Faulty Feminist Introspection

Will someone tell me what the fuck this shit is?

A study has concluded that men often “misinterpret” women’s subtle messages during a sexual encounter when the message means “stop”. But my WTF is not towards the study, which is nonetheless very interesting to talk about — my outrage is at the blog post from Broadsheet (emphasis mine).

Now, for the ear steam: I think it’s unfair to blame this sexual miscommunication on men. Just as men are misreading women’s indirect resistance, women are miscalculating how men will interpret their cues to slow down or stop. (Interestingly enough, in previous research, Motley found that women use indirect messages of resistance to avoid upsetting men, but most men easily accept direct resistance.) I also find it hard to blame men for not correctly reading women’s indirect resistance; women are often expected to, in the very least, put on a halfhearted performance as the steadfast sexual gatekeeper — even if it’s clear that she ultimately intends to abandon her post for the night. Given that cultural script — first she resists, then she consents — how is it any surprise that a guy would misinterpret a woman’s subtle suggestions to slow down?

What. The. Fuck.

Of course, the commenters think that it’s the best damn thing since sliced bread.

When Clark-Flory began this post with anger for the concept of “faulty male introspection,” I was with her. The idea sounded pretty damn offensive to me, too. What, guys are just too stupid to talk to women and ask what they mean when unsure? Women are a whole different species that we can’t expect men to actually communicate with? It’s not that he’s sexually assaulting you, ladies, it’s that he has faulty male introspection.

But no. That’s not what she was mad about. She was mad because it placed all the blame on guys. Due to ambiguous writing, I’m not even sure if she merely thinks that women need to take some of the blame, or if she thinks men should be entirely off the hook.

Personally, do I think it’s a good idea for women to play hard to get by pretending that they don’t want sex when they actually do? No. And so it’s a good thing I’ve never seen a single woman do it in my entire life. Where are these women? Do you know them? Do women really say “no” over and over when they want sex (and aren’t engaging in some kind of agreed-upon role-playing)? Because I see this excuse trotted out all the time by rape apologists, and never once personally experienced it. And even if women did do this, how the fuck does it excuse the sexual parter not stopping? What this analysis of women being partially to blame excludes is the concept of affirmative consent. Yet again, people — the person who doesn’t want to go forward with a sexual act does not have a responsibility to fight the other person off; it’s the job of both partners to make sure that affirmative consent is reached.

And really, why is that so hard to understand? Why is it that with most other situations in life, if you don’t understand what a person means, you say “what do you mean?” but when it comes to sex, it’s perfectly okay to make assumptions? Because in most situations, when you’re not sure what a person means you simply risk embarrassment or anger for a misinterpretation. With a sexual encounter, you risk raping someone. It seems to me that the case in which you could potentially commit a horrible act of violence is the one where you should double-check.

There is a cultural narrative that communicating with a sexual partner somehow ruins the experience. I’ve never understood this, not for a second. Knowing what your partner wants is hot. Hearing your partner say that he or she is turned on is hot. If you have reason to believe that your partner will give a shit, telling him or her what you want is hot. Making assumptions and being pushed away because you’ve done something that your partner doesn’t want? Definitely not hot.

Personally, I’ve long believed that heterosexual women are often embarrassed to say what they want because — and this is the one part that Clark-Flory gets right — women aren’t supposed to want sex. I also don’t think it’s the whole story; I think that women often don’t say what they want because their partners have never asked and they therefore believe men don’t care. As for heterosexual men, many believe they often fail to ask for clarification because men think that they are are supposed to be all-knowing expert Casanovas. I think that this is partially true, and a problem; I also think there’s the wish to avoid the risk of the woman saying “no”.

There’s another thing that’s wrong with Clark-Flory’s analysis: the study doesn’t place all of the blame on guys. According to the Science Daily article, this is actually what the conclusions of the study were by its author, Michael Motley:

  • Men need to be aware of the many ways that women may say “stop” without using the word “stop.”
  • When a man asks himself during intimacy, “Why did she say that?” he should not try to answer the question by imagining what he would mean if he said the same thing.
  • When in doubt, ask. “So it’s getting late; does that mean we should stop?”
  • Women should use direct messages.
  • A woman who cannot be direct should at least work a direct message into the indirect one: “It’s getting late, so I’d like to stop.”

