I saw a screenshot of a simplified data table in a textbook on the internet titled ‘When Is Rape Okay?’ It referenced a UCLA study called “Adolescents and Their Perceptions of Sexual Interactions” by researchers Goodchilds, Zellman, Johnson, and Giamusso, published in Rape and Sexual Assault II, edited by Ann Wolbert Burgess for Garland Publications in 1988.
I realize that the study is over 30 years old at this point, but the questions and answers I read were disturbing. The table I saw gave the group of surveyed high school kids at the time this question, ‘Is it all right if a male physically holds a female down and forces her to have sex if…’ along with 9 different common dating scenarios/’excuses’ for why it wasn’t really rape, and logged the percentages of students who answered something other than a clear, unequivocal ‘no.’
All of the percentages were more than zero. ALL of them. Boys and girls, in percentages as high as 54%, stated that under some circumstances, essentially, rape was okay. That the victim bore some responsibility in her own attack. For things like ‘leading him on,’ or ‘he spent a lot of money on her,’ or ‘she said she would, but then didn’t.’
I’ve seen this study picked apart for several reasons, the main two going something like this:
1. There’s no way to know for sure how many students answered these questions as ‘black humor.’ In other words, it’s assumed that a significant percentage of high school students (both boys and girls) are so black-hearted, and consequence neglectful, and consider rape so flippantly they would intentionally ruin a major university study on sexual assault perception as a joke.
Obviously, I don’t buy into this critique. Not only does it underestimate and maybe even demonize young people, it’s not exactly a comforting statistical rebuke that, well, maybe some of these young people don’t actually believe these things about rape, but they are willing to pretend they do as a joke and to invalidate major collegiate social psychology research while doing it. That’s still not good by any stretch. And…
2. The original image simplified the complex survey to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, when really the questions were asked on a 5 point scale, and those percentages logged ‘anything except a no’ as a ‘yes.’
I find this ironic because a lot of men I know…even men I know who I previously considered and still want to consider ‘good men,’ believe that if a woman says ‘anything except a no,’ she means ‘yes.’ THEN, that statement is correct, but in that SURVEY, it’s not. ????
Anyway, beyond the irony, all of the questions asked were basically, ‘If a woman does X, is it all right for a man to then rape her?’ And the answers were, across the board, from boys AND GIRLS, something other than ‘no,’ in frighteningly large percentages (which to me, and I’m sure many other humans…is any percentage more than zero).
My actual critique of the survey is that the questions were too vague. Like…what behavior constitutes ‘leading him on?’ How much money is ‘a lot’ of money?
“You led me on,” could equal…
You were nice to me. You replied when I asked you questions. You smiled. You laughed. You didn’t turn your back on me while I spoke. You didn’t walk away. You didn’t say things to me like, ‘Ugh,’ or, ‘Go away,’ or, ‘Leave me alone,’ or versions of those phrases that contained swear words with an angry and/or disgusted expression on your face. Maybe you even decided to dance with me, or made some physical contact like touching me, or allowed me to touch you without forcibly shoving my hand away, or kissing without pulling away, or pushing me back, or threatening me with (or actually giving me) bodily harm. Maybe you agreed to meet me somewhere else at a future time to spend more time together. Maybe you gave me your phone number, or took mine. You texted me back right away. You answered when I called. You contacted ME first. And of course, because you did these things, what other conclusion could I have possibly drawn other than you wanted to have sex with me, even though you did not give me clear, sober, affirmative consent?
By not telling me to go away, by responding to conversational cues, by offering me kindness, and *any* physical contact, you should have known that your interaction with me could *only* lead to sex. Because when those things occur in human interaction, human beings lose all semblance of self-control and lucidity. They become the animals so many of them claim not to be evolved from. They lose responsibility for their own actions.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Right.
Whatever a person’s behavior is prior to sexual contact, it’s still sexual assault if that person hasn’t given you clear, sober, affirmative consent. ‘Leading him on’ does not make it acceptable.
NOTHING MAKES SEXUAL ASSAULT ACCEPTABLE.
And that the researchers specified a male forcing a female to have sex. I’ll forgive the inherent heteronormativity and discounting of male victims in the survey because it’s 30+ years old to a degree. But it bothers me because teaching about consent and empathy when it comes to sexual assault always focuses on ‘the other,’ and I think it should focus on ‘the self.’ I think the questions should be formulated to say, ‘If they spent a lot of money on YOU…’ Or ‘if they think YOU led them on…’ For both boys and girls, men and women, people of all genders. I’ve found in my own personal, small sample size, unscientific research, many more people understand consent when it comes to having their own boundaries violated than when thinking of it happening to some ‘other’ person.
I think fiction informs a lot of thinking, particularly with young, impressionable people, about romantic relationships and sexual interaction. And that’s why I hold up and maybe even venerate enthusiastic, informed consent in the stories I write. And I’ll keep writing them that way at least until all of those percentages go to ‘zero.’