Game theory and consent
A man asks a woman out on a date. She’s interested in a long-term relationship i.e. a boyfriend. She doesn’t want to waste her time or money on someone interested in casual sex i.e. a player . She doesn’t know what her proposer wants. Asking would be silly – a man who’s only interested in sex would lie, enjoy a romp in the hay, and not call the next day. She decides to “play hard to get” – pretend to be more reluctant to go on a date than she is. She believes that a would-be boyfriend would persist in asking her out, while a player wouldn’t.
Now let’s look at things from the man’s perspective. He doesn’t know if the woman is genuinely uninterested or merely playing hard to get. If he wants casual sex, it doesn’t matter – the cost of persisting is too high to bother. If, on the other hand, he wants a long-term relationship and thinks that there is a reasonable chance that she is “just playing”, it’s in his interest to persist. The expected gain from her eventually saying yes may (and here we assume does) exceed the cost of pursuing her. Thus, a player will back off, while a would be boyfriend will not*.
Thus, men and women both end up having their beliefs confirmed. Women who want relationships play hard to get because they know that would-be boyfriends will persist and players won’t. Thus some fraction of women who say “no” don’t mean it. Would-be boyfriends know this and persist. Players don’t persist because sex isn’t worth the trouble. Thus all the individuals in this little game are playing their best response to each others strategies. This is what game theorist call an equilibrium.
The problem is that some women are genuinely not interested in the men asking them out. For them, being repeatedly approached isn’t a positive sign; it’s harassment. It imposes serious psychological costs. It is for such women that sexual harassment laws have been introduced.
However, men’s persistence isn’t the only thing causing their plight. It’s ultimately caused by the equilibrium that all the players find themselves in. An important part of that equilibrium is the strategy other women use to filter out players from potential boyfriends. If they stopped playing hard to get, men would have no incentive to persist, and our victim would have been spared. This is not to let men off the hook. After all, if all men backed off as soon women said no, it would be impossible to tell players and non-players apart from how quickly they backed off. Thus, women would no longer have an incentive use “playing hard to get” as a filter. Both men and women are to blame for this bad equilibrium.
(This is not “blaming the victim”. The victims are the women who are uninterested and so feel harassed; the accused are the women who are interested but play hard to get.)
Yet, whenever the question of consent arises, activists demand changes in male behavior, while ignoring the female behavior that supports it. Worse, they present “No Means No” as a factual statement: all the women who are saying “No” to you are genuinely uninterested in you. This is false. One famous study examined whether women ever say no to sex when they mean yes. 39% of their sample had done so at least once, and more than two thirds had said no when they meant maybe.
Filtering boyfriends from players is just one reason for women to pretend more reluctance that they feel. I’ve given it the spotlight because it’s the easiest one to model. Other reasons include: the desire to filter confident, assertive men from “weak” men; the desire to avoid being labelled a “slut” by others; the desire to prove to oneself that one is not a “slut”; the belief that one will not be “respected” if one “gives it up too easily”; the thrill of the being chased; the desire to enact a rape fantasy; the desire to gain power in a relationship; the desire to extract more resources (attention, dinners etc) before terminating a casual relationship etc. And while I’ve presented the refusal as happening at the point of the date, this logic can apply to any stage of the relationship.
If the consent movement ignores this facet of mating behavior, it will fail. Why? Suppose that men in our model were presented with the proposition that women never play hard to get. If all men believed it and changed their behavior instantly, women would be forced to change theirs as well. The equilibrium would collapse. However, suppose instead that some men believe it and others remained skeptical. Women still have an incentive to play hard to get. By doing so, they would snag the skeptics who are interested in relationships as boyfriends, while avoiding the skeptics and believers who are interested in casual sex. A month after the news that “No Means No” came out, the believers and skeptics gather at the pub and compare notes. All the skeptics who want girlfriends now have them, while the believers don’t. The believers conclude that their new strategy is bust, and go back to persisting in the face of resistance. This is true of any movement which tries to sell “No Means No” as a fact. When skeptics do better than believers, beliefs collapse.
