If you’ve been following the hilarious Tumblr site, “Confused Cats Against Feminism,” you’ll have seen this dog who says “all cats love being chased, you can just tell.” This joke is funny precisely because we know that what the dog believes is wrong, and it mocks the attitude through which a man might dismiss the feminist insistence that women actually have sexual boundaries. If a guy thinks — no, knows — that, deep down, a woman “wants it” and is certain that he “can just tell,” then our rape prevention strategy of telling people to “communicate clearly” is not enough.
Given what a common problem date, acquaintance, and party rape is on college campuses, students are routinely told to “communicate clearly” so that their dates aren’t left to read facial expressions and eye movements. Of course, this presumes that a guy is sexually assaulting out of just “not realizing”, or being insensitive to, the fact that the woman doesn’t want the same thing he wants, and that if he had only known he’d have backed off immediately. While this might be true in some instances, we know this is not necessarily the case, as evidenced by victims’ – and some perpetrators’ – reports that saying “NO” does not always stop an assailant.
Our culture teaches, and therefore some guys learn, that guys’ opinions and ways of defining situations are more important than those of the female persuasion. To take a hypothetical example, if a guy’s buddies (and his men’s magazines, and most TV shows, movies, blogs, and news reports) all convey that when a woman is eating chocolate, she gets so excited that she’ll want sex with whomever is in her company, then this guy will be reading, understanding, and even thinking empathically about this chocolate-consuming woman (or at least his idea of women), as wanting to have sex with him.
The 1960s Warner Brothers Pepé Le Pew cartoon humorously illustrates this point. In that cartoon, a male skunk chances upon a black female cat who has unfortunately had a stripe of white paint spilled across her back. Since we know she’s a cat, we understand that she finds the skunk repugnant. Pepé Le Pew is comically clueless as he chases the nonverbal kitty and repeatedly attempts to capture her. At every turn, the skunk interprets every act of resistance on the cat’s part as a further invitation to him to pursue her. When she attempts to run away from him, and when she resists him by hitting him over the head, he construes her as “flirting.” He concludes that “she wants to play hard to get” and that “she is shy” at other points when she shows what we know is opposition to him. At one point, the skunk expounds, “She thinks that by running away, she can make herself more attractive to me. How right she is!”
Now, in the world of cartoon skunks, we might assume that a female skunk would indeed desire Pepé le Pew, simply because she too is a skunk, and we recognize that Penelope does not want Pepé because she is really a cat. However, in the world of human beings, as Virginia Tech sociologist Neal King’s analysis reminds us, there is no category through which a guy can assume or presume a woman is sexually interested in him. Yet in a rape culture that constructs women as sexually available to men for the taking, a guy might arrogantly (mis)interpret any number of things – a woman’s race, social class status, college Greek house, academic status, level of attractiveness, gestures, and behaviors – as a desire for sex with him. But none of those things can, or should, provide a guy any assurance whatsoever of his desirability to a woman. Sadly, though, as Prof. King (p. 874) puts it, “[M]en can interpret anything that women do as signs of desire.”
Given the all-too-common tendency of guys interpreting, Pepé le Pew style, women’s behavior as signals of sexual interest, Dr. King concludes that no amount of telling men or women to communicate better will necessarily bring about sexual encounters that are truly respectful and consensual. If the problem is the default assumption, “She wants to have sex with me!”, then telling men and women to communicate more clearly won’t reduce the number of sexual assaults on dates and at parties. King (2003: 874) argues that the rape prevention strategy that emphasizes the victimization of women “may be the least constructive part of our project.” Further, he argues that affirming women’s vulnerability (as opposed to emphasizing their willingness and ability to resist rape) and encouraging men to know women more, and more deeply, are bound to backfire on us.
A good way to challenge men on their sense of certainty is to get them to question how they “know” what they “know” about women, to make them feel less certain than they may already feel.
Furthermore, if we teach women the techniques that allow them to back up their verbal communication with physical resistance, then we do two things: we give them the practical, in-the-moment tools to thwart a sexual assault, and we provide to men a series of behaviors and words far less likely to be (mis)interpreted as sexual interest. Teaching women to defend themselves, publicizing their ability widely, and pressing the point that women resist might just challenge men’s sense of sexual certainty.
Postscript: We regard it as no coincidence that Neal King has cats.