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Monday, December 09, 2013

Problems with Enthusiastic Consent

Sexual Consent in Heterosexual Relationships: Attitudes and Behaviours of University Students

"Another issue raised by Muehlenhard (1995/1996) is whether sexual consent is a mental or a verbal act. As a mental act, consent is problematic because one person can never know for sure if another person has consented (Muehlenhard, et al., 1992). It is problematic to infer sexual consent from nonverbal behaviours. While sexual consent as a verbal act may not seem problematic, most sexual encounters do not involve explicit verbal statements of any kind, much less a discussion of consent (Greer & Buss, 1994; O'Sullivan & Byers. 1992; Sawyer, Desmond & Lucke, 1993). What tends to occur is acquiescence (Le., passive (tacitly) consent), not explicit consent (Muehlenhard, 1995/1996)...

The central premise of Antioch's sexual consent policy requires that all members of the Antioch community obtain consent from their sexual partners prior to engaging in any sexual activity and, once sexually engaged, at "each new level of physical and/or sexual behavior in any given interaction, regardless of who initiates it. Asking 'Do you want to have sex with me?' is not enough. The request must be specific to each act" (Antioch College, 1996, p.3). Consent was defined as "the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual behavior" (Antioch College, 1996, p.2)...

Many men and women accept statements such as, "A woman who goes to the home or apartment of a man on the first date implies she is willing to have sex" and "any healthy woman can successfully resist a rapist if she really wants to"...

Researchers examining the sexual communication patterns of heterosexual dating partners have observed one consistent finding. Heterosexual dating partners do not usually discuss with each other their wants, needs, or desires before or during sexual situations (Greer & Buss, 1994; Sawyer, et al., 1993). Curiously, there is a large discrepancy between what men and women know they ought to be doing and what they actually do... although men and women agreed that talking about sex did not destroy the romantic moment, many of them were not communicating their sexual intentions before engaging in sexual intercourse... When asked if there were times when "in the heat of the moment, [they had] gone further sexually than [they] had intended", 64% of men and 79% of women agreed they had (Sawyer, et al., 1993, p. 15). This suggests that although they believe themselves as being somewhat certain of their personal ethics, many men and women tend to ignore these ethics when sexually aroused. If many women and men are uncertain about how far they will go sexually with a new partner, effective sexual communication is bound to be difficult.

In addition to not having firm personal guidelines before an intimate encounter, many people use indirect tactics to communicate interest in sexual activity. Greer and Buss (1994) found that although men and women stated the best tactic to promote a sexual encounter was to ask directly, their most frequent behaviours included very indirect, and in some cases very ambiguous, acts such as practising good hygiene, sitting next to the person, acting well mannered, and smiling warmly. University students were asked to indicate how often they performed each of 122 acts in order to promote a sexual encounter. Within the top 20 most frequently performed acts for both women and men, the only reference to verbal communication was ranked fifteenth (only for men), consisting of telling jokes to make the women laugh (Greer & Buss, 1994).

O'Sullivan and Byers (1992) also found that nonverbal responses to a sexual initiation were more common than verbal responses... The reliance on nonverbal signals is not surprising given that both men and women tend to believe that nonverbal cues are more accurate predictors of an individual's sexual interest than are verbal cues (Sawyer, et al., 1993)...

Indirect methods of communication tend to be more popular because they are nonconfrontational, allowing partners to avoid awkward situations and the risk of rejection. It seems that men and women avoid precoital discussion because they believe it decreases the likelihood that a sexual interaction will take place (Haffner, 1995/1996)...

Finally, as a society we tend to believe that sex is perfectly natural so we will automatically know what to do given a sexual situation (Guldner, 1995). This widely held attitude about sex leads to the assumption that the best sexual experiences require little communication. The encounters should be spontaneous and the partners should be swept away by passion (Haffner, l995/1996). The media certainly perpetuate this myth with their notions of romance and physical lust king an uncontrollable, biological urge...

[Hall, 1995] found that most often sexual behaviours occurred without overt consent being given, although participants did report giving verbal and nonverbal consent to each of 12 sexual activities some of the time... Men given, most consent was granted nonverbally. Behaviours that indicated nonverbal consent included "kissing", "getting closer", "intimately touching", "smiling" and non-behaviours such as 'not moving away". Rates of verbal consent rarely exceeded 20%. Similar rates were found for women and men (Hall, 1995).

Interestingly, the nonverbal behaviours used to indicate how consent was granted in Hall's (1995) study overlap significantly with those used to measure the communication of sexual interest in the study by O'Sullivan and Byers (1992). The concepts of indicating consent and indicating sexual interest do not seem to be distinguishable on the basis of reported behaviours. O' Sullivan and Byers (1 992) found the most frequently reported initiations used nonverbal signs of interest, including kissing (40%), suggestive actions or nonsexual touch (34%), and sexual fondling (26%). If the communication of sexual interest is demonstrated nonverbally through kissing, touching and/or fondling, then how is it possible to first achieve consent for these non-coital sexual activities? For example, if a man asks consent to engage in sexual intercourse by touching his female partner's breast, how could he have obtained prior consent for fondling? It seems that, in some instances, the process used to ask consent for sexual intercourse involves first engaging in non-coital activities for which consent has not been obtained...