So, the author has explicitly said that women hold responsibility to be more direct. I think that being direct is good advice, but hardly a solution to the problem. Women who are very, very clear are raped all the time. And though the study claims that the men aren’t choosing to ignore the meaning but simply failing to understand it, we’re looking at self-reporting here. Someone who has decided to “keep going” under these circumstances isn’t really going to want to look at the possibility that she meant “stop”.

It’s also definitely worth noting that this is not a universal phenomenon. The raw data from the study isn’t available, but according to the article the study was very small and said that men were just as apt to interpret the indirect messages as “stop” as they were to interpret them as “keep going”. So really, I don’t see how this is a “male” issue nearly as much as it’s an asshole issue — and the phrase “faulty male introspection” seems pretty damn insulting to those men who take the time to get it, not to mention the ones who say “I don’t know what that means, so I should find out.”

But even Motley, the guy with these shitty conclusions, does seem to know the primary solution to the problem is that men need to ask for clarification when they need it, not that guys should get a pass for assuming that cues to slow down actually mean to keep going.

What bothers me most about Clark-Flory’s analysis is an implication that is spelled out explicitly in the Science Daily article: that this study has nothing to do with rape. It does. It has absolutely everything to do with rape. SD says “The research does not address rape or other situations in which a man indeed understands “no” but ignores it.”

But rape (of a woman by a man; switch identifiers for other types) is not necessarily a situation where a man hears and understands “no” but ignores it. Rape is when the man has sex with a woman who has not consented. If she says “no” but he genuinely thinks that means “keep going” for some dumbass reason, it’s still rape. If she gives more subtle resistance like “it’s getting late” and he keeps going without her willful participation, it’s rape. I know that our laws don’t reflect this. I know that few people seem to get that consent means saying “yes” as opposed to not saying “no”. And I know that many people assume that rape can only happen due to pure malice on the part of the rapist, rather than apathy so consequential that it might as well be malice. But guess what. Still rape.

Not every one or necessarily even most of the scenarios used in this study is going to end in rape all of the time. But many will. Even more will end in attempted rape or another form of sexual assault.

I don’t expect to see that acknowledgment in a Science Daily article. I don’t expect to see it most places in our society or online. I don’t expect researchers, even one who acknowledges that “up to 85 percent of college women have had at least one experience in which a man attempts to escalate physical intimacy beyond the point that she has said “stop,”” to get it. But despite the fact that I’ve called Broadsheet feminism-lite before, despite the fact that they often piss me off, I do expect them to get that much. This study is about rape, and it’s willfully ignoring that — or simply apologizing for rape — to say that men can’t be blamed for thinking women really want it when the women have communicated that they don’t. I expect anyone who wants to call themselves a feminist and be taken seriously on it to understand what rape is and to act like it. And my jaw is hanging open at how this currently seems like too much to ask.

0 thoughts on “Faulty Feminist Introspection

  1. Jean Clarkin

    Well 30 female and 60 male subjects hardly make a conclusive study of anything, so to give it any weight is c**p. However, the media, including apparently, Slate, will run with anything that lets the boys off the hook.

    Women give ‘ambiguous’ signals because they don’t want to ‘upset’ the guy…we all know what can happen when the guy becomes upset.

    A number of years ago I read a book called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin De Becker, who teaches people how to protect themselves against all kinds of threats. It was an interesting read; one thing that he wrote that lingers in my head 10 years later was that what men fear about women is being laughed at; what women fear about men is being killed. So, yes we have learned to be indirect. Nothing like blaming the injured party.

    As an aside, I find Slate to be smarmy at best. Superior, arrogant and out of touch with reality are other descriptors that come to mind. Too bad, they have some reasonably good writers, but the tone of the site is to trust fund for me.

    Thanks for your blog, I’m new to reading them and enjoy checking in with yours.

    Reply
  2. Roy

    I’m so very tired of these “men don’t understand indirect means of saying ‘no'” studies… they’re such utter bullshit and run so completely contrary to most people’s common experiences in the world that I fail to see how people read them and don’t instantly think “bullshit!”

