Sexual assault has been the topic of the season—and for good reason. From Harvey Weinstein to Roy Moore, a slew of men in positions of power were outed after allegedly sexually harassing and abusing women for years. And for once, many of them are actually facing consequences. As a result, men are operating a little more cautiously in the workplace and beyond — whether their intentions are being allies to women or making sure they don’t have issues with HR. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the onslaught of recent allegations and much of the ensuing conversation, it’s that many people (especially men) still don’t fully understand how to navigate sexual boundaries. A new study that looks into how men interpret sexual interactions suggests that despite the efforts of tireless activists, educators, and women across college campuses, men are still quite awful at determining sexual consent.
The study—titled “Situational and Dispositional Determinants of College Men’s Perception of Women’s Sexual Desire and Consent to Sex: A Factorial Vignette Analysis”—was comprised of 145 straight, male college students with a median age of 20 attending a large university in the south-east United States. On a phone call with Broadly, Dr. Richard E. Mattson, one of the study’s authors, acknowledged the study’s small sample size and specific demographic (92 percent white, 58 percent Protestant), and says that a follow-up study which will have more diverse participants is currently being reviewed. But this one still offers some worthwhile takeaways.
In a digital survey, each student was presented with six short, written scenarios involving a woman. In every hypothetical situation, the men were told that the woman was one whom they “find very attractive and with whom [they are] really hoping to have sex.”
Read More: Teaching Kindergarteners About Consent
Each scenario in the set varied its description of the woman by multiple factors, including her attire, sexual history, alcohol consumption, relationship history, and level of intimacy expressed during the interaction, which were chosen based on “research demonstrating that they 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. Each vignette also featured a different response from the woman following an explicit sexual invitation, displaying varying levels of consent, refusal, or passivity, exhibited through nonverbal, verbal, or combined verbal/nonverbal behavior.
After being presented with each scenario, participants were asked to respond between 1 (strongly disagree) and 7 (strongly agree) to three questions: How much they think the woman wants to advance the sexual interaction, how much has she communicated willingness (consent) to advance the sexual interaction, and to what extent she has communicated consent to have sex.
The results of the survey are scary yet unsurprising: According to Dr. Mattson, the men in the study tended to conflate consent with sexual desire or, in other words, assumed that if they thought the woman wanted to further the sexual interaction, that counted as consent. In the scenario where the woman did not respond to the men’s sexual passes, that is “[she] stops responding but doesn’t resist you in any way,” the men averaged a 3.71 on the one to seven consent scale—just shy of 4 (neither agree or disagree), what Dr. Mattson calls the “tipping point that consent was given.”
As predicted, verbal refusal and consent had the lowest and highest averages respectively, suggesting that men understand consent or lack thereof best when it is communicated in this way. Still the average for verbal refusal was a 2.34, meaning that when the woman in the scenario vocalized her refusal of a sexual advance, it was not immediately understood that she was not consenting to the advance.
Further, many of the men consistently misinterpreted situational factors, such as having previously engaged with a woman intimately, as consent. “Our results further establish that men confuse contextual factors indicative of sexual desire with implied consent,” reads the study. Dr. Mattson breaks this down: “If [the participants] perceived desire [from the woman], they perceived that she was communicating willingness to advance the sexual interaction and also believed that she was communicating ultimate consent for sexual intercourse.”
After the men submitted their readings of the scenarios, they were asked to complete a series of personality and attitude questionnaires that measured their psychopathy characteristics, empathy characteristics, levels of hostile sexism, rape myth acceptance, and attitudes on hypermasculinity. “There’s good literature that suggests that certain types of men possessing certain types of characteristics are more prone to engage in sexual assault,” says Dr. Mattson. And while there is research to support that idea, what Mattson and his fellow researchers found was that the majority of responses they received “emerged as a function of the different situations as opposed to general tendencies of the individual.” These results suggest another uncomfortable truth: that even progressive, women-respecting men can misread consent or lack thereof and consequently commit sexual assault.
The research by Dr. Mattson and his colleagues provides evidence that “[heterosexual] men rely on subtle differences in nonverbal communication to infer consent when the woman’s sexual intentions are otherwise ambiguous.” When presented with a description of a woman who “stops responding but doesn’t resist you in any way” during a sexual encounter, the participants were more likely to infer both her sexual desire and consent than when she “tenses up and doesn’t say anything.”
When we use body language, verbal communication, gestures, facial expressions, and other subtle behaviors to determine what our partners are or aren’t down to do, consent can be confusing and unclear. But your response to a partner whose consent is ambiguous should never be to infer consent. The study’s discussion section sums this up succinctly:
“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.”
In summary, if you’re unsure if your partner is giving you consent, there’s one simple way to find out: ask.