[Hickman and Muehienhard's (1999) exploratory study] indicated that consent is more complex than simply saying "yes". There was a wide diversity of behaviours or signals individuals used to communicate sexual consent. Factor analysis revealed sexual consent to be comprised of four categories of signals: direct, indirect, verbal, and nonverbal. Direct consent signals were defined as straightforward and unambiguous signals (e.g., stating "1 want to have sex with you") while indirect consent signals were roundabout and ambiguous (e.g., "she/he touches and kisses you" or "she/he asks if you have a condom")...

If men expect that their date would signal consent in the same way they themselves would, then men may mistakenly assume their date is signalling consent when they may not be. The one very important exception is a direct refusal. Both women and men rated "saying no" as a signal that did not represent the giving of sexual consent (Hickman & Muehlenhard, 1999). It appears that 'no' really is understood as 'no'...

Shotland and Goodstein (1992) found that once sexual relations have been established, there are expectations on the part of both women and men that those relations will continue. Disruptions in the expected chain of sexual events such as refusals are not perceived favourably. Research on the expectations regarding sexual activity indicate that men and women are more likely to perceive a resisting woman as obligated to have sex if the couple has had sexual intercourse 10 times before venus once or never before the event (Shotland & Goodstein, 1992). Participants are also more likely to label the encounter rape when the resisting woman has only had sex once or never before with the male versus 10 times before the event (Shotland & Goodstein, 1992)...

Some females also defined consent according to the traditional female role of "gatekeeper" in sexual relationships. As one female student indicated: "[It is] how much you allow another person to do sexually" (FI-02). In line with the sexual script for women as the passive recipients of sexual advances from men, some female students also indicated that their definition of sexual consent implied an acquiescence to men, as indicated by the following female student's comment; "Not resisting or something like that. Not only in the physical sense but in the emotional sense as well" (F3-40)...

Women view consent more as a process and men more as a single event...

In discussing why consent may not be talked about between intimate partners, one of the female groups raised the issue of discomfort, acknowledging that as a society we don? talk during sexual encounters and that we may not want to because doing so may spoil the mood...

65% of both men and women either agreed or strongly agreed that verbally asking for sexual consent is awkward. The limited discussions on the topic of sexual consent were supported by the quantitative data with only about one-half of students indicating any discussion of this topic...

When presented with the Antioch sexual consent policy statement (see Appendix B. p. 145), the majority of both males and females responded that they were against the rigidity of a forma1 policy which dictated persona1 sexual behaviour and did not want to see this implemented on their own campus... As one female stated, "I think it sets a precedent for institutional regulation of individual's private lives. The university does not belong in the bedroom of their students, faculty, and staff"...

Some students also commented that the required verbal negotiation dictated by the policy would reduce the intrinsic pleasure of sexual interaction and result in behaviours that were regimented, mechanical, and/or irritating. As one female commented,

That's [Antioch policy] the most ridiculous thing 1 have ever heard. That's annoying. If someone [said] 'can I touch your breast?', 'can I do this?', and 'can I do that?' I'd [say] 'get lost'. It would get on your nerves. (F3-42).

... A thoughtfully organized and planned sexual encounter was not perceived as exciting or romantic. One female student commented on her understanding of the conflict between ideal relationship progression and the Antioch policy;

Personally I think that the spontaneity of a first kiss is one of the most wonderful things in a blossoming relationship. There's no way that 1 would like to be denied of that 'tingly' feeling by having to practically sign a contract before having my first kiss with someone. ... What a way to ruin the mood. The people [at] Antioch College must all suffer from sexual dysfunctions by now, due to al1 of the pressure to ask for consent every two minutes. (F3-35)

One male stated it much more bluntly, "So much for romance! Do you have to bring a clipboard with you?".

An additional argument against the policy involves its possible misuse or abuse. Some students were particularly concerned abut the possibility that a woman might have given her consent and yet might still raise a formal complaint against the male because the next day she decides she regretted the sexual encounter...

Both males and females indicated that while asking for consent first is an ideal approach to sexual negotiations, in practice it is difficult to implement. Some of the reasons given why individuals may not ask for consent first, included the fact that being 'in the heat of the moment' makes one less rational and that consent may change during the moment, so there is a need for continuous communication...

Both males and females believed that most of the time consent negotiations are nonverbal, involving the use of body language...

Some students suggested that asking for consent may only occur the first time the couple engages in sexual activity, and then it can be assumed afterwards...

Some students suggested that a one-night stand would involve more nonverbal body language because the individuals involved would be too uncomfortable using verbal communication of a sexual nature with someone they did not know very well...

Those students who had experienced sexual intercourse evaluated the Antioch sexual consent policy more negatively than students who had not experienced intercourse. Those who had not experienced intercourse were more likely than those who had experienced intercourse to agree that it is important to establish consent prior to sexual activity. Experienced students were also more likely than those students who had not experienced intercourse, to agree that longer or more committed relationships reduced the need to ask for sexual consent and that their own sexual consent behaviour is typically a one-time event that occurs during the moment...

The majority of students reported using nonverbal behaviours such as kissing a partner (69%), moving closer (65%), or touching a partner (62%) as a way of asking for sexual consent. The most frequently reported verbal behaviours used to ask for consent were stating they wanted to have sex (33%), asking the partner if they wanted to have sex (33%) or stating that they loved their partner (31%)."
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