Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer

Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
c. 1618
Oil on canvas
88 x 82 7/8 in (224 x 210.5 cm)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Very interesting post at Yes means Yes on communication patterns and how one says ‘no’, applied in regards to sexual violence. A paper by Kitzinger and Frith (1999) uses very fine-combed conversation analysis to discover that

– in English, saying ‘no’ is usually done indirectly: through use of pauses, aahs and ums, palliatives such as appreciation, and explanation. In other words, a typical refusal of an offer sounds like this: ‘Thank you, I would love to, but… uhm… I have to work all day tomorrow, so… yeah… I might not be able to.’ This is how a rejection normally sounds like, a rejection of any offer. In English, a direct ‘no’ is understood as a rude and aggressive communication tactic.
– in English, such rejections are clearly understood by both men and women; neither had any trouble hearing the implicit rejection, however politely expressed, and regardless of the fact that they did not include the word ‘no’.

The authors then tie this into a discussion on how young women refuse sexual offers. The pattern repeats: women are unwilling to ‘just say no’, which is simply congruent with their unwillingness to ‘just say no’ in any other situation. They identify that explicit refusal is likely to make the boy unhappy, offended and potentially aggressive; however, the authors do state that the girls’ circumvent refusals absolutely conform to normal conversation tactics, used and understood in other contexts. The problem with the exhortation to ‘just say no’, they conclude, is that normal English patterns of speech preclude ‘just saying no’ in most non-confrontational situations.

Kitzinger and Frith conclude:

Drawing on the conversation analytic literature, and on our own data, we claim that both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, and we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.

What’s more interesting, while Kitzinger and Frith (1999) find boys unwilling to take this no, however explicit, for an answer, another group of researchers, O’Byrne, Hansen & Rapley (2008), find young men perfectly capable of formulating similarly circumvent kinds of ‘no’ themselves, in order to avoid sex:

In a discussion of how they themselves would refuse unwanted sex (Extract 1) it is apparent that the participants are well aware that— despite the emphasis placed on it by the majority of ‘rape prevention’ programmes— effective sexual refusals need not contain the word ‘no’. Indeed it is evident that these young men share the understanding that explicit verbal refusals of sex per se are unnecessary to effectively communicate the withholding of consent to sex. (2008:175)
It seems clear then that young men, in these focus groups at least, are capable of displaying not only that they are competent at the offering of refusals, but also of hearing forms of female conduct (e.g. ‘body language’, l. 263, 268; the ‘shortness’, l. 270 or ‘abruptness’ of conversation, l. 272) as ways in which women may clearly communicate their disinterest in sex. It is also clear that the men can hear both ‘little hints’ (l. 278) and ‘softened’ refusals as refusals—thus statements like ‘it’s getting late’ (l. 273) or ‘I’m working early in the morning’ (l. 276) are not taken at face value as comments by women on the time or their employment schedule—but rather as indicators that, in the moderator’s words, ‘sex is not on the cards’. Of note here is that in none of the examples given do the men indicate that the explicit use of the word ‘no’ is necessary for a woman’s refusal of a sexual invitation to be understood as such. (2008:178)

Thomas, from Yes Means Yes, concludes:

These authors, working a hemisphere and almost a decade apart, reach the same conclusion: that in sex as in normal conversation, people typically use and understand softened and indirect refusals.If you read this blog, I’m going to tell you something you already know: rapes don’t happen by accident. We know that the vast majority of rapes are committed by the same relatively narrow sliver of the population, that they have multiple victims, that they avoid overt force, which is more likely to get them prosecuted, that they choose victims who can be bullied and isolated and that alcohol is their tool of choice.

One might read this and conclude that it doesn’t matter how women communicate boundaries, because rapists don’t misunderstand, they choose to ignore. That is pretty much Kitzinger’s takeaway, and I think from the perspective of moving the focus from what women do to what the rapists do that’s a useful thing to say. However, I think there’s more to it.

I’m no communications theorist, but communications are layered things. As we’ve seen, the literal meaning of a message is only one aspect of the message, and the way it’s delivered can signal something entirely different. Rapists are not missing the literal meaning, I think it’s clear. What they’re doing is ignoring the literal message (refusal) and paying very close attention to the meta-message. I tell my niece, “if a guy offers to buy you a drink and you say no, and he pesters you until you say okay, what he wants for his money is to find out if you can be talked out of no.” The rapist doesn’t listen to refusals, he probes for signs of resistance in the meta-message, the difference between a target who doesn’t want to but can be pushed, and a target who doesn’t want to and will stand by that even if she has to be blunt. It follows that the purpose of setting clear boundaries is not to be understood — that’s not a problem — but to be understood to be too hard a target.

(One might wonder what good that is, if the rapist just looks for other targets. But rapists are clearly rational and opportunistic, and if they have fewer targets who they can rape without repercussions, they’ll either have to rape less or risk getting reported and maybe prosecuted. )

I have no perfect solution. The only lasting answer is to change the culture.

Full post (and an interesting discussion in the comments) here.

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