Sexual consent communication and what we can learn from having tea with someone
Imagine someone comes over to your place. After a while spent talking, you really feel like having a cup of tea. You offer your visitor one as well. They then enthusiastically accept and even after the long process of boiling the water and waiting for the tea to be ready they still want to drink the tea with you. Perfect. You can enjoy it together. In a different scenario though, even after talking a while, they don’t feel like tea. Or felt like it in the beginning, but after waiting a while tell you they don’t want it anymore or might have tasted it a bit and just don’t like it that much. Well, obviously then, they don’t have to drink it and you enjoy your cup of tea by yourself.1
The scenarios above might easily be transferred to another situation: Having some form of sexual interaction with someone else after going through the process of explicitly consenting to it. But if we are honest, explicitly consenting by clearly verbally stating that you are willing to have a cup of tea or well sex, is often not a given or even aimed for. That might suck when talking about tea, drinking a cup you don’t like just because you feel like you must do it, but transferring it to sex, the consequences will be severely more serious.
“So, let’s talk about why explicit consent might seem somehow difficult when talking about sex and why implicit consent brings along complications and difficulties.”
Firstly, let us look at what implicit consent is, contrasting it to explicit consent. When consenting explicitly to something, you clearly state, for example verbally, to be willing to do something after being given options to choose from. For implicit consent this is not as clear cut. Rather than saying you want something, your behavior in addition to the situational context will give implicit consent. But then, what are the situational cues and what behavior is interpreted by who as consent?
Imagine following situation: a man is buying a drink for a woman and she accepts and drinks it. A situational cue in this context would be e.g. whether this is happening at a library or at a bar? Assuming it is happening in a bar during the night (another cue), does that constitute for consent already? There are studies that have shown this can be perceived by some as definite consent, mainly by men, whereas for others, mainly women, it does not. It may mean the woman simply enjoys a free drink or maybe she even sees the possibility of eventually having sex later that night but will see how the night will go (Jozkowski, Marcantonio & Hunt, 2017).
“So, in this rather simple example, a situation that many people have encountered before, behavioral and situational clues that are supposed to constitute giving consent are interpreted in very different ways.”
What could factors of those very different interpretations be? Research suggests that one way these differences may be explained is by looking at the different sexual scripts different genders adhere to (Hermann, Liang, & DeSipio, 2017). These sexual scripts can be seen as a default setting a person goes into in a given context as they think this will be the behavior expected of them by a certain situation or person. These scripts in turn are built upon norms and stereotypes that a society and therefore also the individuals hold.
These expected behaviors for men to come off as strong and confident are often to be the initiator of sexual encounters. (Warren, Swan, & Allen, 2015). The research by Warren and colleagues has actually shown that strong conformity with traditional gender norms for men correlates with lack of understanding of consent. For women on the other hand this is quite different. Traditional gender norms and scripts that are based upon them often imply that women are not subjects of sexual encounters but rather caretakers of their male counterparts who are perceived to be the subject (Satinsky, & Jozkowski, 2015). Together, the lack of sexual subjectivity in women and men’s beliefs that dominance is necessary to keep up the picture of being a real man due to traditional gender norms create power differences in consent communication.
Considering these power differences that come from different scripts and norms, one might already assume that explicit consent communication for women in situations in which there is a lack of perceived subjectivity is a difficult but at the same time very necessary step (Satinsky, & Jozkowski, 2015). Based on these difficulties, simply implying consent based on situational and behavioral cues though, is an easy way out and can easily lead to misinterpretation of a situation. It is therefore important to acknowledge the variety of beforementioned factors and encourage open and explicit consent communication, shaping the conversation around the topic in which men become aware of their biases based on traditional gender norms and the power they possess due to these norms and simultaneously creating a space in which women can take back their subjectivity.
Hermann, C., Liang, C. T. H., & DeSipio, B. E. (2018). Exploring sexual consent and hostile masculine norms using the theory of planned behavior. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 19(4), 491-499.
Jozkowski, K. N., Marcantonio, T. L., & Hunt, M. E. (2017). College Students’ Sexual Consent Communication And Perceptions of Sexual Double Standards: A Qualitative Investigation. Perspectives on Sexual Reproductive Health, (49)4, 237-244.
Satinsky, S., & Jozkowski, K. N. (2015). Female sexual subjectivity and verbal consent to receiving oral sex. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(4), 413–426.
Warren, P., Swan, S., & Allen, C. T. (2015). Comprehension of sexual consent as a key factor in the perpetration of sexual aggression among college men. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24(8), 897–913.
NOTE: Image by Peter Eberhardt, licenced under CC BY 2.0.