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Why Lots of Men Conflate Sexual Desire With Consent

New research finds male college students are genuinely confused about their partners' wishes.

As accounts of unwanted sexual behavior accumulate, and universities struggle to come up with a workable definition of consent, it's worth exploring a vital component of this uncomfortable issue: male cluelessness.

Sure, some men have macho mindsets that can lead to coercive behavior. But a new study of college students suggests the larger problem, at least among that population, is that males often make incorrect assumptions about their potential partners' state of mind.

Specifically, they conflate perceived sexual desire with implied consent.

While "some men are likelier to infer consent regardless of the situation," a research team writes in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, "specific situational factors can foster misperceptions of consent across men in general."

The research team, led by psychologists Richard Mattson of Binghamton University and Ashton Lofgreen of Rush University, surveyed 145 straight males, all of whom were enrolled at a large university in the American southeast. Participants completed a series of questionnaires, including ones measuring hypermasculinity and rape-myth acceptance.

These attitudes were gauged by their level of agreement with a series of statements, including "I think men who cry are weak," and "A lot of women lead a man on, and then they cry rape."

They were then presented with a series of vignettes depicting situations that may or may not lead to a sexual encounter. These varied in a number of particulars, including the woman's attire, the couple's sexual history (if any), and whether alcohol was consumed.

After reading each, participants assessed the woman's level of sexual desire, as well as her "communicated willingness to have sex."

Not surprisingly, the researchers report "greater acceptance of rape myths and hypermasculine ideals were associated with greater perceived desire and consent, across (a variety of) situations." Men holding those toxic attitudes were particularly prone to conflating revealing attire with implied consent.

But even if women steer clear from jerks, they face a real problem: "Men confuse contextual factors indicative of sexual desire with implied consent."

The researchers report that "ratings of women's sexual desire and consent were so highly correlated that these responses were effectively inextinguishable." In other words, even nice guys assume that physical responsiveness on the woman's part is tantamount to permission to proceed further.

"Encouragingly," they add, "the strongest predictor of men's perceptions of desire and consent was whether and how the woman communicated her sexual intentions." In other words, it's possible to set them straight, if you do it in an unambiguous way.

What's more, words are optional: The researchers found "a verbal 'no' did not appear necessary in communicating refusal." Standing up to leave, or shoving one's partner aside, does the trick quite nicely.

The results suggest seminars or counseling sessions for young men "may be highly beneficial" if they center on "disentangling desire and consent." Similar programs for women should empower them "to assertively communicate their sexual desires"—or lack thereof.

Granted, if your date has fantasies of being the next Harvey Weinstein, this may not matter much. But, as Mattson points out, a whole lot of men in this study "were earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given, but were nevertheless relying on questionable sexual scripts."

Those internal narratives are in need of a quick and definitive rewrite—the first word being "No."