Dr. Weitz’s Research

Literature Review of Research Concerning Indirect Messages

Cloven and Roloff (1993) studied how the commitment to a relationship affects the communication of females when males showed aggressive and controlling behaviors in sexual situations.  They determined that, for females, whether to withhold complaints or to confront male partners is “a particularly important decision in the management of interpersonal problems” (p. 214).  Cloven and Roloff further determined that the “chilling effect” associated with aggressive sexual behavior provides insight into the “learned helplessness” behaviors exhibited by females.  The researchers concluded that some college women become victims, among other causal factors, because of their desire to preserve relationships and because of indirect messages use (either verbal or nonverbal) to reject unwanted sexual advances.  Their fears of confrontation or conflict escalation are associated with the power dynamics that emerge within a date rape scenario (p. 199). 

A study of characteristics of sexual consent by Lim and Roloff (1999) found that “nonverbal consent is associated with greater perceived coercion than is verbal consent” and that “females perceive greater coerciveness than do males in the nonverbal condition” (p. 13).  The study involved 100 undergraduates (52 men and 48 women).  Lim and Roloff used twelve contexts that reflected either impaired judgment or coercion.  The research employed three independent variables:  consent, context, and respondent sex.  The independent variables were combined into a 2 (consent: verbal, nonverbal) by 12 (contextual cues) by 2 (sex: male and female) design.  Lim and Roloff reported evidence that a “nonverbal sequence” is sometimes used by males to infer consent–one possible explanation for a percentage of date rapes that occur among college students.  An interesting conclusion was that:

When her consent was nonverbal, respondents [i.e., participants viewing scenarios] felt that she was coerced and that sexual intercourse was not consensual or appropriate and constituted rape.  However, when she expressed verbal consent, respondents were less critical.  In effect, only her verbal consent invalidated prior verbal [or nonverbal] refusal.  (p. 19)

As a result of their study, Lim and Roloff expressed support for “policymakers who wish to prevent misunderstandings that lead to some forms of rape” by requiring “explicit consent before sexual activity can proceed” (p. 21).  They discouraged women from using indirect messages.  They further determined that a) unwanted sexual intercourse results from misinterpreted sexual consent; b) frequently, the desire to have sex is communicated nonverbally rather than verbally; c) because nonverbal communication may have multiple meanings, it causes miscommunication about sexual consent; and d) token resistance is a cause of miscommunication about sexual interest.

In investigating the hypothesis that “a woman’s nonverbal and verbal behaviors may reflect an identity discrepant from the one she intended” (1992, p. 427), Kowalski conducted two studies.  The first found that attributions of blame in date rape scenarios were affected, not only by the indirect nature of nonverbal messages, but also by the “interaction of…nonverbal behaviors and verbal response.”  Subjects in her study (270 male and 270 female undergraduates) focused on the “sexual connotativeness” of all verbal and nonverbal messages used by the female victim in one of several date rape scenarios, as well as the “degree of consistency” between verbal and nonverbal information.  Results indicated that the higher amount of discrepancy between the "sexual connotativeness" and "degree of consistency" (i.e., the less direct the message), the more likely participants were to label female victims “less likable, less competent, and less powerful” in date rape scenarios (p. 437).  In the companion study, Kowalski examined “sexual connotativeness of a female’s nonverbal behaviors in the absence of any other information.”  Under conditions where the degree of sexual connotativeness was perceived to be lower, subjects judged the female to “desire sex less, to be less flirtatious and promiscuous, and to be more likable and competent.”  When the degree of sexual connotativeness was perceived to be high, participants were more likely to believe that the female depicted in scenarios should have “foreseen the consequences of her behavior” (p. 441).

