IMPACT OF CURRENT DEFINITIONS ON RESEARCH. AND PREVENTION
Defining rape primarily in terms of nonconsent has made it more difficult to come to a complete understanding of sexual assaults that occur between persons who know each other. The larger cultural context in which sexual violence occurs may be lost when research and prevention efforts become so tightly focused on issues of consent.
The concept of consent as definitional to determinations of rape is a recurrent theme in traditional, androcentric discourses of rape. These conceptualizations of rape suggest that either the raped woman displayed behavioral signs of consent or did not communicate clearly her nonconsent (see Crawford, 1995, for a discourse analysis of the miscommunication process in cases of rape).
The importance of miscommunication as a proximal cause of acquaintance rape and topic for prevention programs is cited often in research (e. g., Abbey, 1991; Abbey, Ross, McDuffie, & MacAuslan, 1996; Gillen & Muncer, 1995; Kowalski, 1992, 1993; Muehlenhard, 1988; Shotland, 1989). A substantial line of research has demonstrated that when considered as a whole men view the world in a more sexualized manner than women (Abbey, 1982, 1987, 1991). However, researchers suggest that only men who engage in sexually aggressive behavior, not men in general, are prone to perceiving intended friendly behaviors as sexual (Bondurant, 1994; Donat & Bondurant, 1996; White & Humphrey, 1994). This research shows that sexually aggressive men infer sexual interest on the basis of behaviors with low sexual interest cue value (such as a woman smiling). Thus, it is not the actual behaviors of women that increase their risk for victimization; it is the interpretation certain men place on these behaviors. Hanson and Gidycz (1993, p. 1051) report that “there is some evidence that women who are victimized communicate as clearly as women who are not victimized, but their perpetrators choose to ignore them and continue their aggression.” Sexually aggressive men’s perceptions are subjective constructions rather than objective representations of reality. Thus, miscom – munication is not a plausible explanation for sexual assault. True miscom – munication is based on a state of equality between a rapist and his victim (Pineau, 1989).
Then and only then are the frequently used phrases like “negotiated order,” “shared misunderstandings,” or “failure to communicate” credible in that the victim presumably has the power to abort the sequence of events leading to the rapist’s assault. (Schwendinger & Schwendin – ger, 1983, p. 68)
A rape victim, however, does not have this power. For a woman to consent, she must know that refusing is an option (Gavey, 1992). If a woman believes that her refusal will be ignored or will be met with serious consequences, her option to refuse is not a true option. Even when she explicitly refuses, verbally or nonverbally, or both, sexually assaultive men are likely to perceive it to be only token resistance and persist in inferring consent or simply ignore her refusal.
These misunderstandings may be magnified by sex role socialization in our culture (Berger et al., 1986). Men may be taught to disregard and deny the validity of women’s feelings; women may be taught to question their own feelings and perceptions of sexual violation (Foa, 1977). Although men and women may not understand clearly each other’s intents and behaviors, it is the social context in which sexual communication occurs, not the communication itself, that causes rape. Therefore, miscom – munication may be a socially constructed correlate of sexual aggression, but not an explanation for its occurrence.
Despite evidence disconfirming the relevance of the miscommunica – tion hypothesis, numerous research articles are published each year that discuss the gender difference in interpretations of interpersonal behavior and its possible implications for understanding sexual aggression. In addition, many rape prevention workshops also include discussion of clear communication, emphasizing its importance to female participants. Students wear buttons and t-shirts with messages stating, “no means no,” as if the solution were as simple as clarifying a definition of terms. This conceptualization may serve only to distract women from challenging the larger cultural context that restricts them from controlling their own sexual expression.