Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer


I just read a paper from the discipline of conversation analysis.  It dovetails nicely with what I wrote in Talking Past Each Other, and I’m going to go through some of the findings (I can’t redistribute the paper itself), and talk about some conclusions.  Long story short:  in conversation, “no” is disfavored, and people try to say no in ways that soften the rejection, often avoiding the word at all.  People issue rejections in softened language, and people hear rejections in softened language, and the notion that anything but a clear “no” can’t be understood is just nonsense.  First, the notion that rape results from miscommunication is just wrong.  Rape results from a refusal to heed, rather than an inability to understand, a rejection.  Second, while the authors of the paper say that this makes all rape prevention advice about communicating a clear “no” pointless, I have a different take.  Clear communication of “no” isn’t primarily going to avoid miscommunication — rather, it’s a meta-message.  Clear communication against the undercurrent that “no” is rude and should be softened is a sign of the willingness to fight, to yell, to report.

Kitzinger & Frith (1999)

The paper I just read is Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith, Just Say No? The Use of Conversation Analysis In Developing A Feminist Perspective On Sexual Refusal, Discourse & Society 1999 10:293.  Their methodology is a reanalysis of other date, including conversations in focus groups including 58 school and university students that they previously collected for other papers.  (The authors are at UK schools and from the language used their participants seemed to be predominantly Brits.)  Conversation analysis involves the painstaking cataloguing not only of the words used, but the way they are used — pauses (with lengths in tenths of second), overlapping speech, elongated syllables, verbal nods, rising tones and all.  Every um, ah, I guess and momentary silence that gets omitted from regular transcriptions is noted and used in conversation analysis.

Here’s what they find in a nutshell: 

Drawing on the conversation analytic literature, and on our own data, we claim that both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, and we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.

[p. 295, emphasis mine.] 

The women in their focus group told them that saying no to sex was so difficult that they “try to avoid ever having to do it.”  [p.296.]  The authors ask why, and run through the usual sexuality-specific answers, but then arrive at a more radical conclusion:  that the difficulty of saying “no” is not an aberration.  “No” is hard, and it’s particularly hard for women, but part of the normal conversational structure is that “no” is a “disfavored” response, to use a technical term from the field.    Citing literature, they note that “[a]cceptances generally involve (i) simple acceptance; and (ii) no delay” while “refusals very rarely involve ‘just saying no’.”  [p. 300.]  That’s not just sexual acceptance and refusal — those are conversational norms in the English language.  Here are examples, in the complex transcription style they used, a style called Jeffersonian Transcription.  The parens note pauses (very short or, where a number is given, in seconds or tenths thereof); the “.hh indicates a short inhale.

Example 3

Mark:    We were wondering if you wanted to come over Saturday, f ’r dinner.


Jane:    Well (.) .hh it’d be great but we promised Carol already.

               (Potter and Wetherell, 1987: 86)

Example 4

A:    Uh if you’d care to come and visit a little while this

         morning I’ll give you a cup of coffee.

B:     hehh Well that’s awfully sweet of you, I don’t think I can

         make it this morning. .hh uhm I’m running an ad in the

         paper and-and uh I have to stay near the phone.

         (Atkinson and Drew, 1979: 58)

 [p.301.]  Note that neither of these refusals involve the word “no.”  They are, to most of us, nonetheless clear.  They include a number of tactics that many of us recognize: delay; prefaces or hedges (uh, well …); palliatives like appreciation; and explanation.  The last is interesting: explanations usually go like this: “I would love to, but I can’t …”  The refuser situates the refusal in an inability, rather than an unwillingness, to accept.   “I’d love to, except that I don’t want to” is a wisecrack precisely because it plays on that norm — the sentence is structured to disguise the unwillingness but ends with a twist by stating it explicitly.  The authors note that “refusals are almost always accompanied by explanations or justifications”, citing literature.  [p.302.] 

So the authors conclude that as a general matter “just say no” is an odd instruction because, “[q]uite simply, that is not how refusals are normatively done.”  [p. 302.]  The women in their focus groups talked about issuing sexual refusals, and they said they did so in a manner that tracked the general disinclination to issue them directly:

 In general, the young women in our focus groups characterized explicit refusals of sex as having negative implications for them. Later in the same group discussion quoted earlier, Sara comments that ‘they’d probably think you were really arrogant if you turned round and said, “I’m not going to have sex with you though, alright” ’, and Liz agrees with her, saying, ‘you’d feel a right prat’. In another focus group, Rachel admits that ‘I’ve very rarely said to someone, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested at all” ’, and Megan agrees that to make such a clear and direct statement would make her ‘feel a complete charlie’. In sum, these young women’s talk about the rudeness and arrogance which would be attributed to them, and the foolishness they would feel, in saying clear and direct ‘no’s, indicates their awareness that such behaviour violates culturally accepted norms according to which refusals are dispreferred actions.

[p.303, emphasis mine.]   These women said they generally offered excuses that posited an inability rather than unwillingness to accept the offer because, in one woman’s words, “that would stop the boy from blaming you.”  [p.304.]

