Some men mistake sexual interest for consent, new study shows

Rachel Grumman Bender
Writer

When it comes to having sex, consent is crucial. While that may seem obvious, a new study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence reveals that some men perceive a woman’s interest in them as consent for sex, misinterpreting a woman’s sexual intentions.

It may sound like splitting hairs, but there’s a difference between being interested in having sex with someone (sexual interest) and actually deciding to act on that desire (consent to sex). The problem, according to the new research, is that some men have difficulty differentiating between the two.

A new study shows some men are confused about what counts as consent. (Photo: Getty Images)

For the study, researchers shared a series of hypothetical sexual scenarios with 145 heterosexual male college students and asked how they would respond. The researchers found that most men tended to confuse perceived sexual interest with being given the green light to have sex.

“Sexual interest — also referred to as sexual wantedness or desire — is a subjective experience of desiring or wanting sexual interaction with another person, whereas consent is the freely given communication of willingness to actually engage in a sexual interaction,” study author Richard E. Mattson, director of graduate studies in psychology and an associate professor at Binghamton University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“Although obviously related, there are instances when a person may be sexually desirous of another but nevertheless decline[s] to act on those desires,” he continues, “as well as cases wherein the individual consents to sexual interaction despite not necessarily desiring it (e.g., to satisfy a partner’s desire, build intimacy, etc.).”

But some men confuse desire with clear consent. “Our findings suggest that men conflate indications of sexual desire with freely given consent, which is problematic because it is upon actual consent that the legality and morality of a sexual interaction ultimately rests,” Mattson says.

The research also revealed two specific situations that make men more likely to assume a woman has consented to sex even when she hasn’t clearly done so: if the man and woman had been intimate in the past (what Mattson calls “sexual precedent”), or if the woman’s communication is ambiguous.

“Specifically, if the man was evaluating a hypothetical situation wherein he had previously had sex with the woman or was engaged currently in more sexually intimate behaviors (e.g., ‘making out’ while clothed versus oral sex), they more strongly endorsed that the woman had communicated willingness to ultimately engage in sexual intercourse,” he says. “This inference is, of course, erroneous for several reasons but nevertheless had a large impact on men’s perceptions that consent was given even in the face of direct verbal refusal (e.g., says ‘let’s not do this right now’), nonverbal refusal (e.g., pushes the man away), or both.”

The study results even took the researchers by surprise — namely, that “men’s ratings of a woman’s sexual desire were effectively synonymous with their perceptions of consent,” says Mattson. “We presumed that they would be correlated to some degree, but that men did not at all distinguish between their perceptions of a woman’s desire and her consenting to sex was unexpected.”

Mattson adds that other studies have shown men tend to “misconstrue even fairly mundane interactions with women as being sexually charged, so it poses a real risk for sexual misconduct that men are determining consent on the basis of their perceptions of a woman’s sexual desire.”

He hopes that men learn from this study, understanding that indirect cues of sexual desire, such as how a woman is dressed (which is irrelevant) and being intimate in the past is not a good way to determine consent. Instead, Mattson suggests men focus on concrete signs of consent. “I would also advise them to discard the types of prevailing rape myths (e.g., when a woman says ‘no’ she really means ‘yes’) and corresponding sexual scripts (i.e., token resistance) that, in effect, take away the ability of women to halt a sexual interaction at their discretion,” he says.

The study also highlights the importance of clear communication. Mattson points out that what shaped men’s perceptions of desire and consent the most was whether and how the woman communicated her sexual intentions. Using “assertive and unambiguous communication during sexual interaction” helps.

But, as many women already know, that doesn’t always work. Sadly, the study found that there are some situations in which even direct refusal had little effect on men. “Indeed, for some men, the mere fact that a woman returned with him alone to his apartment was sufficient enough indication of consent to sex,” Mattson says.

He adds: “Although such knowledge may help women protect themselves from risky situations, I think it is also important to recognize that women never bear the onus of responsibility for being sexually victimized. That is, a person — woman or man — retains the right to stop a sexual interaction at any point and that it is a crime for another to take away that right no matter the circumstances surrounding the interaction.”

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