Consent is a necessary part of a happy, healthy sexual encounter. It doesn't seem like it should be controversial idea — both people have to want to be participants — but misunderstandings around consent can lead to sexual violence. And in a worrying but enlightening look at the sexual victimization of women, a new study found that far too many men confuse sexual interest with consent.
This new research from Binghamton University shows that consent may not be defined clearly enough in education, because men are still confusing sexual interest with consent. In the study, 145 heterosexual men in college were given a series of hypothetical sexual scenarios to evaluate. Most of the men seemed to conflate sexual interest with consent. Not some of the men — most of the men confused the two. The study also found that differences in the hypothetical situations seemed to change more the outcome more than the actual personalities of the men involved. While men's individual personalities may play a role, it was the scenario that seemed to determine how the men would respond.
"We found that the way in which the woman communicated her sexual intentions, that is verbal refusal versus passive responding, had the largest effect of men's perceptions," Binghamton University Associate Professor of Psychology Richard Mattson said in a press release. "However, there was also evidence of a precedence effect." In other words, if someone had sex with a person before, they were more likely to assume consent in another encounter — and, in some cases, this was given more weight than the direct denial of the woman in the scenario. Which is not OK. You can withdraw consent at any time in a sexual encounter — and having had sex with someone before in no way gives consent for a future encounter.
"Some men were earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given, but were nevertheless relying on questionable sexual scripts to disambiguate the situation."
The influence of rape myths — like the idea that women say "No" when they meant "Yes" — and hyper-masculinity also had an impact. This impact was stronger on situations when the woman's verbal communications were more ambiguous.
"However, our findings also suggest that some men were earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given, but were nevertheless relying on questionable sexual scripts to disambiguate the situation," said Mattson. These "questionable sexual scripts" are hugely problematic. In fact, they are downright toxic. But this research shows how deeply embedded they are into our culture. If men aren't sure about how to read a situation — which is already worrying, as consent should involve a clear, unambiguous "yes" — the logic and deduction they use can be drenched in rape culture.
The fact that men are willing to assume consent out of an ambiguous situation is also a huge concern — and we can't ignore that many of the men in this study made the choice to ignore the lack of clear consent in their deductions. How is that a thing? It's so important to educate and address the myths around consent and rape culture or else misinformation will continue to influence real world behavior — and that can lead to sexual assault.
"Learning about consent at a young age is essential not only to help prevent sexual assault and rape, but also to ensure that the sexual encounters young people have in the future are wanted and safe," Nicole Cushman, Executive Director at sex ed site, Answer, tells Bustle. "Early conversations about consent can help teens decide what they want and don't want in romantic relationships, learn the skills to communicate their boundaries, and help them to respect the boundaries of others."
This is such important work — and there's more to be done. Luckily, the report states that graduate student Allison McKinnon and undergraduate research assistant Gonzalo Quinones are developing an extension of this project that will include a wider range of variables that might be influencing perceptions when it comes to consent. It's important to learn as much as we can in order to combat the huge amount of sexual violence that women suffer. And being able to identify and unpack the sexist, dangerous myths that inform how we understand consent is a huge first step.