The Sexist

Why Rape Isn’t One Big Misunderstanding

Here at the Sexist, one of the most persistent rape myths offered up to excuse sexual assault is the idea that rape is just one big misunderstanding. Under this theory, rape isn't a conscious assault against a person who hasn't consented to sex; it's the result of an honest miscommunication that arises from natural communicative differences between men and women.

Today, Thomas MacAulay Millar at Yes Means Yes! pointed to a recent paper that addresses this myth head-on. The report, "If a girl doesn't say 'no': Young men, rape, and insufficient knowledge" [PDF], identifies the "miscommunication model" as one of the dominant theories informing public thinking about how sexual assault actually happens.

In order to identify how the "miscommunication model" functions in everyday conversation, researchers interviewed two focus groups of college-aged men in the UK Australia about their interpretations of sex and consent.  The young men who participated in the study displayed "sophisticated and nuanced understandings" of different ways people could indicate sexual refusal. But when it came time to talk about non-consensual sex, these same men were startlingly eager to explain away acquaintance rapes as communication failures instead of deliberate assaults.

* "I don’t think I’d ever say ‘no’": First, researches asked the men how they would turn down unwanted sex. The men displayed a marked reluctance to offer a clear "no" to sex, and instead suggested that they would employ euphemism and body language to communicate their refusal. (Note: I've edited the study for style).

Moderator: . . . the next scenario is, you’re back at your house with a girl. It’s looking like sex is on the cards for whatever reason you really don’t want to have sex with her tonight. How do you let her know?

John: You could come up with one of ya, your cliches, like, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’, or ah, you know, ‘I’m not ready for this’ or you know one of the cliches. As soon as you come out with that cliche, they know. They know what you’re trying to say because it’s used all the time, whereas if you sort of try and dance around the cliches they might not get the point straight away.

. . . James: I’ve got no idea.

George: I know people that will do anything for a root.  If it got to that stage, obviously you’re interested. Well I’d assume that’d be the case so then why would you say no? You always, it’s easier to make an excuse the next day than at the time.

Moderator: Hehe. How do you say no?

James: If it’s a disgusting woman. I mean just a platonic kind of friend but a disgusting woman. You gotta make a face if they’re sort of implying something, then they’ll probably get the picture. . . .  I don’t think I’d, don’t think I’d ever say ‘no’

John: You just say—

James: If they were at my house then it’d be for a reason, so.

John: Oh yeah. ‘This isn’t quite what I expected tonight’ and then they’d say ‘what did you expect.’ ‘Not this, I just thought we’d have a drink and then you’d go home.’ . . .

James: And then they’d start to get the, get the idea.

Andrew: I’d call a cab (inaudible) rather sensitive excuse, I guess.

John: Yeah, you don’t wanna say. You couldn’t say ‘no’, could you. You don’t wanna say ‘No, I don’t like you now.' You know you’d come up with some excuse: ‘You looked good in the soft light at the pub, but now . . . ’

George: ‘I’m sobering up now’

John: Yeah hehehe, ‘And I’m having second thoughts.’ A soft gentle excuse would be the best one.

* "There’s always little hints": Researchers then asked the men how they know when a woman is refusing sex. The men indicated that women also often rely on body language and euphemism to relay their lack of consent. Interestingly, even though the men professed to favoring the exact same tactics, they attributed these devices to the way that "women are":

Moderator: Hmm, great, okay so are there ways of knowing when it’s not on the cards? How would a guy pick up that sex is not on the cards that way?

John: Body language.

James: Yeah (inaudible) body language.

Moderator: What’s that, sorry?

James: It’s all put down as body language. . . . Women are pretty good fakers, teasers, no, but it’s body language all the time.

George: The conversation gets shorter.

James: Mhmm.

George: Very abrupt.

John: Start looking at their watch and you know (inaudible) "It’s getting late."

Andrew: ‘How long does the taxi take to get here,’ that type of thing.

. . . John: "I just remembered I’m working early in the morning," you know there’s always little hints like letting you know that "I’ve just uh changed my mind." Yeah there’s always little hints.

