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