Consent and sexual harassment


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The conversation about consent needs to happen now.

“Cuffing season” was first defined by Urban Dictionary users in 2011 as the period of time during which the temperatures fall during the October-May months, resulting in an increased number of people being ‘cuffed’, or becoming intimately involved with someone. As the month of January signifies the unofficial beginning of the Wisconsin snowfall season, curling up on the couch with a loved one and taking advantage of the variety of romantic winter date activities seems more appealing than ever.

However, while the languages of love are being used to woo potential partners, arguably the most important communication exchange that exists between two people is the most valuable component of any non-platonic relationship: the language of consent.

By now most everyone has heard the complaints of distressed men on the topic of interacting with a female. Many seem to describe it as a nightmarish scenario, the subject of countless memes and tweets harping on its tumultuous nature. These accusations range from women being passive-aggressively misleading to deliberately confusing. Mistaking kindness for flirtation, mixing signals, misinterpreting gestures or simply not understanding how to proceed from suggestive interactions are also amongst complaints that plague both genders.

To me, this is alarming. Flirting is, in terms of “steps” relating to the progression of any romantic or intimate relationship, the first step. The nature of it sets the tonality for the rest of the two engaged people’s interactions and is the initial glimpse into someone’s personality and demeanor that a person experiences, all while trying to be “cool” or “smooth.” Mixing signals or one party trying to progress forward with the relationship in a way that the other party simply doesn’t want to can lead to a variety of uncomfortable situations and a violation of a person’s consent and boundaries. And it all begins with flirting.

But, if it all begins with flirting, sweet-talking or empty words, it should be carried on by straightforward communication, a conversation that extends beyond frivolity. However, most men note that determining the nature of flirtation, or whether flirtation is happening at all, is the biggest issue, which makes having an open line of communication that would lead to the important discussion of consent and knowing what your partner wants and/or is ready to do more of a challenge. At the heart of this issue is where, if you were to think logically, a variety of unintentional instances of miscommunicated consent, leading to bigger issues, can occur.

People being confused in flirting scenarios is a reasonable dilemma to have. David Dryden Henningsen, a Northern Illinois University professor, identified six main reasons as to why people flirt: Intimate, Fun, Exploration, Relational, Esteem and Instrumental purposes. Recognizing the difference among the handful of motivators is an inherently challenging task. Another aspect of human psychology that complicates the perception of flirting scenarios is the Error Management theory by psychologist Mons Bendixen. This theory states that men have evolved to over-perceive sexual interest, whereas women have evolved to under-perceive it.

Theoretically, the solution to this would be communicating with someone clearly, with no subtext or hidden messages. But this is unlikely to ever be the case. A separate study by evolutionary scientist Steven W. Gangestad claims that flirting is a “negotiation process,” and that “It works much better to reveal [your attraction] and have it revealed to you in smaller doses…the flirting then becomes something that enhances the attraction.” In other words, we know that asking someone straight up if they are attracted to you or straight up if they want to engage in any sort of intimate or romantic relationship is going to act as a semi-immediate mood deterrent.

In conclusion: flirting = complicated. This much is obvious with or without the research. But, if you look at the data, the evolutionary and biological differences between men and women that can lead to misperceptions, as well as the inherent nature of romance that begs mystery, flirting is arguably at the center of instances of harassment, and communication could be a large part of finding a greater solution. Yet, when a flirting situation starts to escalate, it should be everyone’s job to know whether they have consent or not, as well as seek to ask that question. As a woman living in 21st century America, knowing all of this and looking to flirting for an explanation as to why so many women still experience harassment, I find myself constantly asking why so many women still do. Do men simply ignore these signs? Is it more of an issue of mixed signals that stems from initial contact?

I could write a dozen articles on flirting and consent and harassment in the greater world. My motivation in researching is to find a solution. How can we work to end harassment? How are people still misconstruing consent when it is such a simple concept? How can it still be so complicated? Is it complicated? Is harassment caused by ignoring signs or is it more accidental? But I know the girls and boys reading this right now are likely high school students or their parents. And a person’s first experience with flirting is oftentimes at the high school level. And so many women in those first interactions with boys experience those uncomfortable traveling hands or constant harassment for naked pictures.

So, I decided to narrow my field of research. Using social media, I was able to poll from the same pool of approximately 80 girls and 80 boys, Homestead students ranging from freshman to seniors, and ask them simple questions about flirting and consent.

When asked whether or not it is confusing to tell whether or not a girl “wants to do stuff” with them, 79% of boys said it was, compared to a mere 21% who said it was not. Yet, when asked whether or not it was easy to know whether or not you have consent, 75% of boys said it was. Logically, this means that the majority of boys in the flirting stage are unsure of whether or not a girl wants the same things as them, but in an actual physical situation, it is easier to know. This seems simple, understandable even, especially when looking at the responses boys gave when asked what about flirting with girls was complicated. Answers included ‘knowing where the boundaries are’, ‘knowing whether they like you or are just being nice’, and ‘differentiating between a flirty personality and genuine interest’. When asked what the experience of trying to determine whether or not a girl likes them, responses included ‘stressful’, ‘complicated as h**l’, ‘time-consuming’ and ‘difficult’.