    I’m going to be reviewing “The Myth of Mars and Venus” soon, and I wish I had my copy handy, because it was the first time I’ve seen someone write what I’ve been thinking for a while now, and explain it in crystal clear terms, and it sort of ties into this:

    Why is it that with most other situations in life, if you don’t understand what a person means, you say “what do you mean?” but when it comes to sex, it’s perfectly okay to make assumptions?

    Why is it that men (and women, obviously) have absolutely no trouble understanding indirect communication when it suits them, but they suddenly lose that ability when it comes to the bedroom? The author points out that many of us are taught from a young age to hedge rejections- that we should “let people down gently” so to speak. And we do it all the time, and there are socially recognized cues that we use to signify rejection. If I said “hey, Cara, would you like to grab lunch tomorrow?” and you hesitated and started your sentence with “Um”, I’ve already been cued in that you’re going to say “no”. We do this all the damn time, and society hasn’t collapsed around us in a fog of misunderstanding. But, get into sex, and suddenly every pop-psychologist around seems to opperate under the assumption that men are bumbling idiots incapable of understanding what those cues mean. Fucking ridiculous.

    Reply
  3. Cara Post author

    Jean, just to clarify, did Slate write on this story, too? Broadsheet is a blog from Salon . . . I didn’t know if you misread/misspoke or if Slate actually had something moronic to say as well. Because Slate says a lot of moronic things.

    And Roy, you make some excellent points.

    Reply
  4. abyss2hope

    Thanks for pointing out this commentary. As for why many women are timid about expressing interest in sex, for many men this is taken as blanket consent. For many women this is taken as a blanket reason to call that woman a liar if she reports being raped.

    Reply
  5. Wendy

    Thank you for a wonderful response to this…I just discovered your blog through Weekly Geeks…and I am loving it!

    To me it is so simple – just as you say – no (whether indirect or not) means no. And to be honest, I find it hard to believe that most men don’t get that…my guess is the guys who believe no is really yes are only excusing themselves by saying they don’t understand; either that or they are morons (which I don’t believe with maybe one or two exceptions).

    Reply
  6. Jessica

    Wow…how can a study about men misinterpreting women’s messages to stop, not be about rape?

    And I totally agree with one of the other important points you made. In my own and my friends’ experiences, too often men don’t ask for affirmative consent (for anything involving sexual behavior) because they don’t want to risk hearing “no”.

    Reply
  7. Lyndsay

    In applied social psychology we learned about a qualitative study that said basically what Roy said. That in daily life we turn down offers indirectly and accept offers directly and enthusiastically so why should a woman be expected to say “no” when she doesn’t want to do something and that these “no means no” campaigns are not giving guys enough credit and “no” could be confusing because that’s not how we normally say no. I mean I don’t really get it. You have guys saying they want direct communication but then you have guys saying that they have experiences of when the woman directly communicated no, she actually meant yes. So which is it?

    Reply
  8. Alexa

    But rape (of a woman by a man; switch identifiers for other types) is not necessarily a situation where a man hears and understands “no” but ignores it. Rape is when the man has sex with a woman who has not consented. If she says “no” but he genuinely thinks that means “keep going” for some dumbass reason, it’s still rape. If she gives more subtle resistance like “it’s getting late” and he keeps going without her willful participation, it’s rape. I know that our laws don’t reflect this. I know that few people seem to get that consent means saying “yes” as opposed to not saying “no”. And I know that many people assume that rape can only happen due to pure malice on the part of the rapist, rather than apathy so consequential that it might as well be malice. But guess what. Still rape.

    Absolutely. It continues to amaze me how many people (women included) just can’t seem to grasp that concept.

    Reply
  9. Occasional Expositor

    Have a look at this extract from The Myth of Mars and Venus by sociolinguist Deborah Cameron published in The Guardian earlier this year. The article addresses this very issue.

    Here’s a quote:

    If this sounds counter-intuitive, let us consider a concrete example. Suppose a colleague says to me casually as I pass her in the corridor: “A few of us are going to the pub after work, do you want to come?” This is an invitation, which calls for me to respond with either an acceptance or a refusal. If I am going to accept, I can simply say “Yes, I’d love to” or “Sure, see you there.” If I am going to refuse, by contrast, I am unlikely to communicate that by just saying “No, I can’t” (let alone “No, I don’t want to”).

