Thursday, March 25, 2010

Selective Misunderstandings About Sexual Consent

Amanda at The Sexist, in a post titled Why Rape Isn't One Big Understanding, highlights findings from round table interviews with college age men in Australia. The researchers looked at the language these men used when talking about sexual understanding and when talking about understanding rape and compared their language choices to popular and conflicting models used to explain how rape happens.

They were first asked about how they communicate their refusal of unwanted sex and then asked about how they understand when a woman was refusing unwanted sex.

In both these scenarios the men had no trouble interpreting the whole spectrum of how we as humans communicate. They highlighted indirect verbal communication and subtle changes in body language. They even expressed understanding that people do change their minds away from wanting sex so that being alone was not a point after which they were unable to perceive a lack of consent.

None of these men would use the word "no" to communicate their decision not to have sex and none of them stated that they needed the word "no" to understand that a woman was communicating a refusal for sex. They understood women's body language, indirect statements and the change in how women spoke when they were refusing sex. There was no mention of having peers who couldn't understand these indicators.

But when the word rape was introduced the men's attitudes and language changed.

From the report, “If a girl doesn’t say ‘no’: Young men, rape, and insufficient knowledge” (PDF):
Kyle: Um I just. I just had a thought when does no mean no when does yes mean yes. I'm just wondering how this type of information ties into rape and stuff like that with common defences of stuff like that.
Moderator: Yeah.
Kyle: I'm wondering in those situations what is the thinking of the perpetrator in terms of these signals they're interpreting that are coming their way, you know.
Moderator: Yep.
Jason: If you don't give a verbal 'no' then you're up shit creek.
This statement from Jason is one that the paper's authors specifically focus on both for it's support of the idea that nothing short of 'no' can be expected to be understood and the causal certainty of what happens when "you don't give a verbal 'no.'

Since several of the men admitted that they themselves could not directly say 'no' to sex they and all boys and men who cannot use this word to decline sex live full time up shit creek.

A man named Cam follows up on this shit creek statement by undermining the significance of the word "no" as a way to avoid shit creek. He said that, "the perpetrator could actually be the victim ...." This is positioned as a disagreement with Jason by the paper's authors but I read it more like:

If you don't give a verbal 'no' you are up shit creek but you might be a perpetrator who is going 'no' and you're basically throwing yourself on him and later go "well I said 'no.''
What these men are saying in relation to rape is -- when combined -- completely nonsensical. Premise 1 is that men have so much trouble telling the difference between consent and non-consent that they can only understand 1 word as equaling non-consent. Premise 2 is that men have no trouble telling the difference between consent and non-consent even when words are involved which indicate something other than their most obvious meaning.

I might have agreed with the authors that Cam and Jason were disagreeing if I hadn't repeatedly encountered blog and web comments where men made both of these arguments.

If this contradiction is highlighted, men who repeat these types of statements are likely to blame the slogan "no mean no" for their confusion. However, since these men had no trouble understanding the broader meaning of other statements and how the same words can have meaning beyond the most literal interpretation they can understand that anti-rape slogan as:
"Expressing non-consent means there is no consent."
This flipping back and forth between men being able to understand human communication and not being able to understand it is important. Usually people will claim that it is the complexity of sexual interactions which regularly creates confusion for men related to rape, but these round tables show that this is not true.
Moderator: . . . do you think it’s necessary for a women to say ‘no’ clearly and effectively for her to be understood as not wanting to have sex or are there other ways of knowing that she doesn’t want to?

[other responses]

Jason: There’s plenty of opportunities for all women to stop it, assuming the boy’s being honourable and stuff but um they can not sort of get into that sort of situation the flirty situation in the first place or they can not go home with you an’ they can not go into the bedroom an’ they can once you’re there they can sort of like go ‘no you’re not allowed to take my clothes off’ and they can—I think it’s what’s that 30 second rule they had in America where the guy was having sex with her, and she goes ‘na this is a bad idea,’ says ‘no,’ he finishes, and she goes ‘oh that was rape’ and sort of like—so there’s plenty of opportunities for a girl to avoid the situation, and um, so, but if a girl looks you in the eye and says ‘no’ then that’s sort of the end of it.
I believe the case Jason is referring to is Maryland vs. Maouloud Baby since this case was big news in forums where rape was discussed and was summarized in this way by men who declared Baby to be innocent. The undisputed facts of this case as documented in the court records do not fit within what Jason would describe as the boy's being honorable and stuff.

