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The Supposedly Victim-Blaming T-Shirt I Totally Want

Since entering my 40s, I've read many posts that discuss what I should know by now. A common thread is assertion and honesty, cutting to the chase. In her New York Times piece, "What You Learn in Your 40s," Pamela Druckerman offers the following:

"Just say 'no.' Never suggest lunch with people you don't want to have lunch with. They will be much less disappointed than you think."

Peggy Nolan in Huffington Post ("40 Lessons I Learned in My 40s") writes, "I learned that 'No' is a complete sentence and the earth still maintains her orbit when I say it."

RELATED: The Sex-Ed Lesson You Didn't Know Your Little Kid Needed

We've all said it: You'll try and make an event even though you know you won't;"Let's get together" when you have little intention of making such a thing a priority—perhaps because you're too busy, perhaps because you just don't care to. It's something I don't seem to struggle with anymore, and it feels pretty good. And I agree with my fellow bloggers who notice that kicking this habit is an advantage to getting older.

With all this in mind, why then is a Forever 21 T-shirt causing so much controversy? The now-recalled shirt, labeled offensive and accused of perpetuating rape culture, reads, "Don't say maybe if you want to say no."

I should mention that this is a shirt for men only, which is, if anything, the problem with it. Because if they made it for women, I'd want one.

Dutch children are encouraged to express their feelings in a way that is honest, even if it might not be what someone else wants to hear.

I am of course opposed to perpetuating a rape culture, but I think it's the fact that this shirt is only for men that causes some to interpret it in a victim-shaming, rapey context. (If it read: "Don't say no when you want to say maybe," different story.) In general, I don't understand why every mention of assertion or honesty has automatically to be connected with sex.

I recently wrote a piece about sex education in the Netherlands, where I live, which can start as young as 4. The emphasis of what is labeled sex ed at the preschool level is consent: learning how to say what you want, and what you don't. And how to ask someone else for their consent.

Many readers wanted to know why this was considered a sex education point and not merely a life skill. And in fact, in the Netherlands many parents consider autonomy the most fundamental characteristic a parent can help their child develop.

Children here make decisions for themselves early. Low-stakes ones, but nonetheless their own. My son, aged 5, is responsible for offering and responding to invitations for play dates at school. Because he's been doing this for over a year, he is not shy about saying no, even to a very good friend, if he doesn't feel like doing something.

Healthy social interactions and choices require assertiveness, self-awareness, confidence.

Dutch children are encouraged to express their feelings in a way that is honest, even if it might not be what someone else wants to hear. They do it politely and plainly. They don't make up excuses, they don't endure friendships they are not interested in, nor eat something I offer them if they don't like it.

Saying "maybe" when you mean no wastes everyone's time. You either end up doing things you don't want to or can't afford to, time-wise or money-wise, or you let down people who would probably have preferred a straight-forward no to an insincere maybe.

I understand concerns about rape culture and slut-shaming and victim-blaming, and I think it is good that society is raising—and, hopefully, addressing these problems. But that doesn't mean they are present everywhere.

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I remember a Madonna interview on Oprah years ago, after she'd just had her first child. She was asked what she planned to teach her daughter about men. Her answer was something like, "If I teach her self-respect, I won't have to teach her about men." Applause.

Healthy social interactions and choices require assertiveness, self-awareness, confidence. Understanding it's okay to let people down, to speak truthfully, to not sugar-coat a no with a maybe, is a good lesson. We shouldn't wait until our 40s to experience its power.

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Photograph by: Forever 21

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