October 22, 2013

Answers to Questions about Hooking up and Consent

See my responses to some of the questions that came up during my talk at Indiana University's Sex Ed: A Real Conversation about Sexual Hook-ups in College event

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Consent is sexy

Consent is sexy

Last Monday I was invited back to Indiana University to give a talk on Sexual Consent and Hookup Culture for college students with Dr. Justin Garcia, a colleague from the Kinsey Institute.  The talk was a lot of fun, in particular because we used a program called Poll Everywhere which allowed the audience members to ask Justin and I questions via text message during the presentation. Unfortunately, we were not able to answer all the questions that people were texting in, so I thought that I might try to address a few here that I saw coming up over and over again.  For the most part, I will draw on my own, as well as other people’s, research regarding consent and hooking up to answer these questions, and provide a bit of my own input.

Doesn’t “Getting Consent” Kill the Mood?

One of the most common questions I have been asked over the years about consent is how to communicate consent without “killing the mood.” So it was no surprise that several students texted this question in during the presentation last week. My initial response is always the same—why do we assume that communicating agreement to engage in sexual activity will be a mood killer?

For nearly a decade I have been working as a Sexuality Educator in some form, primarily working with college students. I have conducted hundreds of presentations and programs for different groups (i.e., classroom lectures for human sexuality classes, personal health classes, etc., dorm programs, outreach events, etc.). During my presentations and programs, I have polled hundreds, if not thousands of college students—asking them to raise their hands if they like it when their partner asks for consent—for example, “are you okay with this?” “would you like to keep going?” or “is this okay?” And for nearly a decade, when I have asked this question, no matter the size of the audience, all the hands in the room shoot up. I typically ask a follow up question—how many of you would consider it a turn on if your partner asked for your consent (repeating the same example questions I provided earlier) and again the overwhelming majority of hands in the audience go up. I say all this to emphasize one point—the idea that “getting consent kills the mood” is a myth!

I am not sure who started this rumor, but it is just not true. I think when we hear the word consent, we tend to think of formal dialogues (and perhaps even legal contracts!), but in fact, consent can look like a lot of things—for example, asking someone, “are you okay with this?” or “do you want to keep going?” or “is it okay if I do [insert a range of behaviors here]?”  Asking questions like these do a number of different things—first they provide an individual the opportunity to say “yes” or “no” to a particular sexual activity, behavior, encounter, etc. thus helping to ensure that when the person does say “yes,” they likely want to be engaging in the behavior that they are engaging in (we could get hung up on language–like the differences between “consent” and “want,” but I won’t go into that here. Instead I will refer you to Peterson and Muehlenhard’s article for more on consent v. wantedness). Secondly, asking questions such as the ones I mentioned above allows people to express their sexual needs–it provides a gateway for communication. This way people can communicate about more than just consent—they can talk about their desires and wants. For example, if someone asks, “are you okay with this?,” a person can respond to that question with more information about what they like, what will turn them on, or what might get them off. Without someone creating that opportunity, such information may be left unsaid, and thus the sexual experience may be less enjoyable or satisfying. Finally, communicating during and about sex helps individuals get their sexual needs met in the moment as well as helps create trust in the relationship, so the individuals involved feel more comfortable with other aspects of the relationship or continued dialogue. Whether the relationship lasts one night or one year,  getting your needs met and being able to communicate about further needs getting met is a good thing and will enhance the sexual experience.

Lastly, I would like to share one more thing about consent and pleasure/enjoyment from my own research. I conducted a study in which I examined various aspects of consent and looked to see if they predicted the quality of the sexual intercourse that people engaged in during their last sexual activity. I found that for both men and women, the more comfortable and the stronger the feelings of agreement and want people had for the sexual activity, the higher they indicated the quality of their sexual intercourse. You can read more about these findings in my article (The influence of consent on college students’ perceptions of the quality of sexual intercourse at last event) published in The International Journal of Sexual Health. My point is–these findings suggest that sex is better when we have consent—so my advice is to stop thinking about consent as a bad thing that will make sex awkward and instead think about it as something that can enhance a sexual experience! Because research seems to show that it does! 🙂

How come I cannot have consensual sex when I’ve been drinking? What if my partner and I both want to have sex, but we have consumed alcohol—why is that not considered consensual?

