Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Miscommunication Myth

Several months ago, I remember participating in a friendly online debate in a forum with some friends and acquaintances about communication in sexual interactions. The debate started because my friend asked if anyone ever had any difficulty with saying no to unwanted sexual advances. Somehow this conversation devolved into a debate about soft refusals (refusals that try to placate the other person) and hard refusals (saying “No”) and women’s use of them in particular. It was said that soft refusals were a disservice to everyone involved because the refusal is not clear enough, leads to confusion and is a waste of time. Statements like “I can say 'no', why can’t they?” were being said and I felt like we were only ten seconds away from someone saying, “If only women would just be blunt about their feelings, then men would finally be able to understand them.” The whole discussion started to disturb me. The conversation went from discussing how difficult it was for people in general to refuse unwanted sexual advances to pretty much chastising women for not refusing ‘properly’.

I have not forgotten about this discussion/debate and to this day, it still makes me uncomfortable. The only difference between now and then is that I am able to describe why I feel this way. I feel uncomfortable because this discussion reminds me of the miscommunication theory. Hannah Frith and Celia Kitzinger describe the miscommunication theory, in their article “Talk About Sexual Miscommunication,” as a theory “used to argue that rape and other forms of sexual abuse are often the outcome of "miscommunication" between partners: he misinterprets her verbal and nonverbal communication, falsely believing that she wants sex; she fails to say "no" clearly and effectively” (518). According to the miscommunication theory, a woman’s use of a soft refusal could lead to a potential misunderstanding and this misunderstanding could then lead to sexual harassment, assault and/or rape. The theory was created by Deborah Tannen who claimed that because men and women are raised differently in society, they develop different methods of communication and are therefore unable to understand each other all the time (Firth and Kitzinger, 517-518). There are “benefits” to this theory. Men who are accused of sexual harassment or other forms of sexual abuse can always say that the woman simply was not clear enough and “that she gave off mixed messages, and that even if she did say "no," she didn't say it as if she meant it” (521). Her response was far too ambiguous to be understood and therefore the blame should be placed on her and not him. Before I continue, I should say that any individual of any gender or sexual orientation can be a harasser/abuser/rapist and anyone can be the person who is harassed/abused/raped. However, this specific theory and its criticisms focus on the gender and sexual relations between men and women, where women are the ones being abused, specifically. The miscommunication theory does not just apply to instances of rape. The theory could also be applied to ‘persistent suitors’. Imagine a situation in which a man approaches a woman and asks her out on a date. The woman declines, saying, “Um, no sorry, I can’t. I have to go do xyz.” However, in spite of this refusal, the guy persists: “Oh well, what about next Tuesday? Or Thursday? I know a little about xyz. Maybe I could help you…” and continues to pursue her despite the refusal. A miscommunication theorist would argue that if only the woman said, “No.” bluntly. This would have hypothetically made it clear to the man that she was not interested in him at all and he would have gracefully walked away and left her alone. Another “benefit” is the false sense of control this theory gives women, the same way carrying keys in their hands while walking home at night would. A woman could always say, “Oh, it would never happen to me if I just did xyz.” “I’m not like her. I do this and that.”  However, on the flip side, the theory also makes a woman feel guilty if she is sexually abused: “Oh, if I only communicated clearer…”

It should be obvious by now that I do not agree with the miscommunication theory. There is something inherently wrong with a theory that blames the victim for the abuse they suffered, gives the abusers an easy out and provides others with a false sense of control instead of actually dealing with the problem of abuse. And honestly, I do not agree that instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and other sexual consent violations are the result of innocent miscommunication. Humans are social creatures and we have developed very sensitive and sophisticated methods of communication and communication analysis. We are able to determine an individual’s mood through quick analysis of verbal and non-verbal cues, including body language. It just does not make sense that suddenly our methods of communication can be so utterly deficit in this one aspect of life.