    Why the difference? Because refusing an invitation – even one that is much less sensitive than a sexual proposal – is a more delicate matter than accepting one. The act of inviting someone implies that you hope they will say yes: if they say no, there is a risk that you will be offended, upset, or just disappointed. To show that they are aware of this, and do not want you to feel bad, people generally design refusals to convey reluctance and regret.

    Because this pattern is so consistent, and because it contrasts with the pattern for the alternative response, acceptance, refusals are immediately recognisable as such. In fact, the evidence suggests that people can tell a refusal is coming as soon as they register the initial hesitation. And when I say “people”, I mean people of both sexes. No one has found any difference between men’s and women’s use of the system I have just described.

    Reply
  10. Roy

    That’s the exact quote I was thinking of, Occasional Expositor! It’s a really interesting book, btw- I’m most of the way through right now, and I’ve got little notes tucked away throughout the whole thing, because there are so many really great points to be made in it. I’ve really been enjoying her take-down of the myth that we speak different languages, and a lot of her examples, like that one, perfectly illustrate her points.

    Reply
  11. Mickle

    That is such a great point about the delicacy of saying no.

    Its almost as if people forget that woman may choose to say no indirectly because

    a) women have taught to be nice and its not nice for a woman to bluntly turn down an invitation

    and/or

    b) women have good reason to fear more violence from a direct “no” than from an indirect “no”.

    Reply
  12. Pizza Diavola

    Why is it that with most other situations in life, if you don’t understand what a person means, you say “what do you mean?” but when it comes to sex, it’s perfectly okay to make assumptions?

    There’s an idea of male entitlement to heterosexual sex. I mean, not all men are this way, but I think that idea is perpetuated in pop culture: women aren’t supposed to want sex, or if they do, they half-heartedly say no when they really mean yes, and men are supposed to always want sex that’s always about them and their pleasure. Which all contributes to presenting rape as normal sex. Sickening.

    Reply
  13. Melissa

    b) women have good reason to fear more violence from a direct “no” than from an indirect “no”.

    This is so true – How many of us have been in a situation where we are hanging out/making out, whatever with a guy and gradually or suddenly get the sixth sense that this could go badly, very badly if I do not extricate myself from the situation…but we fear if we we just straight up say “No, I do not want to have sex with you, get the fuck off me” then they could become violent and things could escalate.
    This may just me projecting from past bad/violent encounters, but I have definatley gotten that feeling and have used, the “it’s late, I gotta go” or an excuse of that variety to get the hell out of dodge.
    Could be that I am just being a chicken shit, but I always take the “excuse” route before I just simply say “no”…..
    Probably something I should work on 🙂

    Reply
  14. roses

    You know, I’ve never had a partner misinterpret my “stop” signals as “keep going”. I’ve had more than one partner stop when confronted with such a signal, and just ask: “Do you want to stop?” At which point I would respond: “Yes” or “For tonight, yeah, but maybe we can pick up tomorrow where we’re leaving off” or “Not stop, but slow down/change positions” or “Oh, no, this is great, but thanks for your concern”. And those times it was the last one, the mood has never been ruined. A quick reminder that my partner cares about me and respects me enough as a human being to make sure I do want this and am enjoying myself is not a turn-off for me.

    Reply
  15. Lyndsay

    I found this in an academic journal:

    “…surveys such as that done in 1988 at Texas A&M University. This survey found that 39.3 percent of the female undergraduates surveyed sometimes said no, although they “had every intention to and were willing to engage in sexual intercourse.” Although this and other studies showed that “no” does mean “no” for most women, some interpreting these results cite them as evidence that the word “no” confuses some men.”

    :S

    Reply
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  21. Kara

    I actually understand stranger rapists more than date rapists. A man that attacks you in an alley wants your non-consent, pain, and fear.

    But in these so-called “accidental” rapes, how can a man not notice his partner is not moving? She is not holding onto him, or kissing him, or talking to him about how she’s feeling pleasure or asking him if he’s feeling pleasure.

    I HAVE had an ex boyfriend stop in sex, look me in the eye, and ask me if I consented. I was a little surprised, because I had. “Well,” he said, “You don’t seem to be into it, so why don’t we stop?” He took no pleasure from an apparently uninterested partner. If you can’t engage your lover, not only are you a bad lover, you might be a rapist.

    Reply

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