Research into why men think “no” means “yes”

// 25 April 2008

I feel kind of torn on this one because it kind of suggests we should feel sorry for men who are just doing their best to understand nasty women’s ambiguous statements. Or maybe I’m just angry this morning… Anyway American College professor Michael Motley has done a study on gaps in communication in intimate situations asking why men hear something different to what women say.

“When she says ‘It’s getting late,’ he may hear ‘So let’s skip the preliminaries,'” Motley says. “The problem is that he is interpreting what she said by trying to imagine what he would mean — and the only reason he can imagine saying ‘It’s getting late’ while making out is to mean ‘Let’s speed things up.’ Motley calls it the “introspection” explanation: “Males’ inferred meanings for women’s indirect sexual resistance messages are more similar to the meanings males would have intended by those same messages than to the meanings women intend.”

From Science Daily

Motley’s research found that men are find at understanding direct messages to stop, like say, “Lets stop this” but find indirect messages, like “Lets be friends”, ambiguous and are as likely to see them as green lights than red ones.

In related studies, Motley has also shown that most women use indirect messages out of concern that men will be offended or angered by direct messages — but that most men actually accept direct resistance messages easily and without negative reactions.

From Science Daily

Motley has come up with some guidelines based on his research:

1. Men need to be aware of the many ways that women may say “stop” without using the word “stop.”

2. When a man asks himself during intimacy, “Why did she say that?” he should not try to answer the question by imagining what he would mean if he said the same thing.

3. When in doubt, ask. “So it’s getting late; does that mean we should stop?”

4. Women should use direct messages.

5. A woman who cannot be direct should at least work a direct message into the indirect one: “It’s getting late, so I’d like to stop.”

Motley is clear this isn’t addressing questions about rape and sexual assault where a women does clearly articulate “no” and is ignored, but rather those situations where men persist longer than women want.

Like I say mixed feelings – I dislike the victim-blaming sense of “women should be direct” which is easier said than done. After all sometimes being direct will land you with either an immediately angry bloke to deal with or very bitchy behaviour afterwards. But on the whole I don’t think this is all bad.

Comments From You

Samara // Posted 25 April 2008 at 10:06 am

I think that basically, most *people*, in any given situation, will hear what they want to hear if there is any ambiguity. For this reason it is always best to be as clear as possible, but as you said, that can cause problems of its own.

This idea that men can’t take hints/are insensitive baboons/have all the empathy of a hand grenade is really bad, partly because it’s just plain insulting to men, but also because it gives them carte blanche to “misinterpret” anything except the very clearest of signals.

I also think it’s possible that the “no means yes” idea derives in part from the idea that “good girls don’t put out” – i.e. “she wants it but she’s saying no at least initially so that you won’t think she’s a slut”. Just a theory.

Amy // Posted 25 April 2008 at 10:35 am

Interesting study, but I really don’t buy it. Yet again it puts the onus on women to ‘understand’ men’s ‘deficiencies’ and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

Also, other studies have refuted it. Deborah Cameron in ‘The Myth Of Mars And Venus’ quotes a study by Katzinger & Frith which shows that both men and women use indirect ways to express themselves, particularly when it comes to a refusal – in all manner of social situations, refusing something is hardly ever done with a simple, direct ‘no’. Such as when someone invites you to the pub and you don’t want to or can’t go – hardly anyone would just come out with ‘no’! There are many unwritten social ‘rules’ about refusals, and they mostly involve being indirect and ‘softening the blow’ in some way so as not to hurt feelings or seem unfriendly etc. This has been found in both sexes. Therefore the idea that men can only understand direct commands is a myth.

So this begs the question – why is it only in sexual situations where men suddenly can’t make sense of an indirect refusal? Are they not so much ‘confused’ as trying their luck? Do they think that several ‘no’s will eventually lead to a ‘yes’? The thought that sex may be possible is uppermost in their minds at that point – so perhaps it’s not so much confusion as an attempt at persuasion or just a belief that she “wants it really”. The problem lies not in the woman’s lack of direct communication, it’s in the man’s expectations, and his belief that he is entitled to try whatever he can to get sex. If he succeeds in persuading her, great – he gets sex. If not, and she complains, he can just protest that she didn’t tell him to f off in sufficiently direct tones. Either way, he’s off the hook. What a crock!

And I’m not sure who Motley’s subjects were, but I don’t know any self-respecting man who would interpret “let’s be friends” as “I want to have sex”!

Anne Onne // Posted 25 April 2008 at 11:27 am

I read it as ‘men hear what they want to hear’. Yes, it’s because the patriarchy allows men to grow up learning that they can talk bluntly (so never need to be indirect about what they want, for fear of attack, physical or metaphorical), and expecting that women will do what they want.

