Men struggle to tell the difference between sexual interest and consent, says study

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Moya Crockett
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A new study reveals that men often equate perceived desire with consent – unless the woman explicitly, and verbally, tells them ‘no’. 

Distressing male sexual behaviour has been in the news more than usual lately, thanks to the allegations of assault and harassment made against (deep breath): Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Jeremy Piven, Brett Ratner, James Toback, Nick Carter, Russell Simmons, Sylvester Stallone and Roy Moore, among others.

Between them, these high-profile men have issued a wide range of denials, excuses and apologies for their alleged actions. However, there is one trope that has popped up again and again. Some of these men – though not all – claim to have genuinely believed that those who say they were harassed or assaulted had agreed in some way to a sexual encounter.

Weinstein, for example, who has been accused of assault and harassment by over 100 women, has repeatedly insisted (through a spokesperson) that he “believes that all of these relationships were consensual”. Comedian CK’s apology, in which he admitted masturbating in front of multiple women, included the caveat that he “never showed a woman my d*** without asking first”.

Meanwhile, musician and record label founder Simmons, who allegedly forced model Keri Claussen Khalighi (who was 17 at the time) to give him oral sex while film producer Ratner watched, has said that “everything that occurred between Keri and me occurred with her full consent and participation”.

The men say ‘consensual and healthy’. The women say ‘abusive and traumatic’. Clearly, something is getting lost in translation here.

The huge disparity in such accounts highlights an important question about consent in our society: why do some men appear to be unable to tell the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex?

Comedian Louis CK says he thought his behaviour was OK because “I never showed a woman my d*** without asking first”

That’s what psychologists in the US recently set out to discover with a new study. Researchers at Binghamton University in New York and Rush University in Chicago wanted to identify factors that could predict how likely male university students were to engage in sexual misconduct. They recruited 145 men to take part in their study, all of whom were heterosexual and living in the south-eastern US.

It was found that most of the study participants tended to confuse sexual interest with consent to sex: that is, if they thought a woman seemed attracted to them, they believed she would also be happy to have sex.

The men were exposed to a range of hypothetical sexual scenarios, and asked to share whether they believed the woman in that scenario had consented to sex. Men’s ‘perception of consent’ tended to be influenced more by the hypothetical situation they were presented with, rather than any particular personal characteristics they might have, said researchers.

Richard Mattson, associate professor of psychology at Binghamton University, said that men’s perceptions of consent changed most significantly when the women in the hypothetical scenario verbally expressed that they didn’t want to have sex.

“We found that the way in which the woman communicated her sexual intentions, that is verbal refusal versus passive responding, had the largest effect of men’s perceptions,” he explained. 

It’s not that hard.

However, Mattson said that “there was also evidence of a precedence effect”. This refers to the belief that past sexual behaviour (i.e. having had sexual relations with someone before) equals future consent. Some of the men who took part in the study demonstrated this belief even when faced with direct refusal by the woman.

Some of the men were also found to hold on more tightly to hypermasculine beliefs and rape myths (i.e. “When a woman says no, she really means yes”) when the woman was ambiguous in how she communicated her sexual intentions.

Mattson said that some men appeared to care sincerely about gaining a woman’s consent before engaging in sexual behaviour with her, and were “earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given”. However, many of these men were still “relying on questionable sexual scripts to disambiguate the situation”. 

Actress Rose McGowan has been leading the charge of sexual assault allegations against prominent men in Hollywood

The fact that the participants in the study were all college students was also an important factor in their findings, Mattson added. In the US, more than 23% of all female undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault, according to anti-sexual violence charity RAINN. (There are no equivalent statistics available for universities in the UK, although a 2015 NUS survey found that sexual harassment was a significant problem for male and female students.)

Mattson observed that aspects of the university experience, such as a sudden decrease in parental supervision and alcohol consumption, can help explain – although by no means excuse – the high rate of sexually coercive situations at college.

However, he said that the study’s findings also highlight the importance of programmes, like those offered in some universities, that encourage women to assertively communicate their sexual desires and educate men about the problems with ‘inferring’ or ‘assuming’ desire and consent.

Of course, these are behaviours and beliefs that should be encouraged in everyone, in or out of a university setting. Ultimately, Mattson said, we should be aiming to get to a place where unambiguous affirmative behaviour – i.e. a verbal, enthusiastic ‘yes’ – is the standard for consent that all men and women are held to. 

Images: iStock / Rex Features