This miscommunication ‘debate’ boils down to one question: Are the communication styles of men and women different?” Two recent articles have looked into this question using conversation analysis tools and data from focus groups and have come to the conclusion that the miscommunication theory is a hoax. In the first article, “Just say no? The use of conversation analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal,” Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith analyze the effectiveness of the “Just say no” refusal strategies that many date rape prevention programs teach women through the use of conversation analysis. According to many rape prevention programs, if women were taught to say “no” clearly and resolutely, then men won’t be confused by ‘mixed signals’. According to miscommunication theory and, to a large extent, the “Just say no” date rape prevention programs, women seem to be predisposed to having an almost abnormal difficulty in saying “no” to refusals, sexual ones in particular. The reasons for this supposedly female problem have been cited to be due to society teaching young girls to be meek and mild, evolutionary pressures that apparently cause women to lack aggression and become submissive or low self-esteem (Kitzinger et al., 297). These refusal strategies also play into the miscommunication theory by implying that it is up to women to be clear and to avoid the consequences of being misunderstood (i.e. sexually assaulted/harassed/raped). In their article, Kitzinger et al. brings up a very good point. The difficulty that women seem to face in bluntly refusing unwanted sexual advances is not a phenomenon exclusive to women. The authors state, “However, what these explanations leave out is the simple fact that saying no is difficult in any context…It is common for people to experience difficulty in refusing invitations or declining offers, at whatever age, and across a wide variety of situations”(297). In our society, we are taught that a plain “no” in response to an offer is rude. If someone offered to give me a sandwich that I did not want, the polite thing to do would be to say “No, thank you.” Or “No, thank you. I already ate.” Kitzinger et al. continue saying, “Saying no ‘nicely’ has always been a key question of etiquette and therapists and counselors also often find themselves giving advice on how to say no. Such advice would not be so widely available if most people experienced saying no as unproblematic” (297). When one analyzes general conversations in which individuals accept or refusal an invitation or offer, patterns can be recognized. When one is accepting an invitation or request, the answer is immediate. There are no delays and a simple “yes” is given. This is true in sexual and non-sexual situations (Kitzinger et al., 300). However, refusals are very different. Usually, when someone is refusing an invitation or request (sexual or non-sexual), there is a pause before the refusal. Also words like “um” and “uh” and “ah” are used and then “a palliative remark, and some kind of account aimed at softening, explaining, justifying, excusing, or redefining the rejection” are also used (Kitzinger et al., 302). An example of a palliative remark and an account being used in a refusal would be: “Well, that sounds nice, but I have a doctor’s appointment that morning.” Weak agreements (“Um, well, I guess…) prefaced and followed by delays and pauses are also shown to be seen as refusals. The apparent lack of enthusiasm is obvious and would normally put a damper on one’s request. Pauses, palliative remarks and weak agreements are used in everyday conversations as nicer, more polite ways to reject someone. In this example from the article, an individual offers something to another individual:

“C: Well you can both stay.
(0.4) [pause]
Got plenty a’ room.” (308)

In this example, Person C offers their place for this individual to sleep over. There is a pause in the conversation because the individual is silent and does not respond to the offer. Person C takes this pause as a refusal or as a potential refusal and tries to sweeten the deal by saying they have plenty of room. The individual hearing the invitation never had to say “no” or anything for that matter for their intentions to be relatively clear. Kitzinger et al. conclude that women should not be blamed for refusing advances unclearly or be taught to say “no” bluntly because they are simply following the standardized and commonly used methods of refusals that everyone uses on a daily basis and they state, “it is not the adequacy of their communication that should be questioned, but rather their male partners’ claims not to understand that these women are refusing sex” (309-310).