* "The perpetrator could actually really be the victim": But then the young men start talking about rape, and the idea that lack of consent can be clearly communicated through euphemistic or nonverbal cues is quickly abandoned. The researchers note that prior to the rape discussion, the young men never indicated that "the explicit use of the word ‘no’ is necessary for a woman’s refusal of a sexual invitation to be understood as such." Suddenly, even "no" is not enough. Once the idea of rape is raised, these men claim ignorance of understanding when a woman is refusing sex, and go on to say that even when a woman explicitly says "no," she can be making a victim of the perpetrator.

Kyle: Um I just, I just had a thought. When does no mean no, when does yes mean yes, I’m just wondering how this type of information ties into rape and stuff like that. Um, with um, common defences of (inaudible) stuff like that. . . . I’m wondering in those situations, what is the thinking of the perpetrator in terms of these signals they’re interpreting that are coming their way, you know?

. . . Jason: If you don’t give a verbal ‘no’ then you’re up shit creek.

. . . Cam: Then again, well as you said, well, when’s no, no when’s yes yes. The perpetrator could actually really be the victim where they’re going ‘no’ and they’re basically throwing themself on you and go, ‘well, I said ‘‘no.’’’

Kyle: Playing hard to get.

* "So both parties are a problem there": Researchers then directly asked the men what they thought about the "miscommunication theory." They supported it:

Jason: If a girl doesn’t say ‘no’ look you in the eye and say ‘no.' Anything else can be sort of miscommunicated so if she looks you in the eye and goes ‘no’. . . Fine. But if she goes . . .  if she sort of says ‘no,’ and does the whole look away flirty it sort of like leaves you in the lurch.

Moderator: Alright. Any other ideas?

Cam: Basically, well, it can actually happen to a male or female, like, this myth that I’ve heard females say about ‘oh how could a guy get raped.’ Hey, just ‘cause you don’t want it don’t mean it don’t feel good. Um you know, the same goes for females basically. Whichever sex it is has to be clear about ‘look na this has gone past where I want to go I’m not prepared to go any further’ and make it clear. ‘No more.' ‘Stop there.’ Or you know if they want some of the stuff but they don’t wanna do it all. You know they need to go ‘look,' and be clear, ‘I want it to go here, and just here for now.’ . . .  Basically you know otherwise there is misconception and there is, you know miscommunication where one’s going ‘okay well they’re doing this’ and the other’s going, ‘I wish they’d back off a bit.' So unless each is clear then, you know, it will continue. . . .

Moderator: . . . do you think it’s necessary for a women to say ‘no’ clearly and effectively for her to be understood as not wanting to  have sex or are there other ways  of knowing that she doesn’t want to?

Mike: You can always take the physical signs, but like I said before they’re generally really ambiguous, you never know if they are definite. I reckon verbal's probably the best way to get round it. . . . If she says ‘no’ I’ll stop, you know.

. . . Cam: Yep, but they really need to make it clear in both physical and verbal. There’s no point them saying ‘oh no I don’t want it’ and then for you know, they’re basically they’re guiding you in, so to speak. Well, gee, do they really not want it?

. . . Jason: There’s plenty of opportunities for all women to stop it, assuming the boy’s being honourable and stuff but um they can not sort of get into that sort of situation the flirty situation in the first place or they can not go home with you an’ they can not go into the bedroom an’ they can once you’re there they can sort of like go ‘no you’re not allowed to take my clothes off’ and they can—I think it’s what’s that 30 second rule they had in America where the guy was having sex with her, and she goes ‘na this is a bad idea,’ says ‘no,’ he finishes, and she goes ‘oh that was rape’ and sort of like—so there’s plenty of opportunities for a girl to avoid the situation, and um, so, but if a girl looks you in the eye and says ‘no’ then that’s sort of the end of it.

Mike: Um back on that note I think I think things progress I’d say from the age of say maybe eighteen, or maybe even twenty onwards. Generally you find people being more sexually active, generally like they’re sort of coming out of the later stage of adolescence and that the sign is generally that if you go out with someone I think from that age on, you’re, that’s sort of what’s going to happen, that’s pretty much what the plan is, but then to back out, like if it gets to a situation where like, you can end up in a situation where it, like, becomes date rape. Generally you’re given the signs that to that point it is okay, you know, like it depends on the age (inaudible). Probably eighteen onwards I’d say.

