Sexual refusals and misunderstandings

Feminist philosophers (e.g. Langton, Hornsby, Maitra, McGowan), drawing on Catharine MacKinnon, have argued that pornography brings about illocutionary silencing of women– specifically, they are unable to carry out the illocutionary act of refusing sex because porn has made it impossible for (at least some) men to understand that they are refusing. And the idea that communication failures might be implicated in some rapes– with men failing to understand that women are saying ‘no’– has widespread currency. But it’s nonetheless a controversial one.

Deborah Cameron has recently argued that the idea is preposterous– men have no trouble understanding refusals, even indirect ones, in normal speech contexts, simply because we all use indirect refusals so often.

Research on conversational patterns shows that in everyday contexts, refusing is never done by “just saying no”. Most refusals do not even contain the word “No”. Yet, in non-sexual situations, no one seems to have trouble understanding them.

If this sounds counter-intuitive, let us consider a concrete example. Suppose a colleague says to me casually as I pass her in the corridor: “A few of us are going to the pub after work, do you want to come?” This is an invitation, which calls for me to respond with either an acceptance or a refusal. If I am going to accept, I can simply say “Yes, I’d love to” or “Sure, see you there.” If I am going to refuse, by contrast, I am unlikely to communicate that by just saying “No, I can’t” (let alone “No, I don’t want to”).

Why the difference? Because refusing an invitation – even one that is much less sensitive than a sexual proposal – is a more delicate matter than accepting one. The act of inviting someone implies that you hope they will say yes: if they say no, there is a risk that you will be offended, upset, or just disappointed. To show that they are aware of this, and do not want you to feel bad, people generally design refusals to convey reluctance and regret.

Because this pattern is so consistent, and because it contrasts with the pattern for the alternative response, acceptance, refusals are immediately recognisable as such. In fact, the evidence suggests that people can tell a refusal is coming as soon as they register the initial hesitation. And when I say “people”, I mean people of both sexes. No one has found any difference between men’s and women’s use of the system I have just described.

For more on Cameron, see Edna’s post here.

Now there’s a study out (via The F-Word) that claims to lend some support to the view Cameron disputes.*

“When she says ‘It’s getting late,’ he may hear ‘So let’s skip the preliminaries,'” Motley says. “The problem is that he is interpreting what she said by trying to imagine what he would mean — and the only reason he can imagine saying ‘It’s getting late’ while making out is to mean ‘Let’s speed things up.'”
Motley calls it the “introspection” explanation: “Males’ inferred meanings for women’s indirect sexual resistance messages are more similar to the meanings males would have intended by those same messages than to the meanings women intend.”

The study quizzed some male university students about what how they would interpret a message like “Let’s be friends”; and other male students about what they themselves would mean if they said that. It also asked women students what they’d be likely to mean. It found that men’s interpretations often seemed to align with what men would mean, which differed from what women would mean.

they were as apt to interpret “Let’s be friends” to mean “keep going” as to mean “stop.” And few of them would mean “stop” if they were to deliver any of the indirect messages themselves

This is very surprising, in light of the research cited by Cameron, and the question of why sexual refusals should be so different from other refusals– if they are– merits study. It also merits action. The authors take the study to show that men need sexual communication training. And I agree. I’ve got no problems at all with sexual communication training– indeed, I think it’s a vital part of the sex education that all kids should be given. I do worry, though, that studies like this may help men to evade rape charges in some places, depending on the definitions in use. Another reason we need rape to be clearly defined as sex in the absence of consent, rather than in the presence of refusal. If “let’s be friends” isn’t accompanied by “but let’s have sex anyway”, there should be no question that any ensuing sex is rape– no matter how “let’s be friends” is understood. (For an excellent, and pissed-off, discussion of these issues, check out Cara’s post here.)

*Note, though, that the cause suggested for the misunderstanding (“faulty introspection”) is very different from that considered in the feminist philosophy literature.