Byers, Giles, and Price (1987) used a two-part study to investigate first, the effects of traditional sex role beliefs, intimacy level of a sexually aggressive behavior, and romantic interest in a date on the “definiteness” of undergraduate women’s responses to unwanted sexual advances; and second, how the degree of definiteness in a woman’s response related to her effectiveness in stopping that advance.  Results of the first study indicated that the relational measures “level of sexual intimacy” and “level of romantic interest” in a dating situation were perceived to have the greatest effect on the definiteness of female responses.  Furthermore, characteristics of the situation, rather than characteristics of the women themselves, “had the most effect on women’s behavior in sexual situations” (p. 329).  Women were more verbally and negatively definite in responses to sexual advances from dates in whom they were not romantically interested (that is, they were more likely to get angry, give strong verbal refusals, and ask the date to leave), and more likely to soften refusals or imply that they might change their minds in the future when some degree of interest in the partner was evident.  The authors concluded that:  a) “traditional” women are socialized to be passive and thus are more passive and less definite in resisting sexual assault; b) women holding traditional sex role beliefs are more definite in refusals of unwanted sexual assault; and c) the more romantically interested women are in their dates, the less definite they are in refusals of sexual advances.

In another study by Clark and Lewis (1977), it was predicted that greater levels of consensual sexual intimacy between dating partners is more likely to cause the male to assume his right of sexual access to the female and less likely to result in his accepting a ‘No’.  Clark and Lewis also found that men perceived more verbally definite responses to be more effective in stopping unwanted sexual advances.  Furthermore, the researchers concluded that women who are indefinite in their verbal rejections are more likely to experience sexual coercion.  Level of intimacy had little effect on response effectiveness, with the exception that low definiteness responses in high-intimacy conditions were rated less effective in stopping the advance.  Two more important and useful conclusions by the researchers relative to the discussion concerning relational communication variables were that the nature of communication between dating men and women may contribute to male sexual aggression and that a woman’s level of emotional involvement with her date may increase her sexual vulnerability.

In a 1980 study, LaPlante, McCormick, and Brannigan found that men use both indirect and direct communication strategies significantly more than women to initiate sex, while women use both indirect and direct strategies significantly more than do men to avoid it (p. 347).  Despite increased levels of premarital and extramarital sexual activity reported during the 70s, “both male and female students reported that men were more frequently the influencing agent to have sexual intercourse whereas women were more frequently the influencing agent to avoid it” (p. 350). 

I perceive a situation where the date rape victim is resistant to sexual initiatives that some studies indicate are based on traditional gender-related sex roles, yet she desires initially to preserve a budding interpersonal relationship. 

A study by Metts, Cupach, and Imahori (1992) helps to illustrate this human dynamic.  The study was conducted under an assumption that many date rapes occur because the female does not want to ruin a relationship by rejecting her male partner’s sexual advance.  The researchers found that the preferable approach is to choose messages that “reflect a moderate amount of directness which accomplishes both the goal of rejection and the preservation of ‘face’” (p. 13).  Furthermore, the authors say that those messages should be expressed verbally rather than nonverbally, and they should include an “account” [reason] for the decision–preferably “not ready” or “not good” messages rather than those indicating “not sexually attracted” (p. 13).  It is precisely this teetering between a “moderate” amount of direct and indirect communications, as well as a relatively vague understanding by the receiver toward rejection or approval of his sexual request, that mirrors the wavering between upholding traditional feminine gender role expectations and sustaining intimate relational communication.  These opposing forces in the dating relationship lend insight to the complexity and dilemma a female may face when confronted with undesirable sexual advances from a male in a newly established close personal relationship.  Furthermore, because sexual episodes are interactive and embedded within a relational frame constructed over time by both parties in the relationship, highly explicit rejection messages are efficient, but cause discomfort and loss of face, while rejections that cause “face redness” are less constraining, but more predictable, face preserving, and comfortable.  Additionally, indirect nonverbal rejection messages cause lower levels of discomfort, surprise, and face loss, but increase a recipient’s effort to understand it, often leading to miscommunication and/or misinterpretation.

