Researchers have found that many men don't understand the difference between sexual consent and sexual interest, and were more likely to disregard consent if they had previously had different level of intimacy with some women.
Researchers at the Faculty of Rush University and Binghamton University in Chicago asked 145 men to answer possible scenarios involving women, to analyse how they perceived female sexual consent.
That way, they could see whether men's perception of sexual consent depended on specific situations or were due to personal dispositions.
These situational and dispositional factors could predict how likely some men were to commit sexual assault.
"We did not look at consent as a dichotomy, but rather as a sliding scale reflecting the degree of confidence that consent was or wasn't given," researcher Dr Richard Mattson told IBTimes UK.
The selected students were all straight men, mostly from southeastern US states. They were all presented with a random series of possible sexual scenarios.
The women in these scenarios would communicate their consent or refusal in a clear or an ambiguous way - verbally, non-verbally or through different types of body language.
The scenarios would also present situational factors based on what are often assumed indicators of sexual intent or used as victim-blaming tropes, such as the women's attire, their sexual history, their alcohol consumption, the number of partners they had and the level of intimacy attained between them and the men taking the test.
For instance, one scenario involves a co-ed named Amy who's "wearing a short skirt and a blouse that shows her cleavage" and "has had casual sex with several guys since she's been in college".
After each vignette, the men would have to answers questions such as: "How much do you think [woman's name] wants to advance the sexual interaction?" as well as their perception of whether the woman in the vignette "communicated willingness to have sex".
Results show men are unable to differentiate between a woman's sexual interest and her giving sexual consent. But in doubt, they will rely on her clothing and whether she's drinking or generally open to casual sex to make their decision.
"Using these types of factors to infer consent is not a logically valid process, but they nevertheless seem to impact men's perceptions of consent," Mattson says.
The study also found that men took consent for granted if they already had had sex with a certain partner before. Even if the woman said "no", they thought it meant "yes" and would eventually lead to sex later on.
The study highlights the importance of how women react to sexual advances. For instance, if their response is passive, men will see it as somewhat different from a complete refusal. The researchers stressed how important it was that "unambiguous, affirmative behaviour [was] the standard of consent," especially given some men will decide for their partner if their sexual intentions are "unclear".
Interestingly, a verbal consent had a greater impact on the men than a verbal refusal. Saying "no" was not seen as necessary when communicating refusal.
"My hunch is that consent to sex is inherently more ambiguous than refusal [...] or that the consequences of misperceiving consent are worse than misperceiving refusal," Mattson said, "so even a non-verbal signal was sufficient to imply refusal."
In an earlier statement, Mattson said that certain aspects of college life, such a sudden independence and alcohol consumption, led to greater risk of sexual misconduct.