Why College Men May Hear ‘Yes’ When Women Mean ‘No’

When women suggest indirectly to stop or slow down sexual intimacy, men interpret these messages as requests to escalate sexual intimacy. This is due to men’s faulty introspection, according to a University of California study.

If she says, “It’s getting late,” he interprets this to mean “Let’s speed things up,” because that is what he would mean if he said it. (This research “does not address rape or other situations in which a man indeed understands ‘no’ but ignores it,” according to the news release.)

In one study, Motley gave 30 female and 60 male UC Davis undergraduates a multiple-choice questionnaire that asked about 16 common “female resistance messages.” The messages ranged from very direct — “Let’s stop this” — to very indirect — “I’m seeing someone else.” Four potential interpretations were listed for each message; only one was “stop.”

For “I’m seeing someone else,” for example, the following four interpretations were listed:

a) You want to go further but you want him to know that it doesn’t mean that you’re committed to him;

b) You want to go further but you want him to be discreet, so that the other guy doesn’t find out;

c) You want to go further but you want him to realize, in case you end up “going together,” that you may do this with someone else while you’re seeing him;

d) You don’t want to go further.

The women in the study were asked to recall a time when they used one of the messages, and to choose the answer that best matched what they meant when they said it. Half of the men were asked to recall a time when they were with a woman who communicated each message, and to choose the interpretation that best matched what they thought the woman meant when she said it. The other 30 men were instructed to choose the interpretation that best matched what they would mean if they were to communicate the messages.

By the way, for the average woman, her intended meaning is d) You don’t want to go further.

The questionnaire study showed that men were accurate at interpreting direct resistance messages like “Let’s stop this.” But they were as apt to interpret “Let’s be friends” to mean “keep going” as to mean “stop.” And few of them would mean “stop” if they were to deliver any of the indirect messages themselves.

This is amusing in a horrible way. What is fascinating about this is that there are multiple interpretations of “I’m seeing someone else,” and “Let’s be friends,” and that the male-centric interpretations assume that wanting casual sex and cheating is more likely that wanting to stop/slow down sexual intimacy.

In related studies, Motley has also shown that most women use indirect messages out of concern that men will be offended or angered by direct messages — but that most men actually accept direct resistance messages easily and without negative reactions.

This is even more intriguing. It is probably the case that women experience street harassment and find that rejecting sexual advances often results in anger/offense and being called a “bitch,” or in extreme cases, results in threats of death or rape. These studies that show men accept direct resistance messages “easily and without negative reactions” should be investigated for more details.

Motley’s book also offers practical recommendations for dealing with this type of miscommunication:

  • Men need to be aware of the many ways that women may say “stop” without using the word “stop.”
  • When a man asks himself during intimacy, “Why did she say that?” he should not try to answer the question by imagining what he would mean if he said the same thing.
  • When in doubt, ask. “So it’s getting late; does that mean we should stop?”
  • Women should use direct messages.
  • A woman who cannot be direct should at least work a direct message into the indirect one: “It’s getting late, so I’d like to stop.”

Women should definitely use direct messages, as should men and genderqueer people. Both direct and indirect communication are important skills that must be cultivated, but explicit statements can be understood by a wider range of people and are less culturally dependent.


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