Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thoughts about Social Cues and Sexual Assault

I was inspired by Lock's blog post, Social Cues I Just Keep Missing, to write this response. My intended response seemed too long for a comment.

Lock discusses how those of us who are asexual, and especially if we are neuro-atypical or have mental illnesses or disorders, can have some difficulty interpreting sexual social cues or can be surprised at finding that we give off cues by accident. Lock also writes about how there are those who take advantage of cues, though they may be unaware of the miscommunication in some cases.

It reminded me of how, during my freshman year of college, I found myself in a situation that I'd been completely unaware of stepping into. Late one evening a male acquaintance invited me to his dorm to hang out with him and his girlfriend and have some drinks. They were both already drunk, and his girlfriend was on the verge of passing out. We conversed for a while, and I don't remember too much of the evening. I do remember that just as I was leaving he said (with disappointment and frustration), "I invited you over because I thought you were going to have sex with me and my girlfriend. Why did you come over?" To this day I am totally baffled at the possibility I gave off some cue or failed to pick up on his cues. I have no idea how this happened.

It's also possible though that there were no cues, and his statement was a last desperate attempt to guilt me into having sex with him and his (by then unconscious) girlfriend. As a side note, this person also claimed to be a feminist, which is horrifying in a very special way.

I think that people who rely on sexual cues and nonverbal communication are treading dangerous waters, particularly when approaching new potential sex partners. If they're trying to get someone to have sex without asking for consent, they risk sexually assaulting someone.

Also, the tendency to ignore rejection I think not only has to do with wanting sex desperately, as Lock suggests, but also with masculine imperialism or something of that nature. I'm not suggesting that people go around thinking, "I'm going to ignore this rejection because I want to bolster my confidence and sense of power by conquering this person sexually," but I think that kind of attitude is subliminal culturally.

The more I think about social cues, and how confusing they are and how they vary geographically and culturally, the more I am convinced that they actually hinder intimacy rather than promote it when we rely on them. The cues that we each learn vary so widely that it's unlikely that any two people will use and understand the same set of nonverbal cues. While the cues themselves do not hinder intimacy or cause sexual assault, the cultural attitude that there is a universal code which we can learn and interpret rather than communicate verbally is a serious problem. We can't help it that we send nonverbal signals. But it is problematic that we sell books and magazines and have television programs that claim to instruct on social cues so one can get intimate without asking, taking short cuts to avoid being uncomfortable.

If you have to seriously question whether someone's facial expression or way of looking at you is sending a message about wanting to perform a particular act, it's probably time to start asking questions. And if you can't ask questions because you won't accept rejection, then you shouldn't try to engage at all. If all you have to go on when you advance sexually is social cues which you've interpreted in your own favor, and you haven't asked for consent, then you could be sexually assaulting that person. It doesn't matter if you feel like your intentions are harmless when you touch someone without asking first, not asking is a way of dominating even if all you are doing is giving a hug.

I'm not suggesting that you should ignore nonverbal cues if you think that someone is hinting something to you strongly, whether it is "come closer," or "get away," but that you should also check in and verbally confirm your suspicions. While those of us who have more difficulty than others noticing social cues may have heightened awareness of how confusing they are, I think that this confusion only confirms the necessity to not rely solely on nonverbal communication, because social cues are different for everyone.


  1. Completely agree with you about the need for actual, genuine communication. We're a rare minority, though. Check it:
    (sorry for the long html)

  2. May I second this agreement? I have no idea what problem a lot of the people I know have with sitting down and talking about how they feel about something, but I wish they'd get over it. Especially something as fraught as sex is--if you're not sure about what someone is feeling, ask!

  3. It's so affirming to get this kind of feedback. In my head, I think that this information sounds obvious and repetitive but it is clear that many people believe social cues have some kind of universal meaning.

    Slightlymetaphysical: thanks for the link. I think it is absolutely horrible that this kind of literature is not only being written, but embraced and used by people as a form of self-help. As if marriage and communication weren't difficult enough already, this person is actually advocating silencing women's voices (specifically!) to placate issues that come up. I looked him up, and Dr. Stonsy also wrote Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One. Incredibly problematic, also very popular.

  4. This is a very relevant post to me. I'm diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disability, and even the name points to the fact that I have difficulty interpreting nonverbal information. I get frustrated when people tell those with NLD that we have to work our asses off to accommodate people who don't understand that our communication style is primarily verbal. To me, it's like saying French is a better language than Spanish (or whatever). I don't think there is one "correct" communication style, although obviously some are predominant. At this point in time, I think that social cues are less universal and more confusing than they've ever been.

    Oddly though, I've recently been told that I don't communicate directly enough. And when I thought about it, I realized that yeah...often I insinuate rather than make an outright claim, hoping that people will get my point. What I perceive as clear and direct is often not direct to the other person. Also, I feel like girls especially are encouraged and taught to be indirect, and I carry this with me. I learned this "the hard way" when a guy I was trying to be friends with got the idea that we were dating. I was so confused, because I had given no impression that I was interested in him romantically. Well, he didn't care about my "impression"-- he saw what he wanted to see. NLD and all, I was sending very "aromantic" signals to him; I knew that. Trying to avoid directness made it 100x more awkward in the end. Next time I'll take the long view.

  5. I've literally just got back to wordpress after some heavy life stuff and was really happy to come back to this. I absolutely agree that the unspoken assumptions of our rape culture assure that rejection is more likely to ignite an aggressive response in order to reclaim masculine 'power' on a subliminal level.

    God, I'm rambling. Fantastic blog, thanks so much for linking, etc - hope to hear more from you in the future.