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

Who Becomes a Sexual Harasser?

There is something in the news almost every day about sexual harassment and sexual assault. These subjects have also come up in every social gathering I’ve been part of in recent weeks, whether the groups are all women or mixed gender groups of friends and colleagues. It is easy to grasp how powerful men like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News; Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer; and Bill Cosby, the entertainer, could get away with harassing and assaulting young women for decades by paying them millions of dollars to keep silent when they complained. It is also easy to understand the power that these men wielded over the careers of young women, power that may have fed a narcissistic predatory tendency (remember the Access Hollywood tape?). What is not as easy to understand is how some people can become sexual harassers or abusers when they are not rich and famous. How does this behavior begin and develop? First, let’s review the statistics reflecting how widespread this problem is. It is not just a few high-profile people (mostly men, but a few women) who are sexually harassing and assaulting others. Charles Blow of the New York Times recently reported these current statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

  • One in five women will be raped at some point in their lives.
  • One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college.
  • Ninety-one percent of the victims of rape and sexual assault in the United States are female.
  • Eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work.
  • Rape is the most underreported crime; 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
  • More than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
  • The prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent.
Blow also stated that a 2015 Cosmopolitan magazine survey of more than 2,234 female employees between eighteen and thirty-four found that roughly one in three said they had been sexually harassed at work. Seventy-one percent never reported the harassment, and of the 29 percent who did report it, only 15 percent felt the report was handled fairly. Who becomes a sexual harasser or predator? David Brooks of the New York Times offers a helpful framework, using the metaphor of “rooms,” for explaining how this evolution can occur.
  • Room #1: The room of love. Brooks explains that most men, when they are children, are raised to think about sex as “something special you do with the person you love.”
  • Room #2: The room of the prospector. Brooks explains that in adolescence “a strange thing happens,” and the room of love “drops from common culture” in societal messages about how boys should behave. Boys learn that “sex is a gold nugget” and that they should prospect for gold. If you are a straight man, then you’ll be on the prowl for women who can give you what you want—sex for pleasure. Hunting for sex at college parties or clubs becomes a transaction for which you can rack up conquests and victories. Too often, part of the hunt involves getting a young woman to drink a lot of alcohol to make her easier prey for sexual conquest and to be able to blame her later for being drunk. The sense of entitlement to sexual pleasure that young men learn in this process can stay with them after college when they move on to the workplace.
  • Room #3: The room of the predator. Brooks notes that a small percentage of men cross over from the prospector to the predator room and mix the pleasures of sex with the pleasures of power. Brooks goes on to state that the most extreme form of sexual harassment is “not just sex and it’s not just power; it’s a wicked mixture of the two. Harassers possess what psychologists call hostile masculinity; they apparently get pleasure from punishing the women who arouse them.” They take pleasure in frightening, intimidating, and overpowering women with their sexual behavior.
Brooks notes that predators do seem to start young, “often beginning their predatory behavior in college.” For this reason, the recent rollback of Obama-era guidelines by Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, for how colleges should be survivor-centered and hold predators accountable is a step backward. Campus sexual violence researchers Nicole Bedera and Miriam Gleckman-Krut in the New York Times report that the changes by DeVos will discourage survivors from coming forward and will ensure that more prospectors evolve into predators. The impact of sexual harassment and assault can be severe, including depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. At the very least, it is a civil rights violation. Our institutions must stop enabling and protecting prospectors and perpetrators. We need to embrace and teach a definition of masculinity that includes accountability for respectful behavior toward girls and women.   Photo by J Stimp, CC BY 2.0.  ]]>

Why Is Violence Against Women So Widespread? Where Is the Outrage?

recent article in the New York Times reported these statistics:

  • 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical violence.
  • In the United States, 83 percent of girls aged twelve to sixteen said they experienced some form of sexual harassment in school.
  • In the European Union, only 14 percent of women reported their most serious episode of domestic violence to the police because these reports are not taken seriously.
Violence against women has reached epidemic proportions and is present in every single country around the world. Sisonke Msimang, in her article “The Backlash Against African Women,” suggested that the surge in violence against women can be understood as a backlash against the progress that women have made in recent years. She contended that, especially in Africa, “it has taken some time for the conservative backlash to develop into a coherent and organized force” joined by churches, tribal leaders, and politicians.

Progress for Women and Girls

If we see the epidemic of violence as a backlash against women’s advances, what are these advances? Somini Sangupta of the New York Times reported that positive changes have occurred in the global context over the past twenty years, as a result of pressure put on world governments by the participants at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women:
  • As many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary school.
  • Maternal mortality has fallen by half.
  • Women are more likely to be in the labor force, although a significant gender pay gap persists.
  • The share of women serving in legislatures has nearly doubled, though women still account for only one in five legislators.
  • More countries have passed laws protecting the rights of women, though the laws do not mean anything if police, judges, and medical personnel do not take violence against women seriously.
Clearly, progress has been made, but there is still more work to do.

What We Can Do to Stop Violence Against Women

To start with, we have to find our outrage about worldwide violence against women before we can find the energy and inspiration to take action locally. Msimang reported that the only effective deterrent to a wave of new laws proposed in South Africa to limit the rights of women has been a “loud and organized women’s movement.” In India, large numbers of people, women and men, turned out to demonstrate against the lax laws and sexist attitudes that encourage rape and harassment of women, and, consequently, new legislation has been passed. In addition, a public debate has begun about the treatment of women in India. In the United States, media attention and demonstrations have put the spotlight on campus rape and have embarrassed some high-profile universities into changing the policies and practices that allowed them to turn a blind eye to rape on campus in the past. Where’s your outrage? What can you do in your community to help ensure that girls and women are not harassed or assaulted? Do you know the statistics on sexual assault in your community and local schools? Do you know the statistics on domestic violence in your community? Do you know the status of local shelters for victims of domestic violence? What can you do to educate your neighbors and organize local support for schools and neighborhoods to prevent sexual violence? Thinking globally and being informed is essential, but we can all find a way to act locally to stop violence against women.]]>