Kyle: Um, sorry to interrupt, but I just realized that, um, that statement is kind of putting the blame on women almost. She fails, something she did—

Jason: He misinterprets her—

Kyle: She fails to say ‘no’ clearly. Well, what about the guy?

Cam: Yeah, he’s also, he’s failed to actually interpret what she means, so it’s actually both parties.

Mike: So both parties are a problem there.

. . . Jason: Women often seem to forget that men don’t deal with subtleties. If we want something, we tell you.

. . . Mike: Men deal in yes and no, whereas women deal in a vast array of options, so, yeah. . . . Like I think i-if the situation is ambiguous the male is going to lean towards the positive side of interpretation of it.

Jason: Hehe, of course.

This is where things fall off the rails. Suddenly, men don't deal with "subtleties," even though the men have previously reported that they would turn down sex in the same way they'd expect women to—subtly. Suddenly, a person misinterpreting lack of consent is completely understandable if "she fails to say 'no' clearly," even though the men had previously never invoked direct refusal as a way they know if women don't want to have sex with them.  Suddenly, a woman is required to engage in a very specific behavior—looking her sex partner in the eye and saying "no"—in order to not be responsible for her own rape. And suddenly, in order to neutralize the misogyny a little bit, both men and women are equally as likely to be in a position where they must deter sexual advances with eye contact and a firm "no," even though the men had previously indicated that they could never even conceive of a situation where they would be expected to do such a thing.

As Thomas MacAulay Millar notes, these men are likely not rapists. So why is it so natural for them to make excuses for them? "The gist of it is that these young men evidenced an understanding of and even a preference for nuances and diplomatic communication to refuse sex, but then when discussing rape, reversed course and began to argue that anything the least bit ambiguous was unintelligible," Millar writes. "What gives? Why create a social framework where rape is accidental if they don’t have to cover their own asses?"

I don't have an answer to that, but the study does suggest one way we to address this problem: Show people studies like this. "[I]n presenting this research, and its’ associated transcripts, to young men and women," the study claims, "we have found that by drawing attention to our shared commonsensical knowledge of how everyday refusals are normatively done, and then to how this knowledge is often then patently discounted in favour of the interpretative repertoire of miscommunication . . . young people become engaged in an active discussion of how it is that both sexual consent and sexual refusal are actually negotiated."

  • SuchIsLife

    "They may not be rapists, but they have an interest in rape culture. Rape culture is linked to male privilege, and so men perceive maintaining privilege as predicated on maintaining rape culture. In specifics, there’s also the problem of them not wanting to hold other men accountable for raping. That doesn’t seem to make sense, unless you realize that rapists are often their friends or role models, such as professional athletes who rape."

    Funny how the same holds for women, in reverse. They don't want to actually get raped but the fact that men do rape women gives them the feeling that they can now define who is and who isn't a rapist, and we can guess that from there they do so in a way which furthers their personal agendas. One must wonder, do such women actually want to reduce the number of incidents of sexual assault, or increase them? What would the neocons do if bin Laden declared a cease-fire with the West? Where would the Israeli chickenhawks be if the Palestinans renounced terrorism? Why, then they would be just another small, dirt-poor Middle-Eastern country. Face it: some women need to be at war with men just like some men need to be at war with women. That's how you all get your Jones off.

  • SuchIsLife

    ...of course, that assumes that they don't actually want to get raped. Just like we have to assume that men don't actually want to rape women.

    But we all know that some women secretly, subconsciously want it just like some men secretly, subconsciously want to do it.

    But if we start with the assumption that women secretly want to get raped and men secretly want to rape them, then we're in trouble. Likewise if we allow ourselves to leap to such a conclusion on the slightest circumstantial evidence. Not to mention if we really get off on calling women sluts and men rapists.

  • LeftSidePositive

    SuchIsLife: Bullshit.

