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.
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."