Dec. 05-- Maybe a man believes a woman wants to have sex. But does that mean she wants to have sex with him?
This is a question at the heart of recent research gauging how college men consider sexual consent. The study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence examined what men think implies consent and in which scenarios they felt women expressed a desire to have sex.
Rush University professor and co-author Ashton Lofgreen said she wanted to survey college men after realizing much research focused on victims' actions.
"I wanted to shift that focus into, how are men construing sexual consent and how can we use that understanding to improve education and prevent sexual assault?" she said.
She and her co-authors surveyed 145 heterosexual men attending southeastern U.S. universities. They presented each with six scenarios followed by questions about the described encounters.
One scenario, for example, described an evening with a woman named Amy, who wore a short skirt and a blouse showing cleavage. The scenario had Amy and the man going back to the man's place and kissing. Then, after a few minutes of making out, the man reaches under Amy's shirt, and she responds to that unwanted action by saying, "Let's not do this right now."
The questions that followed the scenarios included asking whether the women signaled a willingness to continue the physical encounter and whether they communicated a willingness for sex.
Lofgreen was interested to see whether nonverbal cues and context-knowing someone's past sexual history, revealing clothing-had an impact on a man's understanding of consent.
She found men often conflated their perception of a woman's sexual desire with her consent for intimacy with them personally.
"If people seem like they want to have sex, they're more likely to communicate willingness to do that, but they are separate constructs," said Lofgreen, an assistant professor and clinical psychologist at Rush's Road Home Program for military veterans.
The research is limited by its sample size, which was homogenous in age, ethnicity and socioeconomic level. Also, because the scenarios had specific details, it is impossible to know what a man might infer or understand from a situation he's in personally.
Something that stuck out to Lofgreen was that men who were more likely to think that women enjoy being overpowered or men should be aggressive were also more likely to think the women in the scenarios wanted to have sex.
Another key finding was that men might understand passivity to be a positive response.
"We found that, particularly in passive conditions, men with a higher rate of masculinity tended to view those situations as more consensual," she said.
She pointed out, "Consent is a message of yes versus an absence of no."
People with trauma histories, for example, are more likely to freeze in a sexual situation. Or someone who feels uncomfortable or doesn't want to hurt someone's feelings might respond passively but have no desire to have sex.
At a time when high-profile men are apologizing amid sexual misconduct allegations, the research indicates, she said, that people others might not expect to cross boundaries might feel justified to in certain scenarios.
"We tend to think of a rapist as a social deviant and who's going to jump out of the bushes," she said.
But, she said, it wasn't personality traits that influenced the outcomes. It was a combination of attitudes about sex and the situation itself.
This indicates, she said, that people others might not expect "are capable of sexually assaulting someone if they're taking certain attitudes into the situation, if they're in a situation where they feel justified in doing so."
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