Rape and Communication: A rapist in bungler’s clothing

This, the first in what will be a series of posts on rape and communication, is in response to an excerpt from Deborah Cameron’s new book, The Myth of Mars and Venus.

Cameron begins from the premise that many of us believe that misunderstandings between men and women are a widespread and serious problem. She goes on to argue that our concern about inter-gender communication is not justified by evidence. In fact, men and women can communicate perfectly well. And to believe otherwise, Cameron argues, is to perpetuate a dangerous and potentially damaging myth.

Cameron cites the following excerpt from a linguistic research project carried out during a university rape tribunal:

In this extract from the hearing, one of the complainants, MB, has just told the tribunal that the defendant persisted in touching her even after she had repeatedly communicated to him that she did not want to have sex. A tribunal member, GK, then asks her the following question: “And did it occur to you through the persistent behaviour that maybe your signals were not coming across loud and clear, that ‘I’m not getting through what I want and what I don’t want?’ . . . This is the whole thing about getting signals mixed up. We all socialise in one way or the other to read signals and to give signals. In that particular context, were you at all concerned your signals were not being read exactly and did you think, since signals were not being read correctly for you, ‘Should I do something different with my signals?'”

Not only does tribunal member GK couch this scenario in terms of communication (signals), but she also places all of the blame for any miscommunication squarely on the “complainant”. It is her fault that she did not communicate her lack of consent effectively enough to avoid being raped.

Later on in her discussion of this case, Cameron points out that the defendant is never criticized for “not realizing that, by pretending to be asleep, the victim did not want sex”. He says, essentially, that she never said ‘no’.

Disregarding for a moment the tribunal’s blatant sexism and participation in the culture of blaming the victim, this example throws Cameron’s thesis into high relief: Is acquaintance rape just a communication failure gone horribly wrong?

With regard to the above case, I’m with Cameron. There is no way, no how, that this defendant does not know that being asleep or feigning sleep is a signal that a girl doesn’t want sex. However, the “no means yes” case is not dismissed as crazy talk by everyone. More than a few feminist philosphers have published accounts of how such miscommunication comes about and who we should blame for it.

Clearly the way a person communicates her refusal and the way that this refusal is understood are both very important in any analysis of sexual consent. Cameron’s point is that by couching talk of rape in terms of misunderstandings and failed signals, we are dressing the rapist in the trappings of a benign, confused bungler who would be happy to do the right thing if only he understood what his partner wanted. Do feminists really want to leave the door open to this kind of thinking?

17 thoughts on “Rape and Communication: A rapist in bungler’s clothing

  1. This is an interesting line of argument, but I just want to make two points here. First, to defend against a charge of rape, it’s not enough for the defendant to claim that the plaintiff didn’t say no. The defendant needs to show that he had consent, not merely absence of refusal. (This point isn’t original to me, by any means.) So one aspect of the tribunal’s sexism that should be highlighted is that it does not seem to realize this, that it seems to be putting the onus on the plaintiff to make sure her refusal is understood, rather than putting the onus on the defendant to make sure he had consent.

    Second, even if we do regard (some) cases of rape as communication failures, that shouldn’t mean that we have to regard the rapist as a “benign, confused bungler”. The speaker isn’t at fault for all cases of communication failure, nor is the fault equally share between the speaker and the hearer for all such failures. At least in some cases, the fault for a communication failure will lie entirely with the hearer. Even if we say that a given case of rape is a communication failure, the question of who is at fault is a further – and still open – question.

  2. I think there may be an additional problem that pushes these discussions toward “miscommunication.” In many states the law concerning rape requires not just that there is no consent, but that the defendent KNEW there was no consent. I understand that in some states the requirement is even stronger: the defendent must knowingly and intentionally act without consent and against the victims wishes.

    Maybe I’m brainwashed, but even though I always thought that the claim of “misunderstanding” was bonehead excuse, it always seemed plausible and a serious worry. That is, I always thought part of what goes wrong in a “rape culture” is that men (and women for that matter) end up with deeply misguided ideas about sex and sexuality, including confusion about what a willing partner looks like.