 The ultimate objective for date rape researchers is to uncover strategies that aid open communication between males and females in dating situations.  These strategies could reduce misinterpretations of dating behaviors and perhaps render less plausible the common date rape perpetrator's claim of having been "led on;" they would also change the belief shared by some men that date rape can be justified by situational factors or nonverbal communication (Cassidy & Hurrell, 1995; Muehlenhard, 1988; Muehlenhard & Andrews, 1985; Muehlenhard, Friedman, & Thomas, 1985; Muehlenhard & Linton, 1987; Osman & Davis, 1995).

Motley and Reeder, in an extended four-part investigation, studied “similarities and differences in meanings assigned by males and females to common female verbal resistance messages” (1995, p. 357).  First, a list of resistance messages to be used during the study was taken from interviews with 12 women who were asked to tell what their own resistance messages were; these responses were compiled into a list of 16 plausible verbal resistance messages.  A questionnaire was then developed listing the resistance messages, and 47 female student participants were asked to indicate which of these they commonly used in resistance situations.  Results indicated that none of the messages was a particular favorite of women generally.  Any given woman used a few of the resistance messages relatively often, while using the others rarely (pp. 358-359).  Findings indicated that women employed many different types of messages to stop escalating sexual behaviors; that they tended to vary in their use of direct and indirect rejection messages, favoring no particular message over another; and that “apparently more resistance is intended by females than is interpreted by males” (p. 362).  Motley and Reeder also reported that indirect messages caused greater discrepancy in male and female interpretations than did direct messages, and that “receivers of ambiguous messages decode a viable interpretation that may or may not coincide with the sender’s interpretation.  In the case of these resistance messages, common interpretations sometimes imply conditional resistance” (p. 366).  The more direct resistance messages (particularly responses of ‘No’) were better understood by males, but women were reluctant to use them “because of certain stigmas (real or imagined) associated with [them]” (p. 367).  However, a subsequent focus group study using only male subjects found that, “men are very rarely offended, hurt, angered, and so forth, by resistance messages, whether direct or indirect” (p. 369) and that “relational consequences perceived by the female participants were not acknowledged by the male participants as likely reactions to resistance messages” (p. 370).  One conclusion of the Motley and Reeder study echoed a major theme of the present study:  “Compared to biological and sociological components of male aggression, communication-oriented factors [of unwanted sexual escalation]–misunderstandings in particular–should be easier to control by male and female partners” (p. 367).

Asserting that, at least in their research, explanations assume the male has ignored or disregarded resistance messages, Motley and Reeder (1995, p. 355) constructed a questionnaire listing plausible resistance messages and asked participants of their study to indicate which of these they actually used in unwanted sexual advances (p. 358).  In discussing this study, Motley and Reeder suggested three plausible explanations for date rape:  “males do not understand certain sexual resistance messages to indicate resistance" (p. 363), or perhaps women’s resistance messages are ambiguous, or perhaps fear of relational consequences causes women to use unclear resistance messages.

Abbey and Melby (1986) investigated in three separate but concurrent studies the effects of proximity, two levels of eye contact (“mutual eye contact”/“no eye contact”), and five levels of touch (“no touch,” “ambiguous touch”/forearm touch, “female touches male,” “male touches female,” and “mutual touch”/hand-holding) on sexual trait ratings of male-female couples depicted in photographs.  The researchers determined that, “Males consistently rated the female target higher on sexual traits [‘sexier and more seductive’] than females did” (pp. 295-296).  Results from eye contact and distance studies showed that males also perceived female targets to be more “promiscuous” than did females.  Abbey and Melby concluded that men perceive more sexuality in females than women do, with a minimum of cues, and with mostly indirect messages.  They found, additionally, that “Men impute more sexual meaning to heterosexual interactions than do women” (p. 283); that in heterosexual dating situations, males and females interpret the same nonverbal cues in different ways; and that the more ambiguous a nonverbal message is, the greater the discrepancy between male and female interpretations of its meaning.

Back to Prevention Recommendations