Why is it stressful? Are females purposefully confusing when a boy flirts with them? In a survey of 85 14 – 18 year olds of each gender, according to 62% of surveyed boys, the answer is yes. Yet according to 78% of girls who were asked whether or not they purposefully confuse boys in flirting scenarios, the answer is ‘no’.

If you were to interpret this data in terms of a solution, you might be thinking that if a boy really wanted to know if a girl likes them or not, they should do the following: ask. Or, you might be wondering what a boy actually does in this situation to try and figure out if a girl does. So, the boys were asked the following: ‘When you are confused as to whether or not a girl likes you, what do you do?’ 79% of respondents said they ‘keep talking to the girl and see what happens’, 14% say they ‘keep talking to the girl but NOT in a sexual/romantic way’, 7% said they ‘give up entirely’, and an astounding 0% said they would ‘ask the girl straight-up’ if they liked him or not. But why? Part of the reason may be the overall 47% of both men and women who said that being immediately straight up with someone as to your wants takes the fun out of flirting.

So clearly, communication is not the typical go-to. Yet, from this data alone one could synthesize that largely the problem in male-female interaction as it relates to discomfort would be reading the signals of whether or not someone wants to progress in a way that is beyond platonic. But, in surveying females, the opposite seems to be true.

When asked whether or not a guy has ever made them feel uncomfortable after they had made it clear that they are not interested, 78% of girls said yes, and 73% of those girls said that they did not believe that boys are good at knowing when to stop/listen to them when they are giving them the signs/signals of when to stop. However, 83% of boys surveyed said that when they feel a girl uncomfortable, they stop pursuing them. At the same time though, 41% of boys said that they had continued to pursue a girl in the past even after they have shown that they are not interested, a thing which 77% of girls said they had experienced. Fifty-six percent of these girls then also said that if a girl shows that they are not interested once, boys should just stop their crusades.

The data from this section of the survey is contradictory. Girls say they have experienced situations differently than boys believe they have conducted themselves in. When reviewing this data, however, the clear difference in responses comes from the contrast in simple disinterest and discomfort. When men responded to prompts inquiring whether or not they’ve stopped after they’ve made a girl feel uncomfortable, only 27% admitted to having not. Yet 41% of those boys again admitted to having pursued a girl after they’d shown mere disinterest. Part of the disconnect between guys and girls seems to be defining the line between appropriately flirting in regards to disinterest vs discomfort. Based on these responses, when a girl is being pursued when they are clearly not interested in those advances, this a source of discomfort. Guys, on the other hand, appear to interpret these as two different things. Conclusively, it seems that men seem to think that discomfort occurs mainly when physical barriers are being crossed, whereas women experience it when it is both verbal (continual pursuing) and physical.

In final segment of the survey, 88% of boys said that they believe that they have respected women in the past when they have said “no”, whereas 60% of women felt that boys generally do not. But only 21% of men admitted to having in the past intentionally making a girl feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, 83% of men admitted to having unintentionally made a girl feel uncomfortable, and when asked why they feel that these instances may have happened, responses from the boys included “misunderstanding boundaries,” “saying inappropriate things such as ‘I’m going to touch you here and here’ when the girl wasn’t interested in that,” and “pushing too far.” This is in line with the 65% of females who said that they believed that most of the time, situations where they have felt discomforted by men have been unintentional, with 35% saying their experiences have been largely caused intentionally.

In total, that’s a lot of data, and after pouring over it all for an extensively long period of time, I was able to draw the six main conclusions:

The main issue in the flirting stage of a relationship is a lack of clear communication. This makes it difficult to define boundaries. It is apparent that both genders use inherently different language and signs to signal their interest, and there is a lack of understanding of how to interpret those.
No one seems to want to talk about “consent” blatantly.

Disinterest vs discomfort is not two separate entities in most situations in which women are being pursued. If a woman is pursued after she has made it clear that she is not interested, persuasion is unlikely to change her mind, and discomfort is an immediate, direct feeling from ignored disinterest, but men and women seem to interpret/see this differently.

Harassment is a spectrum and it means multiple different things. It isn’t just defined as three simple categories, such as consent, harassment, and rape, and it shouldn’t be taught as such. It’s rather a variety of both verbal and physical contacts which result in discomfort or pain, mentally, sexually, emotionally, and physically. It’s not a black and white issue.
From the data, boys oftentimes seem to undermine harassment if it seems more commonplace or “harmless” compared to other types. Part of the disconnect between some of the data between men saying they respect a woman when they say no and women saying the opposite could come from the idea that the first thing that comes to mind for a male when they hear respecting no is in regards to point-blank sexual activity. For a girl, this calls a variety of experiences to mind, such as when a girl says “no” to sending nudes or even “no” to holding hands. The value of all “no’s” however, should be respected the same, though they are not always treated or viewed equally.
Both boys and girls agree that the majority of incidents are a result of miscommunication, misunderstanding, or miseducation.

