The False Miscommunication Model

TW: Sexual Assault

Sex is happening all around us – in Daley Road colleges, in share houses in Turner and Lyneham, probably in the bathrooms of Mooseheads and, if urban legend is to be believed, on the bench of the High Court at law ball.

Sexual assault is also happening all around us. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimate that over 1 in 6 women, and 1 in 25 men, are sexually assaulted from the age of 15 onwards. Given the high level of child sexual abuse and the fact that such surveys exclude many vulnerable groups, the actual number of people who have been sexually assaulted is likely to be much higher.

It’s tempting to see this behaviour as on the same continuum as the fun, flirty, pleasurable sex we all talk and joke about. When it is not carried out in dark alleys by strangers (which it overwhelmingly is not) and when it’s perpetrated by friends and acquaintances, it’s tempting to view sexual assault as a misunderstanding. A grave misunderstanding, but a misunderstanding nonetheless. Surely the man (because perpetrators are most often men) has just misread the situation? Surely they thought consent had been given when it wasn’t? Surely they weren’t actively engaging in sex knowing the other person didn’t consent? Given the amount of trauma and horror unleashed by sexual assault, it is uncomfortable to believe that men we know, men who may be friends and whom we may trust, are knowing perpetrators.

But this “miscommunication model” is false. Linguists have used conversation analysis to point out that as human beings, with many years of social engagement and conditioning, we are adept at recognising refusals, whether or not they include the word “no”, or whether they are an explicit refusal at all. Despite the fact that anti-rape campaigns frequently use the slogan “no means no”, studies demonstrate that in both sexual and non-sexual contexts, the word “no” is rarely used to express a refusal. Rather, refusals are delivered, and recognised, through micro pauses, prefacing words (such as “well” or “um”), palliative remarks, and/or excuses or justifications that soften the refusal, in comparison to “just saying no”. It has been proven that people generally “hear” refusals without the word “no”. In fact, we often understand that a two-tenths pause in response to an invitation indicates that the invitation will be rejected. Furthermore, statements which do not overtly demonstrate refusal, such as “well, I do like you”, “it’s flattering”, or even weak agreements, are understood as rejections in and of themselves. Kitzinger and Frith write: “men who claim not to have understood an indirect refusal (as in, ‘she didn’t actually say no’) are claiming to be cultural dopes, and playing rather disingenuously on how refusals are usually done and understood to be done. They are claiming not to understand perfectly normal conversational interaction, and to be ignorant of ways of expressing refusal which they themselves routinely use in other areas of their lives.”

When studying the conversation of a group of young Australian men, Rachel O’Byrne identified participants as having a complex understanding of sexual and non-sexual refusals through body language, nonverbal communication and indirect language. However, these same men simultaneously contradicted this by building up messages about their inability to understand when women refuse sexual consent. They used statements like, “if a girl doesn’t look you in the eye and say ‘no’ anything else can be sort of miscommunicated” and “so unless each is clear then, you know, it will continue”. In so doing, they openly contradicted their previous demonstration of an ability to understand normal communication without difficulty. This rhetoric allows men to sidestep accountability for rape. Simultaneously, women are given the responsibility of controlling sexual encounters and for being sexually defensive, rather than being able to fully express their sexual desires in a safe environment where parties are receptive to each other’s needs. This, in turn, is tied to larger gender norms – those ones we are all so used to hearing and have therefore internalized. That men have aggressive and insatiable sexual desires, while women are sexually passive and don’t desire sex like men do. These stereotypes are harmful for everyone. They enforce sexual standards that may not reflect our individual wants and needs. It is important to recognize how these standards also feed into how we expect sexual consent or lack of consent to be delivered and received.

So we need to be asking: why do we think that all our nuanced understandings of communication, and our ability to read both physical and verbal cues, go out the door as soon as a situation moves into the sexual realm? We need to stop excusing sexually violent behavior as innocent “miscommunication” or “misunderstanding”. Let’s promote a higher standard. One where we do not merely listen for refusals, but we actively seek to understand whether our partners (whether they be casual or long term) are having a good time.