    Ooooh, look how much "power" we have!! We get to "define" things! Yay! What an amazing overreach! Dude, because there are murders, our society pretty clearly "defines" who are murderers (and their various degrees). Because there are thefts, our society defines who are thieves. Why should rapists be any different?

    And as for "furthering our personal agendas"--really, is it so unreasonable that we expect to own our own bodies and only have sex when we consent? Is that some radical off-the-wall concept?

  • geezlouise

    ......We get to “define” things! Yay!...Because there are thefts, our society defines who are thieves. Why should rapists be any different?

    And as for “furthering our personal agendas”–really, is it so unreasonable that we expect to own our own bodies and only have sex when we consent? Is that some radical off-the-wall concept?"

    Because talk is cheap, bullshit is even cheaper, and bullshit women talking bullshit is practically free. There's nothing to stop you.

    Just like you're talking bullshit right now. First you're operating under the basic concept that you get to define rape "as part of society" and that rapists are not only punished for rape, but they are apprehended before they can rape (under menacing laws, or attempted rape laws)...all laws in which women play a large part in getting passed and the interests of "owning their own bodies and deciding who they have sex with".

    But in that very process you enhance, reinforce and exploit governmental control over the "corpus" of the American citizen, which DENIES the very concepts that you supposedly want. Even then obviously that doesn't stop women from getting raped. So from a functional perspective and a practical perspective, your actions and your talk expose this to be utter bullshit. If you really wanted "control over your bodies" and "control over who you had sex with", you wouldn't put yourselves into positions where you couldn't control your own bodies or control who you have sex with. You wouldn't even bother to argue that women who entice and provoke men to rape them, either actively or passively, don't undermine those very goals. Those supposedly laudable goals behind which you now try to hide.

    You speak of fear for your persons yet exploit the power of the state over men in the same breath. You're no better than Mob enforcers who deals with the threat of attack by hiring more guns and ambushing their rivals. As always, it's the hypocrisy that undermines your efforts. When you try to play a game by a set of rules which favors you and then rationalize your actions on outcomes that are beneficial for you, you are always going to lose track of the ethics of the issue and begin to think in terms of sheer benefit. Simple greed destroys you. And when you find your fate in the hands of others, you are always going to have to deal with the same facts, the same power, in the hands of others. That is why women can screw guys over 99 times out of 100 and argue that they are doing it out of their own safety and peace of mind, not to mention the justice required to punish the guilty, but that 100th time?

    That 100th time is going to be a bitch.

    Because that 100th time is going to be when a man is in charge of the situation, and you are sitting there helpless, hopeless and hating life. And all those 99 other times are going to be right there in the front of his mind.

    If you cannot rationalize your actions in a neutral manner, you are digging your own grave. Eventually they will come rushing back to haunt you and you will realize the full effect and power of Murphys' Law. If you allow self-interest to skew your logic, your own example will come back to screw you when it's time for someone else to examine your situation, when someone else holds your life in their hands. They'll easily be convinced to let your own logic screw you in reverse, in their own self-interest, and you will be left to rely on them to be a better person than you ever were. At least as far as they know, which of course will come secondary to their assumptions about you.

  • ForSchizzle

    ...just stop being a bunch of man-haters, that's probably the most effective way to "control your bodies and decide who you have sex with".

    Women who rationalize behaving like bitches based on what men have done, are doing or could do to them are no different from men who behave like jackasses based on what women have done or could do to them.

    And in both cases when push comes to shove, when you stand in front of the court of public opinion, which always happens sooner or later, you are entirely dependent on the opinions, the history, the logic, the socialization the intelligence, the honesty and the empathy of those who sit in judgment of you. You are NEVER solely in charge of your own life not to mention your own body. Dig that hole deep enough and there's no way out of it. There are just too many meters of bullshit lying on top of you and too many skulls buried in the soil around you, for anyone to even lift a finger to save your ass. Hell, they would be happy to push you down.

  • Amanda Marcotte

    I don't know. I was raped. According to Such, I should have enjoyed this as some sort of victory, but in reality it was pretty fucking horrible. I would have far preferred that it didn't happen.