On the other hand, I am very aware that we as people do have a tendancy to imagine other people think in a very similar way to us, and what we feel a slight to us may be nothing to someone else, or they might see a slight in something we wouldn’t get offended by. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about all my relationships in my life (including friends and family), and it does help to be aware of how differently we as people can interpret things, especially in arguments.

In this way, it can be very useful if men can take on board the fact that women may not be able to be very direct, and may not want to anger/hurt the men involved, and that men should take mroe responsibility to check whether their partner really is actively consenting, or whether the men are reading in consent because they want it. This article is useless without the context that women are pressured into consent, and fear confrontation with men, because otherwise it gives the impression women don’t like being direct because of some illogical whim. The truth is, we’re taught not to because being blunt could be dangerous if you’re a woman.

Naturally, men aren’t really incapable of interpreting indirect signals. They have been trained by a society which tells them they can’t, and that there’s no need for it anyway, the women should just say what they want etc. They grow up with privilege, not looking at the other side, and a selfish focus on their own enjoyment. They are brought up to chance their luck again and again, knowing deep down that there is a pressure on women to give them what they want. That’s not to say these men don’t have a choice- they definitely do. Their actions don’t occur in a vacuum. But in the end, they can change their actions and attitude, if they wish to. Unfortunately, society is fond of teaching people essentialist myths that butcher science to the point of beyond recognition – that their genes make them do it, that men just are that way. Natrually, it’s a load of baloney, since if a dog has the intelligence to learn tricks and alter behaviour, you’d think Homo sapiens would be able to have some self-control. But I guess there really are people out there claiming to have less brains than a labrador. (No offence to lovely labs intended. They’re gorgeous, smart dogs!)

Jo Legg // Posted 25 April 2008 at 11:55 am

I read a really interesting piece of research a while back that discussed the need for a feminist perspective on issues of sexual refusal. Basically, telling women that they need to give clear and direct ‘no’ messages completely flies in the face of standard discursive practices, and also is counter-productive, because it effectively implies that other ways of refusing (as opposed to ‘just saying no’) aren’t adequate.

When we refuse things in normal conversation, we don’t usually just refuse flat out, we go through quite complicated discursive manoeuvres and often don’t even say ‘no’ at all; the message is implicit, but understood. Saying ‘no’ in any context is difficult, particularly one as loaded with complications as a sexual advance.

Again, by framing the problem in terms of women’s need to be ‘direct’ about what they mean, what is being asked is that women prove ‘non-consent’, as opposed to men having to prove ‘consent’. ‘Non-consent’ effectively only means sayin ‘no’ repeatedly, but saying ‘no’ is not and should not be the only way of signalling refusal.

jimjay // Posted 25 April 2008 at 12:16 pm

I think this survey is irritating more than helpful on a whole number of levels. Firstly it seems to assume that men don’t hear subtler messages to stop – rather than wont. It does rather seem to be saying poor men can’t help it when they cross the line.

Second it assumes that this is a particularly male phenomon. Both men and women reinterpret what they hear, sometimes in incorrect ways. In the absence of psychic abilities it is often best to be clear about what you want no matter which sex you’re talking to. Otherwise you’re in danger of reinforcing gender stereotypes of weak/sensitive women vs strong/goonlike men.

Anne Onne // Posted 25 April 2008 at 1:16 pm

Jo Legg, I completely agree. In life, we say ‘yes’ far more obiously and bluntly than we say ‘no’ to anything, because no is offensive. We are taught to minimise the impact of ‘no’ in case it offends. Saying women should be blunt about sex when society teaches us all to be subtle in all communication is silly. The focus should be on the woman actively consenting, not having the assumption that she must loudly anf bluntly disagree to prove she doesn’t want something!

Jess // Posted 25 April 2008 at 2:06 pm

I find this troubling, for two reasons. First off, I don’t know that I buy the idea that men are entirely unable to read verbal and physical clues that say “no”.

Perhaps it is a bit unfair, but I tend to put this down to not really caring, rather than not understanding. And men are of course influenced by all the factors in society which tell them that it’s OK, indeed expected for them to persevere despite these clues, which I see as part of this tendency to see women as a prizes to be gained, etc.

As Anne points out, you don’t seem to get the same level of inability to understand indirect refusals in other situations, which are non-sexual.

And as others have said, I don’t like that the emphasis is on women to be more direct, not on men to change the fundamental way they view women.

That said, I do like that the researcher encourages men to ask, and think about, whether or not it’s OK to carry on – even if it’s framed badly, anything which encourages people to think about consent, and check in with their partner, has got to be good.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 25 April 2008 at 3:42 pm

I am always intrigued by the methodology of these types of research. Did they watch sexual interaction and then note the reponses? Seems unlikely- the ethical issues would be a nightmare. So this must be done by interviews or questionnaires, which do not always reflect social reality- especially because a lot of social interaction is body language, tone etc. It may be that men can’t imagine refusing in anything but a direct way, when the way they actually behave is much more complex. People are not always that reflective about their behaviour.

