Men Know What Consent Is

As I read and hear about continuous accusations of date rape on campuses and sexual assault by bosses—accusations that are usually denied vigorously by the men accused (and it is usually men)—I cannot help but wonder how people think that men do not know what consent is. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I have no question in my mind that I did not give consent and that my attacker knew full well what he was doing. How can a person think that it is acceptable to use physical force to pin someone to a bed who is struggling to get up or to force someone’s head down to perform oral sex? This is not consent.

Because of these questions, I was interested to read an article by Peggy Orenstein, a well-known scholar on gender differences. Orenstein reports that she interviewed high school and college students over the past two years, most of who came across to her as “friendly, thoughtful, bright, engaging young men.” Many of these young men reported to her that they have “sort of” raped girls, have pushed women’s heads down to get oral sex, have taken a Snapchat video of a date performing oral sex on them and sent it to the baseball team—and yet see themselves as “good guys.” How can this be?

Orenstein cites the research of Nicole Bedera, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan who interviewed male college students in 2015. Bedera reports that each male student could articulate at least a basic understanding of consent: both parties wanted to be doing what they were doing. Many of the young men had a sophisticated understanding of refusal and consent. Most of these students also endorsed the standard of “yes means yes,” which requires “active, conscious, continuous and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity.” Yet when asked about their own recent sexual activity, “even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.” When this conflict between their understanding and actions was pointed out to them by the researcher, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their own conduct. In some cases, the researcher reports that the expanded definitions of consent became so elastic that they met the legal definition of assault. If they were aware that their sex partner had become upset by their behavior, some young men rationalized it, got angry with the woman involved, and blamed her for refusing them.

Orenstein cites another study conducted on 1,200 college students in 2016 by researchers at Confi, an online resource dedicated to women’s health. In this study, one in four men believed that women usually have to be “convinced” for sex to happen and the behavior of a “tipsy” guy was more acceptable than a sober one. These beliefs allow young men to let themselves off the hook if they are accused of assault.

Orenstein offers these conclusions:

  • Young men still too often learn to prioritize their pleasure over women’s feelings and interpret a partner’s behavior through the lens of their own wishes.
  • We need to fully educate boys not only about the importance of consensual, ethical, and mutually pleasurable sexuality but also the ways their own sense of entitlement may blind them to those values, leading them to cause harm.

We still have a long way to go to educate both boys and men.


Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

What Men Can Do to Stop Sexual Harassment

The recent explosion of sexual harassment accusations against high-profile men and the outpouring of painful sexual harassment experiences in #MeToo messages on Twitter from women (and some men) across the globe have, as reported by Nellie Bowles, shocked many men into reflecting on their own behavior. My own partner, a devoted feminist, began to question whether any of his actions might have recently caused discomfort for a woman friend. In our discussions he agreed with a recent observation by Charles M. Blow of the New York Times that he (Blow) has male privilege because he is over six feet tall, weighs more than 200 pounds, and never has to think about being sexually assaulted or harassed. This male privilege can make him and other men blind or oblivious to the impact of their actions on women, even when they think they are just being friendly. Blow also makes the point that, as a man, being a good listener and understanding women’s experiences intellectually does not equate to having the lived experience of physical vulnerability and multiple occurrences of sexual harassment that many women have. In another article, Blow challenges men to reexamine their cultural assumptions about toxic, privileged masculinity, starting with the obvious:

  • There is no sex without consent. Rape is not sex; it is rape.
  • Unwanted touching is not sexy; it’s assault.
  • Sexual advances in a work environment, particularly from those in a position of power, are highly inappropriate and possibly illegal.
  • In almost all environments, rubbing your penis against people, masturbating in front of them or showing your penis is wrong, humiliating, and possibly illegal.
  • If you become involved sexually with a minor, that is not a relationship or dating; it is exploitation of a minor and possibly statutory rape.
What can men do to stop sexual harassment and assault? Shirley Leung of the Boston Globe and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times offer these suggestions:
  • Listen more to women and seek to understand their experiences.
  • Don’t be silent. Silence is the enemy. Speak out and stand up to other men.
  • Cut out “guy talk” in the workplace.
  • Think twice about hugging in the workplace. Shake hands instead.
  • Do not think that sexual harassment training is enough. Anti-harassment training is ineffective unless policies and procedures are changed to make it safe for women to report sexual harassment without fear of retaliation. Provide multiple reporting channels, follow up, and act on reports.
  • Do not comment on the appearance of female coworkers when not saying the same things to male coworkers.
  • Fire the men who sexually harass as well as the men and women who are complicit.
  • Have dialogue with family and friends and stop sexist remarks, jokes, and behavior when you see or hear them.
  • Be more careful about corporate offsite meetings or social events. Some leaders are limiting the availability of alcohol and holding social events in the day instead of at night.
  • Do not avoid mentoring or sponsoring women. Behave respectfully and check in with women about whether they feel harassed or uncomfortable.
Charles Blow adds:
  • Every man must become a feminist and work hard to elevate gender equality and to eliminate gender violence.
  • Every man must do the hard work of expanding his understanding, empathy, and experience to become an ally of all women.
  • Every man must advocate for cultural and policy changes that would make women’s lives better.
Blow believes that real change will have occurred when ordinary, powerless, invisible women and men can speak up and press charges against harassers without feeling fear of negative repercussions. He goes on to note that society has nourished the dangerous idea that unbridled male aggression “is prized,” that “boys will be boys,” and that men are not responsible for their actions because “horny men cannot control themselves.” This is all “a lie,” he says. Men can control themselves. Our culture has to stop nurturing hostile masculinity—or the courts will have to do it for us. Is your company reexamining its own thinking and practices more carefully? Let us know what efforts your organization is making to create a healthier workplace.   Photo by Kreg Steppe, CC BY-SA 2.0.  ]]>