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The Love Series: Teaching men to give consent

I thought I understood consent. It seemed simple: you’ve got to make sure that the other person is comfortable, you need to read their body language, you must allow them to state their permission clearly. It wasn’t a conversation I’ve had often with my parents or teachers but, on the few occasions I did, they made it clear that this is how a gentleman must behave.

When the #MeToo earthquake hit us in 2017, people started talking about it more openly: on social media, on tv, in the papers. Perhaps for the first time, my friends and I became comfortable discussing the topic even in informal situations, such as dinner parties or at the pub on a Friday night. Talking about consent had finally become mainstream. 

We had all the information we needed, and us men – well, most of us, I like to believe - permanently got it into our heads: no means no. I was perfectly aware of the seriousness of the situation and its nuances, like the fact that consent is not limited to sexual intercourse but also other intimate acts like kissing and touching. By that point, I had developed a vocabulary that allowed me to clearly gauge my partner’s level of comfort, sometimes with excessive zeal, leaving no room for doubt or uncertainty.

But then, after getting caught in an unpleasant encounter in a club, I began asking myself some questions. Had I ever stopped to think if I were comfortable with some things? Had I always enjoyed and felt at ease with everything I had done? The answer upset me.

The club episode was the first crack in the wall. And it wasn’t until a friend told me ‘’what happened was wrong’’ that I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that, when it came to giving consent, I was holding myself to a different standard. And that may be the case, I’m afraid, for many men – both straight and queer, who don’t imagine that a man can be a victim too, of a woman – or another man.

Most people assume that boys rarely find themselves in this situation. And statistically, that is true. But the assumption that as a man consent is almost automatic is a very dangerous one. Society’s dismissal of the importance of males giving consent doesn’t take into account issues surrounding toxic masculinity, mental health, sexuality, gender stereotypes, dynamics of power, intoxication and so on.

In the conversation surrounding consent, a man’s right to say no remains, surprisingly, a grey area. Finding men to talk about their experiences openly is, predictably, near impossible. And existing literature on the topic is very scarce and only deals with more extreme cases like rape and forced penetration.

A 2003 study on sexual coercion showed that “substantial percentages of men were subjected to the sexually persistent behaviour of female perpetrators.” Dr Struckman-Johnson, professor of psychology at the University of South Dakota and author of the paper, points out that “most of the behaviours reported were of a non-physical nature, while tactics of physical force were less frequently used.”

In a way, I have recognised myself in some of the issues and red flags raised by the women who talked to me about their experiences. Was I afraid that opening up about my discomfort could make me look less “masculine”? Did I allow some things to happen just because I believed that that’s what is expected of a man?

“I have collected many descriptions of incidents in which college-age men have been sexually exploited,” Dr Struckman-Johnson says, revealing that in the most common cases “the man was too drunk or high to fend off a woman, he was verbally pressured and embarrassed by a woman who challenged his masculinity or his heterosexuality when he refused her or he was reluctant to offend or disappoint a woman who was demanding sexual interaction.”

Is this dynamic different in same sex couples? A piece of research published in 2016 showed that gay men are at a substantially higher risk of sexual assault on campus (US) than their heterosexual counterparts, with a 32% rate of unwanted sexual contact for gay men compared to 22% for heterosexual men.

What really surprised me, however, was not the fact that gay men are more victimised than heterosexual man, but the fact that the gender of perpetrators for these acts was 68% male for gay incidents, meaning that women also are victimizing gay men.

Then how come most of us are completely astounded when something like that happens to men? Perhaps it’s because no one told us. And if they did, they didn’t tell us loud enough because they, too, are misled by old societal stereotypes that prevent us from recognising the risks that people of all genders are exposed to.

“My research colleagues Peter B. Anderson & George Smeaton have strongly encouraged others in the field of sexual aggression research to use anti-sexual assault programs to educate women about the rights of men to say no to a woman’s sexual advance,” Dr Struckman-Johnson continues.

“Women should be educated about the stereotypes that may promote their use of coercive sexual behaviours, such as that every man is always interested in sex with every woman, and that every man is always ready to have sex at any opportunity,” she concludes.

It seems that behaviours and perceptions surrounding genders roles and consent are changing, but not necessarily for the better. A 2017 study suggests that millennial men and women are now "adopting a shared set of post-sexual refusal conventions” and while “equal portions of Millennial and older generation men used arousal Post-Refusal Sexual Persistence tactics (45%)” it appears that “Millennial women had a higher rate (36.79%) than older generation women (16.95%).”

While millennials have become more sensitised to the concept of consent, these findings show that there is still a long way to go and that a comprehensive education on consent that takes into account the needs of both men and women is still badly needed.


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