I think about those bears every time yet another allegation of sexual misconduct against yet another powerful man becomes public. Nearly all of those men deny coercion or aggression or insist that the encounters were “100 percent consensual.”
But rarely do they define what, precisely, they mean by that. Did they discuss, with an enthusiastic partner, which erotic acts to indulge in together? Or were they satisfied that whatever they initiated was fine as long as she didn’t say no? Did they consider passionate kissing a tacit contract for something else? Was forced sex — say, the pushing down of a partner’s head — fair game because lots of guys do it? Did they consider sex with underlings acceptable, or a fair swap for career advancement, in which case they were apparently thinking of koalas, which are not actually bears at all?
The truth is, men are not the most reliable arbiters of whether sex was consensual. Consider: When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, interviewed male college students in 2015, each could articulate at least a rudimentary definition of the concept: the idea that both parties wanted to be doing what they were doing. Most also endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters in both a hookup and in a relationship, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.
When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault — such as the guy who had coerced his girlfriend into anal sex (she had said, “I don’t want to, but I guess I’ll let you”). She then made it clear that he should stop. “He did, eventually,” Ms. Bedera told me, “and he seemed aware of how upset she was, but he found a way to rationalize it: He was angry with her for refusing him because he thought a real man shouldn’t have had to beg for sex.”
Despite all evidence to the contrary, we still want to believe that men who are accused of sexual assault are all “monsters.” True, some of them may be monsters we know — our employers, our clergymen, our favorite celebrities, our politicians, our Supreme Court justices — but they are “monsters” nonetheless.
A “good guy” can’t possibly have committed assault, regardless of the mental gymnastics he has to engage in to convince himself of that (“20 minutes of action,” anyone?). Even men who admit to keeping sex slaves in conflict zones will claim they did not commit rape — it’s that other guy, that “monster” over there, that “bad guy” who did. In fact, one of the traits rapists have been found to reliably share is that they don’t believe they are the problem.
In my own interviews with high school and college students conducted over the past two years, young men that I like enormously — friendly, thoughtful, bright, engaging young men — have “sort of” raped girls, have pushed women’s heads down to get oral sex, have taken a Snapchat video of a prom date performing oral sex and sent it to the baseball team. They all described themselves as “good guys.” But the fact is, a “really good guy” can do a really bad thing.