Is It Just A Matter Of Consent? Compliance In Sexual Relationships

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A new study on sexual compliance raises the question "is it just a matter of consent?"

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Photo: Stoichometry (Flickr)

Original photo by Stoichometry on Flickr.

The simplest way to distinguish between consensual sexual activity and forced or coerced sexual activity is just that — consent; “yes” means yes, and “no” means no.  Unfortunately, it’s not all that simple when you consider gender inequality and gender norms, among other things (e.g., alcohol, relationships).  A new study on sexual compliance raises the question “is it just a matter of consent?”

The Study

In a recent issue of the Journal of Sex Research, psychologists Sarah A. Vannier and Lucia F. O’Sullivan collected diary entries during a three-week period of the sexual activity of 63 young adults in the US.  The respondents were all 18-24 year-olds in long-term, committed heterosexual relationships.  The researchers sought to determine whether there is an element of compliance in the sexual activity of these couples.  That is, they wanted to know about “situations in which the sexual activity itself is not wanted or desired, yet the individual freely consents to it.”

Their Findings

On average, each of the 63 respondents reported engaging in sexual activity six times within the three-week period of study.  Out of all of these occasions of sexual activity, nearly 20% were instances of sexual compliance.  That is, about one in five occasions of sexual activity were engaged in consensually, but without desiring it.  However, slightly less than half of the participants account for these reports of sexual compliance.

Gender, Initiation, And Enjoyment

The researchers found no gender differences in reports of occasions of sexual compliance.  However, both female and male participants in the study noted that instances of sexual compliance were more likely to be initiated by the male partner — this means that, for some men, they initiated sexual activity even when they were merely complying with it.  Participants reported that when they did comply with sexual activity, the encounter was less enjoyable and that their partner was more in control of the situation.

Is It Really Just “Relationship Compliance”?

When interviewed, the participants noted that they sometimes complied with sexual activity when they did not desire it for the sake of relationship quality.  That is, just as they might do the dishes or mow the lawn, they sometimes did things for their partner as a part of an implicit relationship contract.  Most of the participants gave reasons to justify why they experienced lack of desire for sexual activity, ranging from stress to fatigue, and noted that their partners were aware of their lack of desire.

Is It Just A Matter of Consent?

Although the researchers limited their sample to couples with no present reports of forced or coerced sexual activity, some in the sample who reported sexual compliance in the three-week period noted that there had been past instances of pressure (e.g., begging, whining) to engage in sexual activity.  While it is clear that instances of sexual compliance are indeed consensual — that is, both partners willingly and freely agree to engage in sexual activity — this study shows that consent does not necessarily imply desire.  For these couples, sexual activity that was both consensual and desired was more enjoyable and comfortable than when there was merely consent.

Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman

received his PhD in sociology at Indiana University. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman's research interests lie in medical sociology, social psychology, sexualities, and race/gender/class. You can see his personal blog at http://egrollman.com.
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