The second article that I would like to discuss is in many ways a sequel to the Kitzinger et al. article. The Kitzinger et al. article used conversation analysis to argue the point that women are not the only ones who experience difficulty in just saying “no” and that, in actuality, women should not be required to do so because that is not how most people normally refuse invitations and offers in everyday non-sexual scenarios. Expecting women to just say “no” is placing an unrealistic burden on them that is not placed on anyone else in any other situation. The second article, “‘You Couldn’t Say “No”, Could You?’: Young Men’s Understandings of Sexual Refusal” by Rachael O’Byrne, Mark Rapley and Susan Hansen, collects data from two focus groups of young heterosexual men between the ages of 19 and 34 years old and uses conversation analysis to study men’s abilities to perform and understand refusals in both sexual and non-sexual situations. Using the data from this study, O’Byrne et al. have concluded that men are perfectly able to perform refusals and understand societal rules clearly. The men in the study agree that a simple “no” is not how refusals are done. They also add palliative remarks and make excuses to gently couch the refusals, as shown in this example:

“You might come up with something to say
some other way you’re feeling at that time
that night “I’m sick so I’ll be in bed”
or “I’m going out with someone else” or
“I’m having dinner with my grandparents” that kind of thing…” (138).

Not only were the men in the study able to show they could perform a refusal, but they also were able to show they could understand refusals as well, and, in particular, sexual refusals:

“Mhmm great okay so are there ways of knowing when it’s not on the cards [pause] how would a guy pick up that sex is not on the cards that way
John: Body language
George: The conversation gets shorter
John: …you know there’s always little hints like letting you know that “I’ve just uh changed my mind” [pause] yeah there’s always little hints” (144).

Here, it is clear that the men do not need to hear the word “no” to understand that a woman is not sexually interested in them. They pick up on things like body language, the shortening of a conversation and excuses/hints and clearly recognize them as refusals. Even absolute silence is interpreted as a refusal. As O’Byrne et al., state, “The men claim that simply getting ‘no reaction’ from a woman […] that, although extremely indirect, successfully accomplish a clear refusal” (148). One of the men even says that if a woman “doesn’t respond in the same way then you know it’s a pretty good sign and you’re not on the same level” (148). One of the most striking comments made by the men in the study was the idea that giving and receiving consent is not a one-time act. According to the men, sex is not something that just happens. Instead, “sex is constructed…as a sequential, with a beginning and an end, which requires a great deal of interactional work in between” (143). Within this frame of thought, consensual sex is an act that requires effort from both parties in order to take place and this effort throughout the entire act is how each party reinforces the consent they had given in the beginning. And, as a result of this necessary interaction, “by ‘not putting effort into it’ or not ‘really playing up the whole sex thing’ is, effectively, to produce a refusal” (143). So therefore, one vague/weak agreement or even silence should not be considered to be enough consent to sexual activity. Without this interaction and effort performed by both parties, the sexual act is not consensual. It is harassment. It is assault. And it is rape.

So the O’Byrne et al. article clearly shows that use of the word “no” is not necessary in order to successfully conduct a refusal. Men are able to properly perform and understand sexual refusals even when the word “no” is not used. This fact makes miscommunication theory impossible and unrealistic. Kitzinger et al. agrees, saying, “If there is an organized and normative way of doing indirect refusal…then 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” (310). This miscommunication theory, if true, basically considers men to be wholly unintelligent and unable to remember and understand basic communication skills. I personally would find this extremely insulting if I were a man. So if misunderstanding is not the problem then what is? It is my assertion that sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape occur not because men are unable to understand the refusals of women, but because they do not like what they are hearing and choose to ignore it. Our culture has taught men that they are entitled to the bodies of women and has encouraged the idea that their refusals mean nothing. When someone feels entitled to something, not getting what they want feels like a robbery. Women’s bodies (and the bodies of others who are harassed, abused and raped) become objects to be seized and/or pried from fingers as a result. When it comes to ‘persistent suitors’ (aka harassers), abusers or rapists, it is not that they don’t understand. They just do not consider willingness to be as much of a priority in relation to their own desires. The refusals are not taken seriously and consent is not made a priority and this is wrong. 

Ensuring that you have the consent of your partner and avoiding a situation in which you become the harasser (or worse) is actually quite simple. Make your feelings known once and if you don’t receive a definite affirmative answer, back off. Do not try again later. Do not offer the person more drinks or try to persuade them. Do not touch them or try to otherwise seduce them. They are not interested. If you try again and continue to push, you are a harasser at best. Open and honest communication makes for the best interactions and the best sex. And gracefully accepting a refusal and moving on makes for the best kind of person.

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