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.

6 thoughts on “Sexual refusals and misunderstandings

  1. I think a weakness in Cameron’s argument (and it would be a weakness without the study, even if her overall view turns out to be right, as it still might) is in the last paragraph:

    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.

    The key words here are ‘consistent’ and ‘contrasts’; inviting behavior is normally very consistent, and acceptance is very easy and straightforward. But neither of these can be taken for granted in a sexual context: sexual behavior is rather diverse, and the alternative response is not always easy and straightforward (many, and possibly most, people have not developed the habits that make it easy to say something as straightforward as “Yes, I’d love to” to what seems to be a sexual offer). Even if there is no difference in male and female perception of offer and refusal (and one study alone, it should be remembered, is often not enough), it would still be essential to Cameron’s argument to argue that sexual behavior is still consistent enough, and the contrast between refusal and acceptance sharp enough, as to be analogous to refusing or accepting an invitation for drinks.

    I think that sometimes the communication failure view is misrepresented as saying something like “Really, most rape is a mere failure of communication,” as if it were the view that it were all just a silly misunderstanding, when it actually is more like “Rape tends to be due to a failure of communication arising from a culpable disposition, and systemic factors that facilitate the spread of this culpable disposition can be identified.”

  2. “Simulation theory,” which is one account of how we understand others, has us drawing heavily on how we would (or do) feel in the situation. That seems to support Motley’s view.

  3. Hmmm. I would have liked to have seen some of the numbers on Motley’s study (for example, how close were the men’s responses to what they thought women meant by these things and what they would mean if they said such things). There are issues of tone and mode of expression generally when these things are said in person (Cameron mentions the hesitation that usually accompanies some sort of refusal).

    Admittedly, asking for interpretations of recent occasions when women said such things may help with that issue, but there could be reasons people would happen to bring one rather than another kind of situation to mind in answering the questions, so it strikes me as falling well short of being sufficient to overcome that problem.

  4. 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.

    Maybe MacKinnon never argued explicitly that pornography makes a `potentially sexual’ situation one in which normal conversational conventions (eg, a response of `no’ means a refusal) no longer apply. But that seems to be at least a reason reading of her work on this point. Assuming Langton et al. take a line that’s similar, Cameron’s response seems to be a giant non sequitur. A make-out session is a very different context from a quick conversation in the hall of the philosophy department.

    And I can still turn down the invitation to drinks in the hallway by saying `no’, can’t I? That it’s a rude response doesn’t change that it’s refusal of the invitation. Perhaps this isn’t the point Cameron’s trying to make, though. (It’s summer vacation, and I hereby exercise the right to not read anything I don’t feel like reading during summer vacation.)

    The authors take the study to show that men need sexual communication training.

    Broadsheet covered this a few weeks ago. I scanned the first 50ish comments (currently there are more than 330), and an overwhelming number drew the opposite conclusion: that women are responsible here, and need to be more direct, and so are the ones who need sexual communication training.

    Personally, I’m a fan of single-gender and mixed-gender discussions about sexual communication and other date rape-related issues, for both young women and young men.

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

    Is it? The faulty introspection is just the assumption that a woman would behave like a man in a `similar’ circumstance. Which is straightforward androcentrism.

  5. Brandon– you’re right that there are lots of sensible reasons to suppose that sexual communication will be different from other communication. Aaron– you’re right that the study doesn’t seem to look at all at issues of tone and non-verbal communication. Noumena– Here’s why I think the explanation differs. (1) The explanation in the feminist anti-porn lit is that porn *makes* men understand women’s intended refusals as consent. As JJ says, the explanation proposed in the study seems like one invoking general simulation tendencies, so it’s not clear where porn gets in. (2) Also, the feminist anti-porn lit claims that porn makes men see women as lesser beings, and so *unlike* them. That seems at odds with the thought that men are understanding women as *like* them, and treating women as they would like to be treated themselves.

  6. Penny drops?

    There may be two reasons to question the later research:

    1. It abstracts the comments from any realistic context. “Look, we can be friends” might seem very difference according to whether someone is just sitting down or looking for her purse and preparing to leave. Drawing solely on one’s own desires and experiences may increase as contextual cues decrease.

    2. The research as reported doesn’t draw on any difference in the stages of the encounter. Something merely friendly might seems much more ‘willing to continue’ early in an encounter than later when pressures for sex is being exerted.

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