  3. Is acquaintance rape just a communication failure gone horribly wrong?

    Well, in an abstract sense, this is true. I’ve spent as much time as any feminist trying to convince people that rape is rape and is damaging in and of itself, not because of any additional physical injuries or violence. The difference between rape and sex, and the difference between (hopefully) positive experience and trauma comes down, obviously, to nothing but consent, and consent is an act of communication.

    The problem isn’t just that rape culture places responsibility for the communication on the woman, eliminating the idea that the interpreter has any role in communication, but also that calling it ‘merely’ a misinterpretation does make it sound trite. It is about communication, and that’s why it’s extremely important, because communication is everything in so many ways. So, first, we do need to get it through people’s heads that they should be disgusted by men who actually want to have sex with someone who is anything but enthusiastically consenting. But at the same time, I’d like for people not to equate ‘failure to communicate’ with ‘understandable and unimportant’.

    (not feeling like I’m articulating well right now, but I wanted to say something before I have to leave for work)

  4. Hi,

    I think it’s right that asserting a communication failure doesn’t automatically mean not blaming rapists. But (a) many people may take it to do so, and since feminism is a practical political movement, this sort of effect is worth considering (the above is one case in point); (b) it will often mean a reduction in blame– it is reasonable to suppose that a rapist is less blameworthy if they think the victim is consenting than if they don’t; (c) it can also mean a different kind of blame– blame for not understanding is different from blame for understanding and not caring. Now, if it’s TRUE that there’s a miscommunication, then it may well be true that blame is reduced or at least altered. But we can still worry about (a)– the practical consequences of saying this. I’m all in favour of asserting truths, but if truths are being widely misunderstood in damaging ways, maybe we need to at least be a little more careful about how we express them. If ‘misunderstanding’ makes everyone think ‘blameless’, perhaps different vocabulary is called for. In the example above, I think 2 points are being made. (1) The misunderstanding claim looks really implausible, and yet people are believing it. (2) The misunderstanding claim is being used to place the blame on the victim rather than the rapist. Both things worth worrying about, I think.

  5. I totally agree with your point about practical reality and how to work within it/adapt to it for the sake of the more important fight. I don’t know that I was giving enough weight to the word “misunderstanding” in your original post, focusing instead on “miscommunication”. I do wonder if, in order to get at a lot of the impact of sexual violence, especially acquaintance assaults, we have to be able to get at this core idea that words are *not* nothing, and that communication matters a whole hell of a lot. Mostly I think rapists need to be told this–what she’s saying, what she’s not saying, whatever she’s expressing non-verbally–is everything. Look for it, listen to it, and act on it. Otherwise, you’re very likely to be a rapist.

    The word ‘misunderstanding’ in this context makes my blood run cold, though, so I’m inclined to agree with you that the vocabulary needs some serious reworking, and I worry that what I *want* to be saying can too easily be coopted to the other side. Misunderstanding sounds so passive on the part of a rapist, like there was nothing he could have done because he just doesn’t speak the language, and I’m not okay with the immediate practical implications of that, either.

  6. Jender,

    Now, if it’s TRUE that there’s a miscommunication, then it may well be true that blame is reduced or at least altered. But we can still worry about (a)– the practical consequences of saying this. I’m all in favour of asserting truths, but if truths are being widely misunderstood in damaging ways, maybe we need to at least be a little more careful about how we express them.

    It doesn’t sound like truths are being widely misunderstood. What’s true is the conditional: IF there is miscommunication, THEN blame is mitigated or abrogated. Instead, it sounds like people are just lying or being willfully obtuse about the facts of the case.

    In any particular case, someone might lie and say that the antecedent of the conditional was satisfied. But then let’s just call it for what it is: a lie. Or someone might obtusely misconstrue a description of what occurred, and stupidly conclude that the antecedent was satisfied (or worse, callously blame the victim). But then let’s just call if for what it is: dangerous stupidity. (I think you might have been making this point, or a closely related one, at the end of your comment, so perhaps we’re on the same page.)

    Purtek,

    The word ‘misunderstanding’ in this context makes my blood run cold, though, so I’m inclined to agree with you that the vocabulary needs some serious reworking, and I worry that what I *want* to be saying can too easily be coopted to the other side.</ul

    I don’t think it does anyone any good to try to invent new vocabulary or dance around what seem to be fairly obvious truths about the moral implications of miscommunication and misunderstanding. That’s likely to just confuse people or even incite antagonism. Why not just use the vocabulary we have, and simply point out when someone is lying or being stupid?

