Sexual Interest or Consent? Some College Men Don't See Difference

Timely research suggests that some men tend to confuse sexual interest with consent, regardless of the situation.

Instances of sexual violence are higher than any other crimes among college students. In response to this growing epidemic, faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and Rush University in Chicago, sought to identify a host of situational and dispositional factors that may predict college men’s likelihood to engage in sexual misconduct.

The study was comprised of 145 heterosexual male students attending a large university in the southeastern region of the United States. The participants were exposed to a series of hypothetical sexual scenarios.

Researchers found that most men tended to confuse sexual interest with consent to sex. Interestingly, the mixed perceptions of consent varied more as a function of situational factors as opposed to personal characteristics of the men.

“We found that the way in which the woman communicated her sexual intentions, that is verbal refusal versus passive responding, had the largest effect of men’s perceptions,” said Binghamton University Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Richard Mattson. “However, there was also evidence of a precedence effect.”

The precedence effect occurs when men equate the occurrence of some past sexual behavior with future consent to high levels of intimacy, in some cases even in the face of direct refusal by the woman.

Similarly, the acceptance of rape myths (e.g., “When a woman says no, she really means yes”) and adherence to hypermasculine beliefs only became stronger when the woman’s sexual intentions were ambiguously communicated.

“However, our findings also suggest that some men were earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given, but were nevertheless relying on questionable sexual scripts to disambiguate the situation,” said Mattson.

Aspects of the college experience undeniably influence students, said Mattson. For instance, the sudden decrease in parental supervision and the potential to consume alcohol underscores an increased risk of involvement in sexually coercive situations among the collegiate setting.

Nevertheless, a collegiate setting can also provide an opportunity to educate young men and women at a time when patterns of sexual behavior are developing.

The study’s findings highlight the benefits of risk reduction programs that empower women to assertively communicate their sexual desires, educate men on the inferential limits of perceived sexual desire, and reinforce unambiguous affirmative behavior as the standard for consent, explains Mattson.

Graduate student Allison McKinnon and undergraduate research assistant Gonzalo Quinones are currently developing an extension of this project that expands the range of variables that might be influencing perceptions of sexual desire and consent.

The paper appears in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Source: Binghamton University/EurekAlert