This is unfortunate. I want the “No Means No” movement to succeed. Heck, I want the even more ambitious “Yes Means Yes” movement – which calls for a verbal affirmation before sexual acts – to succeed as a social norm**. These movements started in the West, but I think they will eventually find their way to India. What changes do activists have to make to succeed?
Firstly, they must recognize that female behavior is also responsible for this unhappy state of affairs. They must work to raise awareness about it, and to discourage women from engaging in it. They must recognize that actions that are in the interests of individual women (filtering suitors) are not in the interests of women as a whole (avoiding harassment.)
Secondly, they must present “No Means No” as an ethical norm, rather than a factual statement. The idea should be: a moral man should treat “no” as meaning “no” even if the person is possibly faking it. A moral woman doesn’t say “no” unless she means “no”. As time goes on, and we gradually shift from one equilibrium to another, “no means no” will become a factual statement. In the interim, our best bet is impose the costs for immoral behavior (guilt, shame, censure, ostracism etc) on those who break the rules. Few men will take seriously a movement that claims that “[affirmative] Consent is Sexy” when it’s so far from what experience teaches them and women themselves say. Best stick to Consent is Right.
In closing, there are three additional problems with the current male-centered approach:
Firstly, it denies women agency, to invoke a term that is much in vogue. More correctly, it denies that women have agency. It treats them as playing an entirely passive role in the mating process. It ignores the fact that they are savvy players in a complex game. It contributes to the narrative where women are helpless victims at the mercy of men.
Secondly, it treats the mating process as though it were something simple, made complex because of something called “culture”. Somehow, everyone wants an honest, open, mutually respectful relationship, but “culture” thwarts their attempts to enter one. The reality is different. Most people want the same things from a relationship – sex, companionship, children etc. However, relationships are also the site of much conflict, over sex, money, freedom etc. He wants commitment; she wants a fling. He to splurge; she wants to put the money in a retirement account. He wants to spend the night out with the boys; she wants him home by 10. It is these inescapable conflicts of interest that complicates matters, and lead to dishonesty, not “culture”. In this case, there is a conflict of interest (woman wants commitment; man might want casual sex) that leads to dishonesty (playing hard to get). The man’s persistence isn’t the result of a “culture that devalues consent.”
Finally, it is unfair to men. It forces them to bear the entire costs of shifting from one equilibrium to another. It holds them accountable for a terrible state of affairs while letting equally culpable women off the hook.
UPDATE: To clarify: “Persisting” here is a metaphor or stand-in for all behavior that involves ignoring a woman’s stated preferences. “Playing hard to get” is a metaphor or stand-in for all behavior that involves pretending more reluctance than one feels. The story at the beginning was a metaphor for all situations in which women and men have an incentive to lie and persist respectively. All models are parables of some kind.
Disclaimer: over the course of the post, I’ve used “man” to mean the initiator of a sexual act, and “woman” to mean the non-initiator. I’ve done so for the sake of clarity, and because it it’s a reasonable assumption, given modern gender roles. Nonetheless, it doesn’t always hold: women do initiate, men do respond, these roles aren’t clearly delineated in homosexual relationships, and men too can be the victims of harassment and sexual assault, sometimes at the hands of women.
* To make this example more concrete, let’s assume the following: the cost of persisting is 45 to both men. The payoff to the man seeking sex is 80. The payoff to the man seeking a relationship is 100. 50% of all women are interested in a relationship, while 50% of women are not. The payoff to not persisting is zero.
Thus the payoff to persisting for the man who’s interested in sex = (.5*80) – 45 = -5, which is less that zero, the payoff to not persisting. The payoff to persisting for the man who’s interested in a relationship = (.5*100) – 45 = +5, which is greater than zero, the payoff to persisting. Thus men interested in only sex wouldn’t persist, and others would.
** But not as a legal one.