  7. Why not just use the vocabulary we have, and simply point out when someone is lying or being stupid?

    Well, part of my point in the comment you quote was admitting that I was wrong in focusing on what I think is philosophically (for lack of a better word) true–which is that the idea of ‘miscommunication’ is extremely important when we’re talking about many or most sexual assaults–rather than on what is practically effective. So I think your comment here is essentially reiterating what I was trying to get at. That said, I don’t know that it’s ever “simple” to just point out when someone is lying or being stupid, nor is it a good way to avoid antagonism and confusion.

  8. Hi,new person here. I have to say this reminds me of the marriage counselling I went through, how I balked instinctivly at the communication therapy applied. My ex had shoved me down at a gathering of friends,their children present, for talking to another man. Apparent NON-issue as far as the ‘counselor’ was concerned. Just a symptom of our poor communication. And I was advised to ‘not expect G to be a mind-reader’, to be up front and to ask him to repeat or confirm what he’d thought I’d said. To a guy who was capable of being violent towards me?
    My point being, it seems this miscommunication idea is being replicated everywhere there are ‘problems’ between men and women. It seems like it’s just an old thing to throw out to create an illusion that this is just about his and my social skill deficits. not about anything beyond OUR problems, and makes rape or physical force by men a mutual burden. Dr. Phil phrases it “we teach people to treat us the way they do”, a philosopy always directed to the wife. Communication focus is not useless, but it has to be given to the man. I just don’t know HOW a raped woman’s communication skills are deficient. Personal anecdote- a guy once said after penetrating me anally, “Man, why didn’t you tell me before that you didn’t like anal sex”. Oh. Sorry. I thought the “that hurts, get off get out” was pretty clear.

  9. amberbug–I just want to apologize if my poor phrasing above gave the impression that I thought it was in any way a mutual burden. I don’t, and I think being told that stuff by a Dr Phil wannabe is part of the added victimization that happens only with male violence against women.

    I just refused to speak about rape when I knew I hadn’t said no, and all I had heard was “no means no”. I remember realizing that this slogan was totally inadequate, that we really had to go all out on the “only yes means yes” teaching of communication around consent–and I mean, to men, though at the same time, finally realizing that I had communicated lack of consent whether I used the word “no” or not was a big step for me, and has been for many other rape survivors I know of. So the reevaluating and refocusing on different types of communication has its relevance to recovery, as well.

    I am genuinely afraid that if we aren’t allowed to talk about communication at all, we won’t have the framework to discuss a rape that involved little to no physical force. The vocabulary we have is limited, and much of it has been coopted or has additional implications that can too easily be part of the “it’s the woman’s fault” echo. But we have to have *something*.

  10. I’m in total agreement that the “no means no” fell short of being practical male instruction-it was a line in the sand,taken maybe from the physical force model, and the narrow context of a pushy drunk or date? Not a straw I could grasp at either, in my experiences. So I get what you were saying about the “no” rule, which will stand in the collective mind unless addressed. I’d make the expectations “high” for men, including the woman’s non-verbal communication taking a higher priority than, and even trumping a verbal ‘yes’; the context, if he knew her well (a husband, friend, boyfriend is very familiar w/ her “communication style,making it much less likely a misunderstanding could be the case.
    It’s so hard to think about this without thinking about the cases of unconscious women raped and a guy winning on the miscommunication defense, didn’t understand consent, I guess. I mean, how does one misinterpret “I don’t want to?” instead of “no” or “stop”, or someone turning their head away or freezing or crying during “sex” unless they are severely deficient in communication? It is bizzare. It’s common. We need to see it that way.
    Also interesting, hopefully relevant-
    From Wikipedia:
    “Within evolutionary biology, signalling theory refers to a body of theoretical work examining communication between individuals. The central question is when animals with conflicting interests should be expected to communicate “honestly”. The topic is strongly influenced by game theoretical thinking.”
    Yeah, game theory. Women invented that. One of the games,which are often ethical questions put into matrix form is “The Battle of the Sexes” a “two player coordination game” used in game theory. Maybe a stretch, but really, I think communication is set up in some conceptually suspect ways right at it’s heart.
    It is interesting to grapple with-IN the communication framework. But difficult.