The first appeal went in favor of Baby partly on the judgment that rape was only about non-consent at penetration and that continuing after consent was revoked was not rape. This was considered relevant because when the jury had a question related to this issue and the judge referred them to the criminal statute rather than giving them a direct answer.

The distortions between this description given by Jason and the reality of the case are appalling but they are also informative when looking at how these men have learned to think about the complexities of evaluating whether what was reported as rape really was a rape.

Here's Jason's benign description of what happened:
"...the guy was having sex with her, and she goes ‘na this is a bad idea,’ says ‘no,’ he finishes, and she goes ‘oh that was rape ..."
Here are the details as documented in the MD court records:

Baby and his friend (who pleaded guilty to 2nd degree rape) began as a team sexually assaulting the woman in the backseat of her car, after Baby got out of the car his friend raped her and when his friend was done, Baby returned to the car and the woman who had just been raped.
Appellant told [victim] that it was his turn ...

Q. [ASSISTANT STATE'S ATTORNEY]: And what else did he say?
A. He, after that we sat there for a couple seconds and he was like so are you going to let me hit it and I didn't really say anything and he was like I don’t want to rape you.
The defense claimed that she responded to this statement by giving legal consent when she negotiated a promise from Baby that he would stop when she told him to.

Q: Did you feel like you had a choice?

A: Not really. I don't know. Something just clicked off and I just did whatever they said.

While Baby was trying to penetrate a woman his friend had just raped she told him to stop and was pushing to get him off her. Her words and efforts were ignored as Baby continued. In less than 30 seconds Baby stopped and got off her. The limited time of penetration is the only part of this case which fits Jason's description.

The claim that this woman legally consented to Baby and the time of penetration are what had many people crying injustice. How dare he be found guilty of rape for an alleged crime which lasted just a few seconds and which didn't even start until after sex had begun?

The Maryland high court overturned the lower court's ruling which didn't recognize a person's legal right to withdraw sexual consent, but it did uphold the appeal because of technical issues such as jury instructions. As far as I can tell Baby has not yet faced a retrial.

In this case misunderstanding among those present was never an issue and neither was fickleness on the part of the woman but both of these are presumed by Jason. If Jason is using this bad data, who knows what other bad data he or his peers are using to process issues related to rape.

There is an important concept I learned in my first computer science class, garbage in, garbage out. What we were taught was that the perfect processing system would always give bad results if what was being input was inaccurate or the wrong data.

A model of understanding rape will not work to give true understanding if it is based on bad data. One huge piece of bad data is the minimization of the impact of rape if the rapist isn't some stereotypical villain or if the rapist rationalizes that the victim hasn't met a sufficiently high standard of communicating non-consent.

Another is when people describe a non-sexual action as sexual consent such as getting drunk and passing out, especially when they combine this with the too common belief that if something might happen or has ever happened when the other person is willing then we must treat that action as if it is always legal consent. At the extreme this has been nothing more than a woman agreeing to be alone with a man. If there are strong indicators that the woman was in no way willing, this belief can result in clear communication being labeled as sending a mixed message.

If misunderstanding has a role in the decision of someone to commit rape that misunderstanding isn't one of interpersonal communication, but a misunderstanding of what is and is not acceptable and legal behavior. People who tell themselves as they are committing rape, "It isn't rape because ..."are bringing their misunderstanding with them.

If people interested in preventing rape don't understand this and decide that the solution to this problem is to teach people who aren't consenting to be better communicators they are trying to fix the wrong problem.

When I've highlighted and challenged bad data presented as fact I often get the response that I want to make consensual sex illegal. Since they cling to their bad data the only explanation they can find for my position is that I'm some irrational, radical, sex-hating, man-hating woman.

When evaluating talk about how rapes are commonly caused by interpersonal misunderstandings and not by choices and belief systems of the rapist we need to look at where supporting data for this premise comes from and how much of that supporting data doesn't hold up under critical analysis.

H/T: Yes Means Yes


Bookmark and Share
posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:59 AM   0 comments links to this post


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home