The Importance of Avoiding Misunderstandings in Sex

Author’s Note: In this article, I will primarily focus on heterosexual relationships between cis men and cis women. I recognize that different people have different experiences with sex and relationships, but I chose to write through the lens of my own experiences as a straight, cis woman. If there is an experience that you wish to share or feel is relevant to the content of this story, please contact me or the editors of Her Campus Kenyon.


College is a time for experimenting in all its shapes and forms. Students are taught to push their intellectual boundaries, explore different career paths, and engage critically with the material in front of them. It’s also a time when young people experiment with their sexuality and relationships. On most college campuses, there is Title IX training incorporated into freshman orientation, and students are told about definitions of consent. Often, someone shows the British animated video about drinking tea as a metaphor for consent in sexual encounters. Many young people believe that they have taken the messages about consent and sex to heart. But many of them, in fact, have not.

I say “young people” rather than “young men” because I have seen how a failure to understand consent has resulted in negative sexual experiences for my friends regardless of their gender. To me, the crux of the problem is that both parties view the goal of a sexual encounter as sex and that they will have sex if they can convince the other party to want it. I have seen women assume that men want to have sex with them, even when the men send clear signals that they aren’t interested. They do not give enthusiastic consent. More commonly, I’ve seen women violated, and have been violated myself, by people we consider to be friends.  


I think this misunderstanding comes, at least in part, from cultural expectations of masculinity. When analyzing social interactions, it is important to examine the institutions and conditions that shape those interactions. Both men and women are taught that men always want sex. That assumption has different consequences for both genders. Some women, for example, think that because straight men always want sex, all straight men want to sleep with them. Unless a man directly tells them that they aren’t interested, all lights are green. It doesn’t matter how drunk he is, he always wants sex. Women are taught to be conservative and coy when pursuing relationships, and men are taught to expect that type of behavior. Women demonstrating hesitation before a hookup is expected and disregarded because of the cultural expectation that voicing discomfort or making excuses is all part of the game—and because it’s part of the game, men are taught to ignore it.

Women find it hard to believe that a man doesn’t want to hook up with them, and men struggle to interpret the signals that women are sending. Sometimes when something goes wrong, one party is completely unaware of it because they thought that they interpreted the signals correctly. Because of our cultural expectations of how women and men should behave in hookup scenarios, the type of signal that is sent and the way it is received don’t always match up. Many women who have sex with men have had at least one experience where they have tried to send signals to indicate their discomfort, and their signals have been largely ignored or misunderstood as part of the game. Thinking of sex as a “game” is a huge problem. It reproduces antiquated beliefs about gender roles and causes many misunderstandings between men and women in sexual encounters.


To prevent these kinds of miscommunications, both men and women need to do a better job of accepting each other's boundaries and communicating clearly. Sex isn’t as simple as a yes or no question. It’s a process, and a person’s feelings about whether or not they want to have sex can change throughout the sexual encounter. It’s worth it to take a moment to have a potentially awkward conversation.

Although the text above makes for a dismal picture, I believe we are witnessing a cultural transformation that allows these dialogues to take place more openly and honestly. Criticisms and accusations leveled against men in Hollywood have caused other men to reflect on sexual encounters that they have had in the past, and realize that they were problematic. Ideas about sex and relationships between men and women are changing for the better. We all have a part to play in stopping rape culture, whether it’s to speak your truth, to listen to someone else, or to reflect on your own behavior or experiences. It’s on all of us—as a school, as a society, as a nation—to say “time’s up.”

Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3