  • k

    Expecting not to be raped = getting greedy. Thanks for that.

  • Ben


    I wasn't trying to make the LA Times article a statistical reference. It was just for people to verify that such things happen. I don't have any resources to prove false accusation exist because a) they are difficult to prove due to the definition of rape (which is what the blog tries to define) and b) any outside influences (drugs, etc) c) not wanting to admit that the person raped due to getting revenge on an ex.

    For you to make the claim that false accusations are very very rare with not evidence makes you look like a fool. Your link doesn't show false accusations, which even you consider exist in rare amounts, in the statistics.

    Actually, another incident happened to a friend in boarding school where he was accused of rape. And guess what! He would've been screwed if some guys weren't in the other room (shared complex) and the fact that the bitch (no pun intended) didn't tell the police it was a lie. The reason? Well he ditched her to go back to his old girlfriend. The girl didn't like that. They did have sex (evidence was there), so therefore it could be taken as rape.

    The biological point wasn't for you. I didn't type the whole post for you. A lot of people believe that rape is a social construct (a big part of Feminism). This simply isn't true. Sure murder exist in the animal kingdom as well as our own. So what is your point? People do murder, regardless of your code of "ethics." Its been going on for thousands of years regardless of "right" or "wrong." The point of Science is to understand why.

    Also one last thing that you said to SuchIsLife, LeftSidePositive. You are dead wrong about the fantasies that women don't harbor sexual feelings to be raped. Is it "violent beating rape" that they want, of course not. But they're has been evidence to suggest the coercion and dominance ignites sexual arousal. There is a whole field in psychology that focuses on that. And a thing called BDSM; look into it.

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  • Melissa

    Um, BDSM is like the opposite of rape. They take consent VERY seriously.

  • k

    Saying that BDSM is the same thing as rape is like saying that kids playing cops and robbers are taking real guns, robbing real banks, and shooting each other down on the streets.

  • Ben

    @ K and Mellissa
    "Is it “violent beating rape” that they want, of course not. But they’re has been evidence to suggest the coercion and dominance ignites sexual arousal."

    Apparently you didn't read this part of what I wrote. I never said BDSM is rape.

  • hexalm

    What a bunch of nonsense being spouted by some of the people in this thread. Surprise that they're all male. For example, how the hell does a woman passively entice/provoke rape? Talk about a logic fail. I didn't think it could get worse, but the whole diatribe about women using the government to oppress men pretty much speaks for itself...

  • k

    Ben, I don't exactly understand what you think the significance of BDSM turning some people on is supposed to be in the context of this discussion. People are into rape-PLAY and some people do get off on feelings of dominance or submission in a consensually negotiated scene, sure.

    So what? Some people get off on peeing on each other, and you don't see me running around pissing on people and saying "Um hello there is such a thing as golden showers, so clearly you wanted my pee all over you!"

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  • Lo Down

    @Ben: You obviously are not kinky, otherwise you'd understand that people into BDSM are into power "play", not ACTUALLY coercing and dominating others. Rape is one-sided. It's what someone does to someone else against their will. But BDSM play involves consent, cooperation and a high degree of trust and respect between partners. It's mutual.

    Power play relies on explicit consent from both partners, particularly the "bottom" or receiving or submissive partner. All kinksters worth their salt know that, despite how it may seem from an outsider's perspective, the submissive or bottom is actually in control of the scene. The play will only involve acts to which s/he has consented and it ends when s/he wants it to end (i.e. invocation of a "safe word" or gesture). Notice that CONSENT is what separates BDSM from mere violent behavior, just as what separates sex from rape is CONSENT.

    The motto of kinksters everywhere is "Safe, sane and consensual." I think this motto would work perfectly for vanilla folks as well. It would prevent people from pulling shithead moves like removing condoms in the middle of sex or thinking it's OK to take advantage of another person's inebriation.

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  • Joe

    Comments like the one from Em illustrate how fucking stupid some people can be about this issue.

    Why SHOULD Ben Roesthlesberger take any blame? Has he been convicted of rape?