Since softened and couched refusals are how refusals are typically issued in conversation, that’s how they are usually heard, too.  Reviewing the research, the authors find that people understand refusals to all kinds of offers in pauses, deflections, conditionals or even weak acceptances with certain tones and pauses.  [p. 307-09.]  The authors then draw this conclusion about women communicating refusal:

[Y]oung women responding to unwanted sexual pressure are using absolutely normal conversational patterns for refusals: that is, according to the research literature (and our own data) on young women and sexual communication, they are communicating their refusals indirectly; their refusals rarely refer to their own lack of desire for sex and more often to external circumstances which make sex impossible; their refusals are often qualified (‘maybe later’), and are accompanied by compliments (‘I really like you, but . . .’) or by appreciations of the invitation (‘it’s very flattering of you to ask, but . . .’); and sometimes they refuse sex with the kind of ‘yes’s which are normatively understood as communicating refusal. These features are all part of what are commonly understood to be refusals.

[p.309, emphasis mine.].  That means that they are “communicating in ways which are usually understood to mean refusal in other contexts and it is not the adequacy of their communication that should be questioned, but rather their male partners’ claims not to understand[.]” [pp. 309-310, emphasis mine.]  In support of this proposition, they cite to some things men and boys have said in from other papers  [TRIGGER WARNING for the blockquote — pro-rape exhortations]:

responded with posters of their own including slogans such as ‘no means kick her in the teeth’, ‘no means on your knees bitch’, ‘no means tie her up’, ‘no means more beer’ and ‘no means she’s a dyke’ (cf. Mahood and Littlewood, 1997). Similar evidence comes from a recent study of 16-year-old boys who were asked ‘if you wanted to have sex and your partner did not, would you try to persuade them to have sex? How?’: the researchers comment that there was ‘clear evidence of aggression towards girls who were not prepared to be sexually accommodating’ and quote interview extracts in which boys say that in such situations they would ‘root the fucking bitch in the fucking arse’, ‘give her a stern talking to’, or just ‘shove it in’ (Moore and Rosenthal, 1992, cited in Moore and Rosenthal, 1993: 179). The problem of sexual coercion cannot be fixed by changing the way women talk.

[p.311, emphasis mine.]

O’Byrne, Hansen & Rapley (2008)

What Kitzinger & Frith say agrees with some research I’ve written about before, in Talking Past Each Other.  I focused on other things when I first wrote up O’Byrne et al., but here I’ll quote them on what their young men understand about refusing sex:

In a discussion of how they themselves would refuse unwanted sex (Extract 1) it is apparent that the participants are well aware that— despite the emphasis placed on it by the majority of ‘rape prevention’ programmes— effective sexual refusals need not contain the word ‘no’. Indeed it is evident that these young men share the understanding that explicit verbal refusals of sex per se are unnecessary to effectively communicate the withholding of consent to sex.

[p. 175, emphasis mine.]  The authors review more conversation excerpts, and conclude:

It seems clear then that young men, in these focus groups at least, are capable of displaying not only that they are competent at the offering of refusals, but also of hearing forms of female conduct (e.g. ‘body language’, l. 263, 268; the ‘shortness’, l. 270 or ‘abruptness’ of conversation, l. 272) as ways in which women may clearly communicate their disinterest in sex. It is also clear that the men can hear both ‘little hints’ (l. 278) and ‘softened’ refusals as refusals—thus statements like ‘it’s getting late’ (l. 273) or ‘I’m working early in the morning’ (l. 276) are not taken at face value as comments by women on the time or their employment schedule—but rather as indicators that, in the moderator’s words, ‘sex is not on the cards’. Of note here is that in none of the examples given do the men indicate that the explicit use of the word ‘no’ is necessary for a woman’s refusal of a sexual invitation to be understood as such.

[p. 178, emphasis mine.]  These authors, working a hemisphere and almost a decade apart, reach the same conclusion: that in sex as in normal conversation, people typically use and understand softened and indirect refusals. 

Mythcommunication versus Predator Theory

If you read this blog, I’m going to tell you something you already know:  rapes don’t happen by accident.  We know that the vast majority of rapes are committed by the same relatively narrow sliver of the population, that they have multiple victims, that they avoid overt force, which is more likely to get them prosecuted, that they choose victims who can be bullied and isolated and that alcohol is their tool of choice. 

One might read this and conclude that it doesn’t matter how women communicate boundaries, because rapists don’t misunderstand, they choose to ignore.  That is pretty much Kitzinger’s takeaway, and I think from the perspective of moving the focus from what women do to what the rapists do that’s a useful thing to say.  However, I think there’s more to it. 

I’m no communications theorist, but communications are layered things.  As we’ve seen, the literal meaning of a message is only one aspect of the message, and the way it’s delivered can signal something entirely different.  Rapists are not missing the literal meaning, I think it’s clear.  What they’re doing is ignoring the literal message (refusal) and paying very close attention to the meta-message.  I tell my niece, “if a guy offers to buy you a drink and you say no, and he pesters you until you say okay, what he wants for his money is to find out if you can be talked out of no.”  The rapist doesn’t listen to refusals, he probes for signs of resistance in the meta-message, the difference between a target who doesn’t want to but can be pushed, and a target who doesn’t want to and will stand by that even if she has to be blunt.  It follows that the purpose of setting clear boundaries is not to be understood — that’s not a problem — but to be understood to be too hard a target.

(One might wonder what good that is, if the rapist just looks for other targets.  But rapists are clearly rational and opportunistic, and if they have fewer targets who they can rape without repercussions, they’ll either have to rape less or risk getting reported and maybe prosecuted. )

I have no perfect solution.  The only lasting answer is to change the culture.