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One in five women attending college in the US experience sexual assault. Sexual assaults are often perpetrated by persons known to the victim, or with whom the victim has a prior relationship. Because of this, many have suggested that one way to combat sexual coercion is to establish clear rules around consent: sexual contact should only occur between individuals who have expressly agreed to it.
Any effort to decrease the incidence of sexual assault should be lauded. But some have resisted the calls for explicit consent — not because they are arguing in favor of sexual assault, but rather because they feel that repeated checking of consent is unnecessary and introduces an oddly formal element into the otherwise messy business of love.
Put simply, saying “no” to sex is awkward. This may be because we are not used to bluntly refusing offers or forbidding the behavior of others. Such an approach is at odds with the way we normally conduct conversations. We have developed an immense set of rules, many of which differ from culture to culture, on how to deal with conflicts of interest. These rules govern what it is permissible to request, the proper way to respond to or evade requests, how to correctly express regret or thanks, and even when to be silent and what that silence means.
These complex rules mean it may be naive to expect that sexual consent can be negotiated with simple yes/no responses. Research shows that women often feel that saying “no” sounds rude or foolish, and that men can worry a “no” implies they find their partner unattractive.
So, how do college students really navigate consent?
Kristen Jozkowski and Tiffany Marcantonio of the University of Arkansas recruited over 1000 heterosexual cisgender students from two US universities: one in the South and one in the Midwest. The volunteers were asked how they would let their “potential sexual partners know if [they] were not going to consent … to have vaginal-penile intercourse with them”. The volunteers read a list of 21 responses and indicated how strongly they agreed with each one.
Analysis of the volunteers’ responses suggested there were three tactics used by students to refuse sex. These were direct verbal refusals, such as telling the partner “no” or otherwise talking about not wanting sex; direct nonverbal, such as keeping distance from the partner or stopping giving attention to the partner; and indirect nonverbal, such as using body language or “physical signals”.
Women reported using all three tactics more often than men, which conforms neatly to the stereotype of women as sexual gatekeepers: men were less likely to refuse sex. Direct nonverbal tactics were the most popular tactic, followed closely by direct verbal. Indirect nonverbal responses (those vague “physical signals”) were used less commonly by women, and men reported using them hardly at all.
Single men and women were more likely to report using direct nonverbal responses than were those who had a long-term partner. Those with and without a partner reported using direct verbal and indirect nonverbal tactics about equally. However, as the researchers themselves point out:
it is important to note that we asked college students to report how they would generally refuse sex. As such, we do not know the specific … situations they may have considered when answering these questions.
It’s also worth considering whether the volunteers’ responses accurately reflected how they negotiated consent. Perhaps, after being exposed to the debate surrounding consent, college students are aware that many campaigners advocate direct verbal refusals such as saying “no”. If so, they may have over-reported their use of this tactic, so as to respond in the socially approved manner.
The researchers suggest that their results may be useful in re-framing discussions with students about consent:
Programs that promote ‘‘no means no’’ may be well intended, but may do more harm than good by suggesting that it is one person’s responsibility to say no, even though … other nonverbal/implicit refusals are used and recognized by others. Taken together, university policies and educational efforts … could be adjusted to highlight the complexities and realities of sexual consent and refusal.