  11. Purtek,

    I don’t know that it’s ever “simple” to just point out when someone is lying or being stupid, nor is it a good way to avoid antagonism and confusion.

    It sure seemed pretty simple and obvious in the case of tribunal member GK, discussed in the original post. It also seems pretty simple and obvious when some jerk says that he thought that ‘no’ meant ‘yes’, or whatever.

    You’re right that pointing out stupidity or mendacity also risks antagonism. (I must confess, though I can’t see how it’d tend to confuse anyone!) However, I don’t think it’s the same kind of antagonism.

    If you deny the moral significance of miscommunication, people are apt to think you are inept and consequently ignore you (why bother discussing matters with someone who’s oblivious to obvious facts?). If you call someone a liar for saying, “I thought ‘no’ meant ‘yes'” or whatever, then people might think you’re rude or impertinent (which, BTW, wouldn’t bother me, given what was at stake), or they might pretend to disagree with you for whatever reason, but they aren’t going to dismiss you as inept or incompetent.

  12. Okay, I’ve been having serious clarity issues: I have in no way been denying the moral significance of miscommunication. I do not believe that “I didn’t understand her” should *ever* constitute a defense, legal or social, against a rape accusation. What I think is that when we’re talking about sexual violence as a broad social issue, we need to be able to talk about training men (especially young men) on communication issues, including what consent is and is not, respecting the verbal and non-verbal signals a potential partner is inevitably conveying, and the importance of simply *paying attention* to one’s partner.

    After the fact “I didn’t get it” is not okay.

    You’re right that in the case of the example given, it’s obvious that it’s victim-blaming. Other examples are far less clear cut, and require some explanation. It’s also relatively easy, in certain contexts, to call this out, but in others, it’s far from it. I’m assuming from your username that you’re male, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but if you are, then you may be missing that one of the reasons it’s not “simple” is that I feel like the risk is not limited to being thought “rude or impertinent”. I’m glad that wouldn’t bother you, and I’m glad a few guys are willing to take the risk. The alternative I’m talking about is not being thought inept or incompetent, it’s speaking out and feeling terrified, remembering past experiences of violence and being hyper aware of my vulnerability to rape.

  13. Purtek,

    Thanks for putting things that way. I think I understand better now. I agree that educating males on this is absolutely crucial.

    P.S. You’ve got me pegged: I’m male.

  14. we need to be able to talk about training men (especially young men) on communication issues, including what consent is and is not, respecting the verbal and non-verbal signals a potential partner is inevitably conveying, and the importance of simply *paying attention* to one’s partner.

    Isn’t this simply shoring up the “rapist as bungler” idea? I thought the point of the main post is that this idea that men cannot recognize or understand non-consent is bogus. It is not that they don’t understand, but that they pretend not to understand, relying on bogus stereotypes about communication differences between men and women.

  15. My husband sexually assaulted me in my sleep on four occasions and also groped me against my wishes (and complaints) on many occasions where I was awake. When I told a therapist, she said it was miscommunication. Apparently, in my sleep, I miscommunicated that I was not consenting to sex. Apparently waking up, hitting him, saying no and pushing him away was not enough to suggest that this was unacceptable – he did it again. Apparently, when I said that consent was paramount on the third date, I must have not made that information sink in either. Because, you see, it was miscommunication.

    Thank God I found another therapist after six months of suppressing my trauma.

  16. I think the assumption that the abuser is lying or is stupid is generally correct, but what about the case where lack of consent truly is not discerned by the abuser, such as those with personality disorders such as aspergers, Down’s syndrome, somnambulism, etc. Even PTSD, for that matter (and many abusers have histories of CSA).

    Surely painting a broad stroke of “lying and/or stupid” ignores mitigating factors such as these, which must occur a non-zero percent of the time.

    I’m not suggesting that the crime is any less, or that this would provide an excuse. Far from it. But the abuser must be capable of discerning consent or lack thereof, no?

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