What sort of bedroom behavior would make you instantly view someone as dangerous to be around? What’s fixable and what isn’t? In an important column in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Debra Soh, a doctoral student in psychology at York University, argues that some people’s answers to these questions might not be informed by the realities underpinning the science of sexual coercion — and that a lack of information on this depressing subject could help put some women at risk.
Soh points out that as she has followed the Jian Ghomeshi case, she’s “come across many anecdotal stories from women who have dated sexually violent men. Many mention cues that seemed benign to them at the time, but to someone who studies sexual deviance, they stand out as clear warning signs.” Soh mentions persistence in the face of rejection, antisocial behavior, lying and rule-bending as possible indicators.
Now, before going any further, it’s vital to point out that, as Soh notes, “[i]t is never someone’s fault if they are sexually assaulted and it is certainly never a woman’s responsibility to prevent an assault from happening. Simply put, men should not rape.” So her column’s intention isn’t to blame women for reacting one way or another to situations they encounter during sex, but rather to offer a sex researcher’s perspective on just how seriously certain signals should be taken.
The key insight here is that, as Soh puts it, “[s]tudies in sexology have shown that if a man likes something sexually, he really likes it, and probably always will. In the context of a paraphilia, which is defined as an atypical or unusual sexual interest, it will be his primary sexual interest over the course of his life.” So in the case of men with “coercive paraphilia” — that is, those who are aroused by “non-consensual sadistic acts, such as humiliating, degrading, or physically hurting” a partner, as opposed, importantly, to participating in consensual BDSM or other similar activities — this indicates a deep-seated characteristic that is not going away, that is a key part of who they are as sexual beings.“From a scientific perspective, there is no evidence to suggest that a man’s sexual preferences can be changed,” Soh writes, “even if he is deathly afraid of losing his partner. (At best, they can be managed with therapy and sex-drive-reducing medication.)”
Part of the problem, Soh argues, is that people don’t always understand just how meaningful these warning signs are. “[I]n the event that a particular sexual act makes a woman uncomfortable, she will often stay in the relationship with the hopes that her partner will change his mind.” From a certain angle, this is understandable: For one thing, if you’re excited about someone you may want to believe you can change them. For another, all sorts of sexual tendencies are changeable with a little bit of, well, input: part of the process of developing a healthy sexual relationship with someone is, of course, telling them what you like, what they could do differently to make things more enjoyable for you, and so on. The problem is confusing signs of coercive paraphilia, which can’t be changed, with other, less serious sexual shortcomings, which can.
Unfortunately, there are also some really crappy social norms in place that might prevent some women from doing so: “In the dating world, signs of sexual coercion are often overlooked because persistence in the face of rejection is interpreted as a sign that a man is romantically interested, as opposed to pushy and disrespectful,” Soh writes. There’s also — and Soh doesn’t mention this in the column — the fact that women are sometimes socialized to believe that it’s more important to be “nice” and “pleasant” in the face of an awkward situation than to assertively stand up for themselves.
For all these reasons, the message that, if a man enjoys non-consensual sex acts, it’s a gigantic, loudly flapping red flag, gets slightly diluted. But given that, as Soh notes, something like 60 percent of convicted rapists exhibit signs of coercive paraphilia, and given that men without this tendency naturally become less sexually aroused when a partner shows signs she is resisting or being made unhappy by something he is doing — well, Soh’s point is probably a good one to emphasize over and over.