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.
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.