/fat/whatever?' Or 'Whassamatta, you a lesbian?' or 'Fucking bitch.' All of those are annoying and invasive enough, let alone guys who might get more violent," said Sarah.
In fact, in April 2014, Connecticut high school student Maren Sanchez was stabbed to death after she refused to accompany a classmate to junior prom. As blogger Zokajo wrote for Jezebel, sometimes women need to operate under the soft 'no' of "I have a boyfriend" in order to remain safe. "Women know this is happening! We know we don't feel safe!" she wrote.
No excuses needed: If women find themselves employing the boyfriend excuse for fear of hurting a man's feelings, they don't need to. "'Thanks' followed up by 'not right now' or whatever is the real reason is really what I would like to hear," Ian, 28, told Mic.
Michael, 33, who sometimes wonders what "I have a boyfriend" really means, told Mic, "I'd always prefer honesty. Period."
Being straightforward instead of going to crazy lengths — "I knew a girl who wore a rainbow ring on her finger and said she was gay to guys she didn't want, but then the guys she did want thought she was gay," said Ian — will benefit us all. But for women to feel comfortable being honest, the culture itself needs to change. Teaching the many facets of dating, rejection and consent early on is is crucial.
The "boyfriend excuse" is the symptom of a culture where women's opinions and decisions aren't taken seriously. It's a culture where "yes means yes" consent bills are required.
"I'm looking forward to a just 'no' culture when no one has to explain or justify their position," said Doe. "When 'no' is the answer because the person giving it is capable of making that decision and we trust that."