AnnaMarie Houlis
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New research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence suggests that many of us (and particularly men) don’t fully understand how to navigate sexual boundaries. The study, “Situational and Dispositional Determinants of College Men’s Perception of Women’s Sexual Desire and Consent to Sex: A Factorial Vignette Analysis,” delves into the ways in which men interpret sexual interactions, and the results are... disconcerting.

The researchers surveyed 145 straight male college students, all of whom were about 20 years old and attended a university in the southeast. In the digital survey, the students were given six written hypothetical scenarios that involved a woman they were told they “find very attractive and with whom [they are] really hoping to have sex.” 

The woman’s description — her attire, sexual history, alcohol consumption, relationship history and level of intimacy expressed during the interaction — varied by vignette. These are all factors that research demonstrates are “frequently construed as indicators of sexual intent and have been shown to heighten third party perceptions of victim ‘responsibility’ for sexual assault,” according to the study. The woman had a different response to the explicit sexual invitation in each situation, too, which showed varying levels of consent, refusal and passivity via verbal, nonverbal or combined verbal/nonverbal behavior.

The students were then asked to respond between 1 and 7 (strongly disagree to strongly agree) to three questions: How much they thought the woman wanted to advance the sexual interaction, how much she had communicated willingness (consent) to advance the sexual interaction, and to what extent she had communicated consent to have sex.

Most of the results aren’t too startling given the torrent of sexual harassment claims that are surfacing on our news feeds almost every morning. Men in the study had a tendency to conflate consent with sexual desire, assuming that if a woman wanted to further the sexual interaction, it counted as consent, and they also consistently misinterpreted the aforementioned situational factors (like previous engagement with the woman) as consent. Likewise, men averaged a 3.71 on the 1-to-7 scale for the women who didn’t respond to sexual invitations, just shy of neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“Our results further establish that men confuse contextual factors indicative of sexual desire with implied consent,” the researchers said, adding that “men rely on subtle differences in nonverbal communication to infer consent when the woman’s sexual intentions are otherwise ambiguous.”

The findings also suggest that men understand verbal refusal and consent the most. That said, the average for verbal refusal was a 2.34, meaning that, when the woman did indeed vocalize refusal, it was not immediately understood that she was not consenting to the sexual advance.

What’s worse? These “confusions” and “misunderstandings” weren’t just relegated to men who exhibited levels of hostile sexism, rape myth acceptance, psychopathy and attitudes on hypermasculinity, which the men were also rated on through a series of personality and attitude questions. No, the majority of responses the researchers received “emerged as a function of the different situations as opposed to general tendencies of the individual.” So this means that even men who identify as feminists and allies for their female friends and coworkers can misread consent or lack thereof and, as a result, also commit sexual assault. 

The researchers concluded, “Taken together, these findings highlight the utility of risk reduction programs that empower women to assertively communicate their sexual desires, and also reinforce the importance of education on unambiguous, affirmative behavior being the standard of consent, particularly for men inclined to infer consent when a woman’s sexual intentions are unclear.” 

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.