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University of South Carolina

MONTREAL -- Many institutions have launched what they consider to be effective affirmative consent campaigns based around the idea that only “yes means yes” when it comes to sex. Some states require such a view. Findings from a new study presented here this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association challenge the success of such campaigns, saying that college men are still using ambiguous physical cues to secure what they think is consent before sex.

“Moaning and Eye Contact: College Men’s Negotiations of Sexual Consent in Theory and in Practice” was written by Nicole Bedera, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan. Bedera recruited study participants from high-enrollment introductory courses across disciplines at a large mid-Atlantic university with an affirmative consent policy and related education efforts. Focusing on heterosexual undergraduate men who described themselves as sexually active -- the targets of so many proactive campus rape prevention campaigns -- Bedera wanted to know how and if consent policies were being put into practice.

The answer was frequently no.

“Over all, the way the respondents sought consent in their sexual encounters did not match up with the strategies they claimed to invoke,” she says. “Respondents were much less likely to ascertain explicit verbal consent and relied on their partners to initiate a conversation about sexual expectations. Most commonly, respondents relied on physical and nonsexual cues like eye contact or an accelerated heart rate to indicate consent, despite the many nonsexual scenarios in which these actions commonly occur.”

Although the respondents used physical sexual indicators of enthusiastic participation at a frequency similar to what they had claimed, reads the study, “they often assumed consent to one sexual activity communicated consent to all sexual activities. In general, the men in this study did not reliably apply what they had learned about affirmative consent, even though they insisted that they did when expressly asked.”

In semistructured interviews with 25 men, Bedera asked questions about sexual experiences in long-term relationships and hookups, as well as attitudes toward consent policies. Seventy-five percent of the sample was white and nearly half were in the second year of college, with a more even distribution of participants across other years. The average age was 20, and participants came from a variety of religious backgrounds. No one was an athlete.

Bedera later coded responses to analyze attitudes toward definitions and indicators of consent, as well as indicators of nonconsent and strategies to get consent. Again, she found that while male students approve of, understand and generally say they follow campus policies about affirmative consent, they don’t consistently apply known strategies to secure that consent in their own sex lives.

Defining Consent

Affirmative consent policies differ from campus to campus but are all based on the idea that consent must be given knowingly, voluntarily and affirmatively, according to the study. Most policies favor verbal consent, but some also include enthusiastic participation in sex as a green light, it says. No-gos include scenarios in which consent cannot be given, such as incapacitation or while under duress, or assumptions of consent based on a lack of protest or a pre-established sexual relationship.

While most subjects struggled to define consent, they generally described it as all parties being willing participants in a particular sexual act -- which Bedera says meets the standard definition. Yet some also matched the definition to their own sexual experiences, such as by saying that because verbal consent was “awkward,” they relied on a partner to physically signal nonconsent, such as by “moving my hand away.”

All but one respondent said they used what they’d learned about consent in their own sex lives, but they reported different means of getting it. Some 34 percent mentioned using sexual verbal signals, 22 percent mentioned physical signals, 19 percent used signals to guess at a partner’s frame of mind, and 16 percent included signals hinting at a revocation of consent.

Most commonly, respondents said they explicitly asked for consent. Two respondents said they ask for consent every time, while another said he typically asks if he should get a condom. Among those who used physical cues, many often conflated enthusiasm for any sexual act with intercourse. Seven respondents used the absence of objection or revoked consent as consent. Students were consistent in their application of strategies and generally pointed to that consistency as proof they’d never raped anyone. Two respondents said not all their sexual encounters had been consensual.

Another Story

Interestingly, the picture changed when Bedera asked participants to explain their most recent sexual encounters -- without using the word “consent” in her prompt.

While verbal sexual signals comprised 34 percent of the strategies mentioned in responses to her previous question, they made up only 13 percent of the signals used by respondents recounting specific sexual encounters.

“When a couple did have an explicit dialogue about sexual expectations, the woman tended to initiate the conversation,” Bedera says. “Men only claimed to initiate an explicit conversation about sexual intentions 20 percent of the time when such a conversation occurred.”

Moreover, some of those men who did initiate a conversation about consent already assumed it. As one participant said, “I was like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. Or if we start and you change your mind, we can stop.’ And she was like, ‘OK.’”

Physical sexual signals typically involved kissing and taking off clothes. But by far the most common indicators of interest mentioned by respondents in recounting their own experiences were physical and nonsexual. Moaning -- which Bedera notes can signal pain -- was the most commonly used physical nonsexual signal. Such a signal does not meet the standard of voluntary, affirmative consent, the paper says.

Eye contact also stood out as the most commonly invoked evidence that a woman wants to have sex before it begins, according to the study. Yet when pressed for details, most respondents struggled to explain how this kind of eye contact was different from ordinary eye contact (the study notes that none of the face-to-face interviews ended in sex, after all).

Bedera recalls one respondent’s explanation like this: “After giving ‘eyes’ as his one-word answer about how he could tell his last hookup would take place, he eventually added, ‘It’s like an interest -- a curiosity. It’s like when you look at someone with a curiosity to know more about them … I can see them like, “Hmm … What is that guy like in bed?”’ I asked Ray to physically demonstrate what this type of eye contact would look like. He narrowed his eyes slightly. In fact, the difference was nearly imperceptible to me even when I explicitly looked for it. He explained, ‘It’s subtle.’”

For respondents who didn’t make such a distinction, the study notes, “they usually included eye contact on a list of traits commonly associated with someone actively engaged in a conversation, such as laughing at jokes, listening carefully and not looking for an excuse to leave the situation.”

Putting Policy into Practice

Asked how her findings square (or don’t) with many colleges’ perception that affirmative consent campaigns have been successful, Bedera said this week that “college men are receptive to the idea of affirmative consent, but struggle to apply it in their sexual encounters.”

In many cases, she said, men may believe they’re meeting the standard of consent set by their institutions but are actually falling short. For example, Bedera added, men are using “entirely physical and typically nonsexual social cues, like making eye contact or sustaining conversation, as cues that are not reliable indicators of sexual interest -- much less sexual consent.”

Bedera’s paper attributes some of the problem to cultural perceptions of masculinity as being sexually aggressive. It also asserts that if colleges and universities are to blame for the disconnect between policy and students’ practices, it’s not a problem of educational quantity, since -- at least on the unnamed campus in her study -- there’s ample mandatory training. Rather, she said, it’s the training approaches that may need tweaking.

"Many of the men in my sample seemed to believe they were incapable of sexual assault, especially if they didn't belong to a high risk group like fraternity men or athletes," Bedera said. And since they already believed that rape was wrong and that they were "good men," they didn't analyze their own behaviors.

​In her own volunteer work with fraternities, Bedera said she found that asking men to reflect on their past sexual behaviors, including a time when consent was ambiguous and they could have done to ask for it, "went a long way." 

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