Furthermore, I do think that women are trained not to say ‘no’, while men are encouraged to be direct and assertive. This may well mean that when asked such a question men would say -‘i would be direct’ because that is what they *should* do- not what they actually do.

I agree that we should not be putting the pressure on women to say ‘no’ as that effectively leads to victim-blaming, but concincidentally I wrote a post on the importance of learning to say ‘No’ recently.

Nina // Posted 25 April 2008 at 3:45 pm

Louise, aren’t you confirming that women need to be advised to be more confident and direct in your last paragraph, I don’t think one angry man or some bitchy behaviour should stop anyone from saying no to something they don’t want.

I think there’s an argument that says if we were all more direct, it would be seen as behaviour that was more acceptable in women. Less of us would be intimidated into obscuring our own wants and needs, which incidentally I do view as a cultural problem for many British women including myself. Being able to say yes and no in a variety of ways are important and I think “It’s getting late, so I’d like to stop” is just an ace phrase for an awkward situation.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 25 April 2008 at 4:14 pm

Male sexual violence against women is never as a result of miscommunication between the genders. This is another old chestnut being used to deflect accountability away from the male perpetrators. Deborah Cameron who is an expert on linguistics debunks this myth very succinctly in her book ‘The Myth of Mars and Venus.’ As another contributor has already mentioned.

Another aspect – strange how men are supposed to be rational compared to women yet unaccountably men supposedly do not understand when a woman is either saying clearly ‘no I do not want your penis in me – or any other sexual act committed on me.’ Men who commit rape and sexual assault know they are committing these offences but they deliberately place blame on the woman. It is a clever way of not taking responsibility for their actions. I am certain a man would react immediately if I were to attempt to take his wallet because i would not be able to claim ‘but you didn’t say no – or I thought you wanted me to steal your wallet.’ Sexual double standards again.

Rachel H-G // Posted 25 April 2008 at 7:31 pm

What everyone else said about saying “no” being a bit of a cultural no-no is basically correct. There are a million ways of saying no, and men do it as well as women.

What bugs me with these studies is that the results always put the onus on women to make sure these poor confused men know what they mean. Why not focus on letting men know it’s okay to ask what someone else means, if they’re not sure?

“No” is one of the first words that toddlers learn to use, to interact with others and let their feelings be known. If a toddler can understand it, we should expect adults of either gender to understand it even better.

Louise Livesey // Posted 25 April 2008 at 9:21 pm

Amy – yes, yes, yes! I completely agree and thanks for your insightful comment. You much more eloquently summed up my disquiet about this – that it puts the onus on women to understand men. Thank you!

Louise Livesey // Posted 25 April 2008 at 9:26 pm

Hi Nina, I don’t think I am confirming that. As others here have said there are issues about discursive practice in saying no and in how women are socialised into always being polite even at the detriment of our safety. That said I also don’t think it’s Motley’s place to advise women to do something which may, ultimately, result in negative personal or social or safety consequences. As Amy said above that’s the real problem, Motley translates his research findings from a male privileged perspective by arguing that it is women who must understand men more rather than advising men to be less bullish about their interpretations. Motley takes a tentative step on that process but doesn’t go far enough.

Juliet // Posted 26 April 2008 at 12:39 pm

I think the vast majority of men know perfectly damn well when a woman wants them to back off. Some of them just push their luck. And if they push it too far they also know perfectly damn well that the woman will be criticised for not being ‘direct’ enough (even if she was too scared), or having a drink or wearing a mini skirt or whatever, not them for intimidating her, and they can successfully plead wide-eyed innocence and hormones.

PC Bloggs // Posted 26 April 2008 at 9:00 pm

I agree with the last commenter, and I have to say I find it insulting to men and women to suggest that rape can be a side effect of “misunderstanding”. Let’s face it, there are times when a woman may want to be seduced/persuaded (not through violence, but seduction). However I do not think that many men have a problem knowing when these situations occur. In fact they are more likely to back off when the woman was actually hoping they would carry on.

There is a huge difference between this and a situation where physical strength, menacing body language and mental holds are used to intimidate/force a woman into having sex. Men who do this have almost certainly done it before – and we are talking a tiny minority of men. It is not because they are drunk or they got their “wires crossed”. These men know damn well when they are being resisted, whether it’s direct, indirect, or in the form of total submission. They know this because they have exerted pressure – not just persuasion but intimidation, force or menace – to get what they want.

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