Our initial study was a one-year constructivist qualitative study in which a group of students at a nearby university, which has been given the pseudonym West Coast State University, offered candid accounts of their social and sexual experiences during their entire first year in college. Our first study sought to construct a contemporary framework for understanding students’ gendered and sexual lives in order to guide effective efforts to eliminate gender-based violence. A cohort of 15 first-year college students at West Coast State University were selected to be interviewed three times over the course of their freshman year. 11 of the students completed the three rounds of interviews, and one dropped out and then returned at the end of the year. Two one-time interviews were also conducted.
In our pilot study, we were able to provide a safe environment and facilitation for students to explain in very specific detail how they communicated their preferences and requests, and their agreement or aversion in regards to sexual behavior. We were able to collect so-called “consent stories” that not only illuminate sometimes elaborate rituals of communication, but can be utilized for educational efforts intended to reduce stigma and improve communication in ways that are simply not included in legal frameworks. In short, the new legislation and even compliance with it is necessary, but inadequate to addressing the wide array of encounters beyond the stereotypical act of force.
One of the main early findings of the students’ contributions is that consent is a (sometimes intentionally) vague process and rarely does it manifest as overt or enthusiastic consent, despite efforts by the college administration during orientation events to encourage this dynamic. That is, while most of the respondents were regularly clear in their negative response to sexual solicitations, rarely did they report providing an affirmative, “Yes, I’d like to have sex” to a sexual solicitation or giving what would be considered “enthusiastic consent”. Similarly, only one student reported asking to have sex in specific terms: “Would you like to have sex?” Or, “Do you want to have sex?” Instead, the college students were likely to signal consent in other ways. Some examples include: tugging on pants and waiting for positive response, or turning toward a partner rather than away to demonstrate agreement.
For example, even if there is a legal definition of consent adopted in college policy as required, there is wide variation in perceptions and experiences of how consent occurs in practice. These paradigms understandably require parties to agree to the amorous and/or sexual behaviors in which they are engaged, and that they must be capable of providing that consent (i.e. not compromised by alcohol, drugs, mental or physical limitations, etc.). But, in the intimate locations where this communication is to occur, the notion that there is an explicit verbal request and agreement is simply not consistent with the reality of many or most situations.
The law and most campus policies also do not provide relief or guidance in the wake of mixed-messages women receive in the broader social milieu about whether and under what circumstances it is acceptable for them to engage in sexual activity (e.g. the so-called “Virgin/Whore” dichotomy, the expectation of passivity, etc.); nor to men who are given messages that they are not masculine unless they desire and pursue sexual relations generally, that they should “take charge” in sexual encounters, and that they should have frequent heterosexual sexual interactions with multiple partners. Also, the law may insist that intoxication precludes consent, but the social norms and beliefs do not agree. In our pilot study, we also heard of practices in which students intentionally become intoxicated in order to relieve themselves from hesitation, fear, shame and other concerns about sexual relations. As such, there are social structural barriers to realizing the goal of consent. We intend to gain greater understanding of these issues and to broadly share our findings.
These research findings are significant because they illustrate 1) the relative ineffectiveness of large-scale campus efforts to achieve practices of enthusiastic consent, and 2) the need to better understand the realities of the sexual experiences and practices of college students so that prevention strategies can be grounded in reality. This research proposes to address the need for better programming by providing more information on real consent practices and social learning about sexuality among college students.