    How Ben is treated does NOT contribute to our mistreatment of rape as a concept, because he hasn't even been indicted for rape, let alone convicted.

    Another way to put it: it's possible that an accused person didn't actually do it. In that case, if the person didn't do it, but was treated as if he did, then that can be called, at the very least, a "misunderstanding," and we haven't devalued women at all, now have we?

  • Joe


    You said:

    "Absolutely not. No situation WHATSOEVER “implies consent.” EVER. Under any circumstances."

    So.......a woman who engages in foreplay, undresses with a guy, lies back and spreads wide, allows him to penetrate, and subsequently acts in positively toward him in every way but verbally, has NOT actually provided consent?

    She didn't say yes, and you say that "yes" can NEVER be implied.

    Would you care to paint your picture with a more slender brush in the future?

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  • C

    Getting back to the original article I thi k it did a good job at showing how both sexes would non verbally deny sex, however I don't think it addressed the different stages of the intera toon. Also I think it's fair to say thAt the context of this article is on date rape.

    I think either side can do a very good job at interpreting non verbal methods of consent or moving the encounter forward sexually.

    Invited to an appartment maybe some making out and then a change of moving forward or no intention of going any further is easier to pick up and interpret here
    however I think the further you advance into your sexual encounter the more explicid you would need to be about not wAnting to move further
    start kissing
    get undressed
    giveing a blow job
    very close physical contact
    privates rubbing each other
    just like the non verbal signs of of being uninterested in a person I think it becomes very hard to say that there Are strong signs that sex is not going to happen in a situation like this hence the expression of not wanting to have sex needs to be much clearer

    I also this there is still a real stigma for women to have sex without a relationship and a guilt associated with. casual sex. I think, for the most part men need to initiate conversation as well as the first kiss and any sexual advances.
    Also, how many times have we heard NO to an advance to a kiss only to try 10 minutes later with sucess. Is NO what they think they should do or what their girlfriends think they should do. Is being intoxicated with the moment and excuse for not giving concent?

    Clearly I fully believe that guys need to back off if their advances are not welcome. MixEd verbal and nonverbal signals outside of the bedroom are one thing but inside the bedroom they become more difficult to deal with

  • LeftSidePositive

    Joe, I think that situation would only be acceptable if the two parties were in an established relationship and had clearly communicated what was and was not ok sexually.

    Even someone who engages in foreplay or undresses or "lies back" may be interested in going only so far, or going farther in a certain way. Or, they might just not quite be ready at the moment. Unless you are absolutely sure about how THAT PARTICULAR PERSON communicates their desire for sex, don't proceed without permission. Moreover, none of these actions ENTITLE the other person to obtain sex.

    Another very serious concern is what exactly is "reacting positively"?? In reality, I don't think it should be difficult to figure out at all, but rapists regularly claim that someone saying no is "practically guiding them in" (see above) or being "passionate," or "not fighting enough," that someone who is still and silent is "still trying to decide if they enjoyed it," and that offering physical resistance is "hot," "into rough sex," or "part of the dance" or lots of other things. People who feel entitled to women's bodies interpret all sorts of behavior as acting positively.

    Bottom line: without positive, enthusiastic consent --> no sex.

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  • h

    so what happens if you turn away and put your legs together? does that mean no?

  • Hannah

    H - that sounds like a no.

    Ben - how did these 'some guys' manage to detect consensual sex from the next room? Also, is it not possible that this man dumped this woman for another woman, AND raped her?

  • Chris Travers


    People can consent to sex for a variety of reasons. Miscommunications can also happen (not talking about cases where boundaries were clearly laid out, as in "you have to wear a condom" but cases where they are not clearly laid out). It's important for the law to provide circumstances which people can be reasonably able to avoid in this area short of outright celebacy.

    How many married couples fight about sex? Is compromise the answer?

    What about states, like New York, which hold that refusal to have sex with one's spouse over a period of time constitutes actionable abandonment (meaning the refusing spouse is found AT FAULT for the divorce)?

    Is learning to handle sexual differences in expectations something that prepares one to handle possible compromises of marriage?