Study Links Toxic Masculinity to Misinterpretation of Sexual Consent

Summary: Men with hostile masculinity traits often misinterpret passive responses to sexual advances as consent. These men are more likely to escalate sexual behavior regardless of actual consent.

The study highlights the dangers of toxic masculinity and the importance of understanding consent. Findings suggest that perceptions of consent are influenced more by the man’s characteristics than the situation.

Key Facts:

  • Misinterpretation: Men with hostile masculinity traits often see passive responses as consent.
  • Behavioral Influence: These men escalate sexual behavior regardless of actual consent.
  • Study Insight: Perceptions of consent are more influenced by the man’s traits than the situation.

Source: Binghamton University

No means no when it comes to sex. But what happens when a woman makes a more passive response to a sexual advance?

According to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York, men differ in how they interpret these types of responses, and men who display hostile masculinity, known commonly as “toxic masculinity,” tend to act on them regardless of whether or not they think it’s consensual.

This shows a man.
Moreover, toxic masculine characteristics strongly predicted men’s decision-making regardless of whether or not they perceived the situation to be consensual. Credit: Neuroscience News

A team of researchers, including Binghamton psychology professor Richard Mattson and graduate student Michael Shaw asked men between the ages of 18-25 to respond to hypothetical sexual hookup situations in which a woman responds passively to a sexual advance, meaning the woman does not express any overt verbal or behavioral response to indicate consent to increase the level of physical intimacy.

The team then surveyed how consensual each man perceived the situation to be, as well as how he would likely behave. 

“A passive response to a sexual advance is a normative indicator of consent, but also might reflect distress or fear, and whether men are able to differentiate between the two during a hookup was important to explore,” said Mattson.

The team found that men varied in their perception of passive responses in terms of consent and that the level of perceived consent was strongly linked to an increased likelihood of continuing or advancing sexual behavior. 

“The biggest takeaway is that men differed in how they interpreted an ambiguous female response to their sexual advances with respect to their perception of consent, which in turn influenced their sexual decisions,” said Mattson.

“But certain types of men (e.g., those high in toxic masculine traits) tended to view situations as more consensual and reported that they would escalate the level of sexual intimacy regardless of whether or not they thought it was consensual.”

The researchers noted that hostile masculinity is distinct from toxic masculinity. Hostile masculinity is a specific pathological profile of masculine attitudes and personality traits that has been repeatedly linked to sexual misconduct.

“Generally, this form of masculinity refers to individuals who experience a need for sexual dominance over women, who are inclined towards violence and hostile attitudes regarding women, and accept rape myths, which are stereotypical beliefs about sexual assault and why it occurs,” said Shaw.

“Individuals with high levels of hostile masculinity are distrustful of others in romantic relationships and prioritize aggressive and ‘masculine’ interpersonal behaviors for their own security.

” Other traits such as psychopathy, narcissism, and callous or unemotional orientations towards others tend to regularly present in individuals with hostile masculinity. As a result, individuals with hostile masculinity are at high risk of engaging in sexual assault.” 

Though passive responses indicating tension or the use of alcohol led to more conservative estimations of consent, men did not seem to entirely rule out escalating the level of sexual intimacy in either case, said Mattson.

Moreover, greater levels of intimacy already attained and shared alcohol consumption were associated with greater estimates of consent, suggesting that how a passive response is interpreted can be influenced by characteristics of the situation.

“Perceptions of consent had less to do with the extant circumstances, and far greater to do with the type of man making the decision,” said Mattson. 

More specifically, those elevated on toxic masculine traits or that favored impersonal sex tended to perceive the situation as more consensual irrespective of what was specifically occurring. Moreover, toxic masculine characteristics strongly predicted men’s decision-making regardless of whether or not they perceived the situation to be consensual. 

“Considered together, a passive sexual response from a woman may be interpreted very differently in terms of consent by different kinds of men and in different situations. This is important because these perceptions appear to influence men’s sexual decision-making, but our findings support the notion that – in many cases – the men are knowingly transgressive,” said Mattson.

Mattson also said that it is important to differentiate traditional masculinity from its toxic counterpart.

“The former entails a host of traits (e.g., emotional resilience) and role expectations (e.g., provider) that can be quite positive; whereas the latter is a narrow set of characteristics including psychopathic tendencies, hostility towards women, and the man’s need for affirmation of his masculine bona fides through the domination of weaker or more vulnerable individuals,” said Mattson.

“Considered together, it is the preference for self-serving hierarchical relationships, a lack of concern for the well-being of others, and the need to demonstrate one is a ‘real man’ that link toxic masculinity to all forms of aggression, including sexual assault.”

The researchers are conducting more work in this realm going forward. Shaw is undertaking research that uses brain stimulation and imaging approaches to experimentally test theoretical models of sexual decision-making with a focus on emotional pathways.

About this psychology research news

Author: John Brhel
Source: Binghamton University
Contact: John Brhel – Binghamton University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Men’s Perception of Women’s Passive Sexual Responses Impacts Their Decision-Making During Simulated Hookups” by Richard Mattson et al. Sex Roles


Men’s Perception of Women’s Passive Sexual Responses Impacts Their Decision-Making During Simulated Hookups

A woman’s passive response to a sexual advance can be misconstrued by men as signaling consent when it does not.

Characterological factors and situational variances may further shape how men perceive a woman’s passive response and impact their sexual decisions during hookups, leading to unwanted sexual experiences for the partner.

A sample of men (n = 357) completed first-person factorial vignettes depicting a sexual hookup in which a woman reacts to their partner’s sexual advance passively, either with or without signs of tension.

Men were asked to rate their perceptions of consent and their hypothetical likelihood of engaging in different sexual behaviors, and completed assessments that were used to extract hostile masculinity and impersonal sexual orientation factors.

Consent perceptions had strong effects on men’s sexual decision-making and mediated situational influences (e.g., passive response type), impersonal sexual orientation, and, to some extent, hostile masculinity; and hostile masculinity had strong direct effects on sexual decision-making irrespective of consent perceptions.

Men can discriminate between passive responses and appear to calibrate their decision-making according to their perceptions of consent.

Some men, however, are prone to perceive consent in passive responding irrespective of the situation, with others inclined to continue or advance intimacy without considering the woman’s level of consent.

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