Young men tend to think a woman’s sexual history and desires indicate consent for a sexual encounter, even in some cases if she flatly protests, according to a new study.
The researchers, who were trying to predict which straight men were most likely to commit sexual misconduct against women, presented dozens of male college students with different sexual scenarios to gauge their perceptions of when a woman has offered consent. Their study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence says they found that the subjects often confused consent with sexual desire and assumed that previously having sex with a woman implied consent in subsequent encounters.
In cases where the men had a sexual history with someone, even the woman’s verbal refusal was sometimes not enough to change their idea that she had given consent.
According to the study, the exact hypothetical situation affected how the men viewed consent more than their personal traits and a woman’s method of communication played a role in the subjects’ views on consent. When a hypothetical woman gave more passive or ambiguous signals to a man instead of direct communication about her intentions, the men in the study who bought into rape myths like “no means yes” and into hypermasculinity were more likely to improperly identify consent.
“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,” researcher Richard Mattson said in a statement from Binghamton University. “Our findings also suggest that some men were earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given, but were nevertheless relying on questionable sexual scripts to disambiguate the situation.”
The study is being released as sexual harassment and assault, primarily committed by men in positions of authority against women, has dominated media reports, with multiple prominent men being accused of sexual misconduct. Much public conversation has turned to how widespread the offenses are and what to do to stop them. Although the majority of these reports revolve around events that took place in professional settings, sexual assault in universities has long been a problem, compounded by alcohol-drinking habits and the newfound freedom from supervision that college students experience.
“Sexual victimization of women by men on college campuses is a growing societal concern,” the study says. “Efforts to prevent sexual violence among college students may benefit from being modeled on our findings that some men are likelier to infer consent regardless of the situation, that specific situational factors can foster misperceptions of consent across men in general, and that certain individuals in particular situations may pose the greatest risk for sexual misconduct.”