Sexual Refusal: The Complicated Truth

CW: Sexual assault, rape, sexual coercion


We have at this stage all heard reactions to the allegations against Aziz Ansari. For many this account was uncomfortable, not because it was particularly graphic or violent, but rather it occupies a more grey area of understanding when it comes to sexual violations. It is worrying to me that so many people do not believe that the sexual refusals offered by the girl in the story were enough to be picked up on by Ansari. This demonstrates the dangerous continued existence of the miscommunication model in both academia and the wider world. The miscommunication model suggests that sexual assault are most often a result of a miscommunication, somewhat explained by gendered differences in communication. Research collected over decades categorically invalidates this model. Nonetheless, the lack of an explicit no in the scenario recounted has presented a stumbling block for many responding to this article. This is understandable given that so much of our sexual education and public awareness campaigns relating to sexual safety centre around the core message of “no means no.” Explicit communication of a refusal is presented as an infallible and simple defence against unwanted sexual advances. However, this understanding is simplistic to the point of dangerous, and does not account for social realities, namely, that we don't like saying no and we certainly don’t like hearing it. By suggesting that saying no is the only appropriate or admissible form of sexual refusal, a loophole is created for sexual perpetrators. 

Acts of sexual violence or violation are minimised to matters of miscommunication or misunderstanding. This is advantageous to those committing offences and does nothing to actually counter an endemic of sexual violence. A few key points I would like to raise; 

1. While acceptance may typically involve just saying yes, refusal almost never consists of a simple no. Cultural and conversational rules do not allow for or in any way normalise direct refusals. Simply saying ‘no’ is most likely to be interpreted as rude, foolish, or cruel and can have the opposite of the desired effect. Young women who respond to unwanted sexual pressure using non-verbal cues, indirect diversion, or qualifiers are following absolutely normal and standard conversational patterns for refusal. 

2. Women are most likely to offer a sexual refusal that is not related to their unwillingness, or lack of desire for sex. Most often women will offer external circumstances as to why sex is impossible (I don’t feel well, I have my period, I have work early) or to delay sexual activity (maybe next time, maybe later, can we take this slow). Refusals are usually coupled with compliments or appreciation (I really like you, but…, I’m very flattered, but…) and at times sex can be refused with a kind of ‘yes’ which is actually normatively understood as a refusal. 

3. While this may seem complicated, there is a significant body of research to support that both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’. Male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns should only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.

4. A direct ‘no’ is often not enough. Sexual script theory, which is also prevalent in academia and lay conversation despite it highly controversial, suggests that men and women are culturally trained to follow certain scripts and play certain roles in a sexual encounter. Men are sexual initiators, and women are sexual gatekeepers. This theory further complicates the effectiveness of a direct refusal, because it suggests that there is a ‘scripted no’ or a ‘token no’ in a sexual encounter which a man is supposed to overcome. In a study conducted using focus groups of Australian men between 18-34, it was found that men did not find a direct and simple ‘no’ to be a sufficient refusal without accompanying justification. 

5. Women like to use the excuse of miscommunication too. Some may look at it as internalised misogyny, but there are a myriad of reasons young women prefer to view assault as a miscommunication. Firstly, consider that most assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, miscommunication eradicates an accusation of fault and alleviates social tension when a woman is likely to see the offender again. It also gives women an illusory sense of control; of a sexual assault occurred because they did not communicate their refusal clearly enough. They can prevent sexual assault from happening again by improving on their communication. Finally it obscures the incredibly depressing reality that individual abuses of power are intrinsically linked to institutional and structural asymmetries. Consider, a study conducted found that only 27% of women whose sexual assault meets the legal definition of rape believed that they had been raped; 49% believed it was a result of a miscommunication.

6. While men have exhibited a high comprehensive ability to hear sexual refusals (particularly those that do not include a ‘no’), miscommunication is invoked when the issue of accountability is raised. Miscommunication model was actually presented by a feminist academic, Deborah Tannen, who proposed that people of different genders communicate in ways that are ‘different-but-equal’. The ,miscommunication model has morphed into something quite different. Rather than Tannen’s no blame version of miscommunication, young men tend to accord men the no-blame position of naive and confused mis-hearers and ascribe women the more culpable role of accountably deficient signallers. In a study by O’Bryne in 2010 it was found that men overwhelmingly employed the miscommunication model to explain occurrences of rape. 

7. The miscommunication model is related to many other, now disfavoured, rape myths (good girls don’t get raped, she was asking for it walking alone or with what she was wearing, etc.) in that it allows us to believe that instances of sexual coercion and violence are not malicious but rather ignorant. This model should be engaged with critically, and should no longer by used to underpin otherwise problematic assertions of how communicated sexual refusals should and should not be done. 

Please keep in mind, Ansari will not go to gaol. Ansari made the decision to use his celebrity to belittle and abuse someone and as such his celebrity will also be the thing that punishes him. A man who uses his emotional intelligence as a professional selling point, and who writes a book about dating must not be allowed to invoke the deleterious excuse of miscommunication to justify his sexual coercion. 


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NB: This post covers heterosexual sexual acts primarily, however there is a body of research on issues of consent in homosexual interactions (primarily male homosexual) that is available. If anyone would like more information on this, as it is slightly different, feel free to DM me.