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Sexual Consent Among Emerging Adults: A Leading Edge of Social Change

New research identifies how young adults approach sex, as power shifts.

Key points

  • Conversations about sexual consent often miss the mark, leaving people confused and vulnerable.
  • Research on consent shows people learn about boundaries as children but not in adolescence.
  • Young adults report that they feel ill-prepared to address sexual consent as they move from high school to college.

Consent is coming of age. In the woke wake of the #MeToo movement, emerging shifts in identity and the questioning and undoing of traditional power dynamics are re-contextualizing negotiations around sexuality, precipitating a call for greater transparency in other spheres of life.

We are in transition, between old and the new—and violent storms emerge when high- and low-pressure formations clash. Given the toll of sexual violence on American college campuses, and the growing recognition that more needs to be done, focusing on consent is critical.

Qualitative Research on Sexual Consent

Michigan State researchers Cary, Reid, PettyJohn, Maas, and McCauley designed a focus-group study of students’ perceptions of sexual consent, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2022). Despite growing awareness of sexual violence, with ineffective measures to ensure safety and ongoing revelations of coverups (and some progress), nearly 25 percent of undergrad women and transgendered people, and 5 percent of men, report sexual assault—numbers that are likely underreports by both victims and institutions.

Cary and colleagues looked at how #MeToo has shifted the dialog about sexual consent among college undergraduates. They asked students to participate in a series of focus groups, recruiting a total of 34 students aged 18-26 divided into two groups of heterosexual cisgendered women, one group of bisexual or heterosexual cisgendered women, and one group of cisgendered heterosexual men.

Each group was conducted by a trained researcher using a written interview guide, lasting approximately two hours. Responses were recorded and coded according to a standard experimental procedure “to explore participants’ understanding of consent communication processes and the meaning participants assign to their experiences learning about consent, engaging in consent communication, and the impact of the #MeToo movement.” Rather than using standardized scales, researchers analyzed narratives qualitatively to identify major themes hidden beneath the surface.

The Evolution of Sexual Consent

Four consistent themes about sexual consent were identified:

Introductions to Consent in Childhood. Participants reported learning about nonsexual consent at a young age, for instance that “no means no” through childhood songs, respecting others’ personal space and bodies (e.g. not being allowed to touch without permission), and generally highlighting the need for open, shared decision making before acting on impulses.

Lack of Sexual Education in Adolescence. The early emphasis on consent faltered as children entered adolescence. Participants reported that sexual consent education was lacking during their teenage years. Silence on sexual consent was reported from parents, educational institutions, and in media and public spheres. Participants noted that parents might not discuss sexuality at all, due to cultural or religious attitudes, or, if they did bring up sex, it was outdated (e.g. gendered or too conservative). Men and women received different advice, with girls being presented as prey to be protected and men as predatory.

In school, despite sex ed, consent was addressed inadequately, if at all. Media portrayals of sexual consent were damaging. Information from the internet and entertainment depicted nonconsensual sex, sexual aggression, and a general lack of consent conversations. Women reported that pornography modeled nonconsensual sex; some men said that they knew pornography wasn’t realistic while denying that it could influence their own perceptions and behaviors.

The Nuanced College Context. Researchers noted the participants attend a school where yearly online sexual consent training is required. Many participants reported that such training was their first experience learning about sexual consent. They realized that college was a new environment around sexuality, noting that “sex in college is a whole different ball game than sex in high school." Alcohol and drugs were a key difference. In spite of training and knowing the “rules” for consent, applying them was difficult, especially when consent was ambiguous or both participants were intoxicated. People questioned the validity of consent while under the influence, with concern about legal consequences.

Women reported that despite training, they were not confident in being able to say “no” when they needed to, often relying on indirect strategies to avoid unwanted sex or engaging in sex when they did not want to.

Consent in the Era of #MeToo. Two main themes emerged around post-#MeToo changes: 1) Fear of Assault and False Allegations and 2) Positive Outcomes of #MeToo. Participants expressed concern about victim-blaming and -shaming in the media, deterring proper reporting. Men and women reacted to media in ways that widened the gender divide. Men were afraid of being accused of rape, and women “assum[ed] that they’re going to rape us." Female participants noted sadness over increasing fear and greater protectiveness of one another.

Some men complained that the #MeToo movement made things more difficult for them: “Oh, #MeToo is ruining everything." Some women reported that male friends had asked for advice about how to address consent, saying they did not want to harm anyone. Men reported fears of being falsely accused, even if they were sure at the time that sex was consensual, worrying about potential future consequences. #MeToo heralded positive changes, including increased awareness and greater ease having clear conversations about sexual consent.

The Age of Consent

Consent is at the leading edge of change. How young (“emerging”) adults perceive consent around sexual relations, and how they construct and navigate conventionally difficult conversations, is a harbinger of more extensive social changes. Conversations around consent need to be careful and explicit in order to protect all parties; avoiding them may alleviate anxiety about rejection or failure, but having the conversations and backing them up properly helps to ensure that power differentials are not allowed to easily imperil stakeholders.

Beyond sexual consent, there is greater transparency in all aspects of dating and relationships, with fluid commitment structures and in-your-face, up-front candid discussion about partner requirements. Such so-called “hard-balling” keeps people from wasting time when it’s obviously not a good fit. Personal relationships are only one of many areas where consent is being revisioned.

Open and transparent conversations, grounded in the recognition that power is to an extent arbitrary, are becoming normed in workplace negotiations as they are in the personal sphere. For instance, new legislation mandates transparency around professional fees (e.g. the No Surprises Act) and in job postings (e.g. pay transparency under the recent New York Human Rights Law). Human resources departments and leaders in business are struggling to stay abreast of cultural shifts affecting millennial and GenZ workers, shifts that mirror changes in peer-to-peer attachment.

Yet there is at times a detached, almost callous quality to the interactions, possibly related to greater social anxiety and discomfort with in-person relations for a putatively differently-attached generation raised on smartphones, in often disconnected families, augmented by work-from-home conditions. Such differences further drive a perceived generational gap, where young and older people can’t quite make sense of one another and may not quite know how to start the conversation. How we handle consent is an important indicator of where things are going, and learning to talk through conflict with mutual empathy is an important key to better collaboration.

References

Cary KM, Reid TA, PettyJohn ME, Maas MK, McCauley HL. “They are Assuming That We are Going to Accuse Them of Rape, and We are Assuming That They are Going to Rape us”: A Developmental Perspective on Emerging Adults’ Consent Conversations Post #MeToo. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. February 2022. doi:10.1177/08862605211072181

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