They often understand that what they’re doing is wrong — then they do it anyway.
By Peggy Orenstein
Ms. Orenstein is writing a book about young men, masculinity, emotional intimacy and sex.
Feb. 23, 2019
“Think of a bear.”
Shafia Zaloom, a health teacher in San Francisco, stood in front of her 10th grade sex ed class. It was the first day of the spring term and “bear,” at least when it was spelled that way, was not what the students expected to discuss.
Once their ursine images were firmly in place, Ms. Zaloom asked for descriptions. One student had pictured a grizzly; another was thinking about a black bear cub; there were polar bears and gummy bears. Personally, I had imagined Yogi. The point, Ms. Zaloom said, is that in a sexual situation, you can’t make assumptions.
I think about those bears every time yet another allegation of sexual misconduct against yet another powerful man becomes public. Nearly all of those men deny coercion or aggression or insist that the encounters were “100 percent consensual.”
But rarely do they define what, precisely, they mean by that. Did they discuss, with an enthusiastic partner, which erotic acts to indulge in together? Or were they satisfied that whatever they initiated was fine as long as she didn’t say no? Did they consider passionate kissing a tacit contract for something else? Was forced sex — say, the pushing down of a partner’s head — fair game because lots of guys do it? Did they consider sex with underlings acceptable, or a fair swap for career advancement, in which case they were apparently thinking of koalas, which are not actually bears at all?
The truth is, men are not the most reliable arbiters of whether sex was consensual. Consider: When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, interviewed male college students in 2015, each could articulate at least a rudimentary definition of the concept: the idea that both parties wanted to be doing what they were doing. Most also endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters in both a hookup and in a relationship, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.
When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault — such as the guy who had coerced his girlfriend into anal sex (she had said, “I don’t want to, but I guess I’ll let you”). She then made it clear that he should stop. “He did, eventually,” Ms. Bedera told me, “and he seemed aware of how upset she was, but he found a way to rationalize it: He was angry with her for refusing him because he thought a real man shouldn’t have had to beg for sex.”
Despite all evidence to the contrary, we still want to believe that men who are accused of sexual assault are all “monsters.” True, some of them may be monsters we know — our employers, our clergymen, our favorite celebrities, our politicians, our Supreme Court justices — but they are “monsters” nonetheless.
A “good guy” can’t possibly have committed assault, regardless of the mental gymnastics he has to engage in to convince himself of that (“20 minutes of action,” anyone?). Even men who admit to keeping sex slaves in conflict zones will claim they did not commit rape — it’s that other guy, that “monster” over there, that “bad guy” who did. In fact, one of the traits rapists have been found to reliably share is that they don’t believe they are the problem.
In my own interviews with high school and college students conducted over the past two years, young men that I like enormously — friendly, thoughtful, bright, engaging young men — have “sort of” raped girls, have pushed women’s heads down to get oral sex, have taken a Snapchat video of a prom date performing oral sex and sent it to the baseball team. They all described themselves as “good guys.” But the fact is, a “really good guy” can do a really bad thing.
Young men’s ability to understand sexual refusal has been shown to be remarkably sophisticated and subtle, regardless of whether the word “no” is actually uttered; that renders dubious the common defense that they “can’t tell” or “aren’t mind readers.” What’s more, where “yes” is concerned, guys seem downright clairvoyant: They routinely over-perceive a woman’s interest in having sex with them, even more so if the men have been drinking.
In 2016, for instance, researchers at Confi, an online resource dedicated to women’s health issues, asked 1,200 college students and recent graduates nationwide what they would “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone whom they’d met and danced with at a party. Forty-five percent of the men considered vaginal intercourse “likely”; only 30 percent of the women did. The figures were similarly skewed for oral sex. Additionally, one in four men believed women “usually have to be convinced” in order for sex to happen (only about a tenth of the women agreed).
Not only are those perception gaps a setup for assault, but also for men’s subsequent denials of responsibility and, quite possibly, claims of false accusation. According to the same survey, men found the actions of a “tipsy” guy “much more acceptable” than a sober one, meaning they let themselves off the hook for potential sexual aggression, even as female assault victims who drink are blamed.
Sometimes, boys I talk to acknowledge having willfully crossed lines. One college sophomore had repeatedly ignored his partner’s hesitation during a hookup, despite his own professed scrupulousness about consent.
“I suppose there was something in the back of my head that I wasn’t fully listening to,” he admitted. “I guess when you’ve been flirting with someone the whole evening and you feel close to what you’ve been wanting to happen, it’s difficult to put on the brakes. And — I don’t know. I was enjoying myself. I was having what in the moment was a positive sexual experience. I think I just wanted to. Which is scary.”
And that may be the crux of it. Young men still too often learn to prioritize their pleasure over women’s feelings, to interpret a partner’s behavior through the lens of their own wishes. Their claims of “miscommunication,” Ms. Bedera concluded in her research on college men, may actually be part of “an expectation that they control both partners’ narratives about desire and consent.”
All of which would indicate that in these high-profile cases, women’s accusations are inherently more credible than male denial, regardless of how vehement that denial may be. It also means that despite the new standards that have been put in place and despite all the editorials and news articles and calls for change, we are still not doing what needs to be done: fully educating boys not only about the importance of consensual, ethical, mutually pleasurable sexuality, but about the ways their own sense of entitlement may blind them to those values, leading them to cause harm, whether or not they choose to see it.
In other words, we have to start dealing with the bear in the room.
Peggy Orenstein is the author, most recently, of “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.”
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