According to NPR, 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. One in five women will be raped compared to one in seventy-one men, says the NSVRC. We know these statistics.

But, there is a bit of hope in this research. Homestead High School students are aware of their experiences, at their wrongdoings, and both men and women agree that unintentional harassment has been more prevalent in their experiences. Most people, however, feel uncomfortable or unwilling to having blatant conversations about consent.

As put by Maddy Mcdonald, sophomore, “Consent is something that is awkward and uncomfortable to talk about because it can ruin the “mood” between two people.”

But we need to talk about it. The girls at this school struggle with harassment every single day. So what do we do? The following are what I believe are the key do’s and don’ts of consent:

Do: Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Take emotional risks. Positive and negative signals are easy to spot when you set aside what you want to happen and focus on what is. If you have to ask yourself no, she’s likely not playing hard to get, she’s simply not interested. This is not “confusing”, this is a female expressing herself in a way that she deems courteous.
Don’t: Keep pursuing her after she says no, or rejects you once. You saw the statistics: that’s not what females want, especially in a sexual context. Respect her decision, regroup, and move on. Or, if in a flirting scenario you say something your partner is discomforted by or is inappropriate, it is your job to recognize that, acknowledge that, and make sure that your partner understands that you are sorry and don’t have any intention of making the same mistake.

Do: In an instance where you have prior knowledge that you and your partner want to engage in sexual activity, talk about it beforehand. You don’t have to ask “what are the boundaries” to set them. Ask things such as “when we hang out/are in X situation, what do you want to do?” What’s discussed beforehand should be the assumed parameters for engaging in any further contact, and if you are in a situation it becomes your responsibility to respect your partner’s limits. And, if you feel that you can’t have an open conversation beforehand, this is an immediate red flag and I would personally advise you to reconsider.
Don’t: Try and convince them to go further. This can be perceived as/is a form of harassment. You should value your partner’s wishes more than your personal desires to progress. If for whatever reason you simply cannot fathom the idea of your partner not wanting to push certain boundaries, don’t put anyone in an uncomfortable situation, and maybe the match isn’t the best fit. Sexual situations shouldn’t ever be a compromise, and both partners should be 100% willing and comfortable in every experience.

Note: Consent is subject to change at any. time. If your partner at one point agrees to do something and last minute they decide they don’t want to, that’s perfectly okay and is non-negotiable. Saying “yes” once doesn’t have to be and is not a long-term commitment.

Do: It is your responsibility to respect your partner’s consent and make sure that they are comfortable. If they seem to hesitate or are discomforted by your actions: stop. That’s a note to yourself that your partner is questioning their decision or comfort level and it is now your job to ask them if what you are doing is okay. This isn’t a difficult thing to spot and is in fact very simple if you look beyond what you’ve built the experience up to be like in your head and focus on what’s happening. Your partner should never have to come to a point where they are physically pushing you off of them to spot something that you’re doing that is very clearly not okay. Checking in every now and then with a “is this good” or a “do you like X” is not a mood killer: it’s important especially if it’s your first interaction with someone.
Don’t: Push boundaries, pretend to ignore signals or try to coerce/convince someone into an act they very clearly do not want to engage in or are hesitant about. Those choices are personal; they aren’t your business to press. Don’t intentionally ignore your partner’s wishes. Don’t fight your partner or ignore them when they are telling you what they don’t want or are telling you to stop doing something. This is abusive behavior.

Note: If you find yourself in a situation with someone and there was no prior conversation with them, you have to feel out the boundaries and it becomes especially important to communicate. Even something as simple as “Does this feel okay?” has a massive impact. If your partner doesn’t want to do something, absolutely do not attempt to force them via physical means, guilt, emotion, etc.

In conclusion yes, this article has been lengthy and no it isn’t a very comfortable subject. But now more than ever we have to be educated on what consent truly is and make ourselves aware of how to be respectful. We aren’t too young to have this conversation anymore, and it has to happen now. We have to understand the issue so as to be able to fight it. Still don’t get the urgency? Using an anonymous submissions app, I was able to gather the experiences of females who go to this school in response to the question, “What are examples of situations you have been put in that have made you uncomfortable/instances of harassment?” The following are some of the responses:

“I was once hanging in a group of friends and my one guy friend, who I had a crush on at the time, started putting his hand on my thigh. At first, I was fine, since I liked him, but then his hands started going a little too close for comfort.”

“Boys have made me feel super uncomfortable and I’ve been harassed for pictures.”

“A boy once tried to force my head down.”

“I’ve gotten forced and abused to have sex with someone.”

Things have to change and things have to change fast. Consent is important and a no is a no. We need to understand each other, understand ourselves, and understand what consent truly means to build a safer school community and ultimately a safer society.

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