Monthly Archives: January 2015

Some thoughts on consent and empathy

[Trigger warnings for discussions touching on rape and sexual assault]

Compared to research on rape and sexual assault, research on consent is woefully scarce. I have been making my way through what there is of it, and came across a couple of interesting papers.

Jozkowski, K.N. & Peterson, Z.D. (2013) “Assessing the Validity and Reliability of the Perceptions of the Consent to Sex Scale”, Journal of Sex Research (January), pp. 37-41.

Jozkowski, K.N., Sanders, S., Peterson, Z.D., Dennis, B. & Reece, M. (2014) “Consenting to sexual activity: The development and psychometric assessment of dual measures of consent”, Archives of Sexual Behavior 43 pp. 437–450.

In both papers, Jozkowski and her colleagues are trying to quantify how college students communicate consent. In the first paper, they look at a different ways that college students use to indicate consent, and in the second they differentiate between consent as felt and experienced internally by the individual versus communicated to a partner. There are issues with the papers. The researchers analyse the results by gender, but only take the two binary genders into account. The assumptions that underlie the methodology are highly heteronomartive, and privilege penis-in-vagina sex over other sexual activities. In fact, in the questionnaires, sex as the act that is being consented to is specifically defined as “vaginal-penile intercourse”. The papers also only look at how consent is expressed by one partner, not how it is perceived by the other, though Jozkowski has other published work which touches on that and is on my to-read list.

Despite these limitations, something struck me about the first paper in particular. The paper establishes five categories of behaviours for communicating consent:

  • Non-verbal signals of interest, such as body language, touching, engaging in kissing or foreplay;
  • Passive behaviours, such as not telling your partner to stop, not resisting or pushing your partner away, letting your partner touch you;
  • Initiator behaviours, such as “making a move”, removal of clothing, moving your partner’s hands to your lower body;
  • Verbal cues, such as talking with your partner about sex, suggesting having sex, telling them what types of sexual behaviours you’d like to engage in, asking your partner if they have a condom or offering to get one;
  • Removal behaviours, such as taking your partner somewhere private, closing the door.

When they analysed the responses by gender, Jozkowski and Peterson found that women scored higher on non-verbal signals and passive behaviours, whereas men tended to score higher on initiator and removal behaviours. (There was no significant difference on verbal cues.) Jozkowski and Peterson rightly remark that these results fit within existing cultural sexual scripts, where men are expected to be the initiators of sex and women to be passive gatekeepers. All of which makes perfect sense, until you start thinking about empathy.

What we have here effectively is two groups of people using two completely different ways to communicate the same thing. Let’s take this down to the individual level (while staying within the cis- and heteronormative parameters of the research). You’re a man; you’re with a woman, let’s say at a party. You take her to an empty bedroom upstairs, you kiss her and touch her and maybe start undressing her. This is your way of saying “I want to put my penis in your vagina”. She hasn’t done any similar things. She’s maybe kissed you back, but she certainly hasn’t closed the door or started undressing you.

Take a step back. When you try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and empathise with them, what’s the first thing you think? I’m willing to bet that it’s something along the lines of “If this was me, how would I feel/act/react?” And from that you would try to extrapolate how the other person feels, or what their actions say about their state of mind.

Back to that bedroom at that party. You know how you communicate consent: you take your partner somewhere more private, you start undressing them. So when they don’t do any of the same things, why would you interpret that as consent? What this looks like to me is a complete breakdown of human empathy.

Here’s something else Jozkowski and Peterson found: Women who used passive behaviours to communicate consent tended to also believe in common rape myths such as “if a woman was flirting with a man and went home with him, he was justified in having sex with her regardless of her consent”. For men, if they tended to use initiator and removal behaviours, they also tended to believe in rape myths.

So instead of using our interpersonal skills and basic human empathy, when it comes to sex and consent, we tend to fall back on cultural sexual scripts and rape myths. They are so strongly ingrained in us that we stop seeing the other person as a fellow human being and start seeing them as an avatar of what our culture tells us “a man” or “a woman” should be or do.

The million-dollar question is, of course, how do we destroy those scripts and myths? How do we get to a point where, when faced with a potential sexual partner, we see them as a fellow human being, and we use communication and empathy to work out ways for everyone involved to feel safe and respected as well as have a good time?