Questions about consent and alcohol always get tricky. To suggest that consensual sex cannot take place when alcohol has been consumed is inaccurate. I think it is important to remember that consensual sex can happen without explicit consent being communicated.  For example, I can have sex with my partner–sex that we both agree and want to have–without explicitly obtaining consent, and that sex can be consensual. But without communicating explicit consent (and again, you can refer to the questions I provided above), there is no way to be 100% certain that said sex is consensual. When alcohol is introduced into the situation, it becomes increasingly more difficult to determine if sexual activity is consensual without explicit consent being communicated because alcohol tends to cloud our ability to clearly communicate consent and interpret cues from our partners.

The important things to keep in mind when we are thinking about alcohol and consent is: (1) how much alcohol has been consumed and (2) to what extent am I familiar with my partner. During our talk, we spoke a great deal about hooking up and hook up culture. During a “hook up” people often engage in sexual activity with a person they may have limited experience with both sexually as well as personally. When alcohol is mixed with a sexual situation in which people are unfamiliar with each other, it certainly becomes increasingly more challenging to determine the extent to which someone can give consent (because of how much alcohol they have consumed) as well as decipher cues of consent. So, I always recommend being as explicit as possible about getting consent in general, but particularly when alcohol is involved. Sex under the influence of alcohol can be consensual—the best way to ensure that it is consensual is to get explicit consent via asking some of the questions I mentioned earlier.

Lastly, I think it is important to address the issue of being “drunk.” When a person has consumed so much alcohol such that they are blacked out, browned out, or very drunk, that person cannot give consent. In these situations, a person who is in such a state of intoxication cannot have consensual sex with anyone. The bottom line is–sex under the influence of alcohol is not automatically nonconsensual, but it does raise certain challenges in terms of assessing the extent to which we can give and interpret consent. And there is no such thing as consensual sex with a blacked out, browned out, or very drunk person.

Why are men way off on their perception of women’s pleasure?

Over the years, I have heard this question quite often as well. I am not sure that all men are always way off in their perceptions of their female partner’s sexual pleasure. However, we do know that more often than not, women do not experience orgasm from vaginal-penile sex. Pleasure can be experienced in a variety of ways. Orgasms tend to be equated with our sense of sexual pleasure. So I think this is a good question.

One reason men may be “way off” in terms of their perception of their female partner’s pleasure is due to our lack of communication about sex. I believe that the foundation of any sexual experience is consent—if we are debating whether or not to explicitly communicate consent, there is less of a chance we will be explicit in regard to other forms of sexual communication (and as I already mentioned consent is linked to quality of sexual activity). This is a shame as my research, with colleague and fellow Kinsey Confidential blogger Kristen Mark, suggests that sexual communication influences both sexual and relationship satisfaction. So, I think the best way for men to better understand their female partner’s sense of pleasure during sexual activity (and vice versa) is to ask for feedback and for women to respond honestly (It does not help an individual if their partner tells them stimulation feels good when it does not, or pretends to have an orgasm when one was not had—this ultimately provides inaccurate information about what forms of stimulation provide pleasure. It may result in one person thinking that the stimulation they are providing is pleasurable and orgasm-inducing, when it really isn’t). I think it is also important for men (and women) to realize that everybody is different and every body is different. People have a variety of desires and things they find pleasurable and arousing. To suggest that everyone should know how to pleasure a partner immediately is unfair and unrealistic. So again, my suggestion is to ask—“does this feel good?” “do you like this?” “should I keep going like this?” “do you want to try [insert a range of behaviors and activities here]”—ask early and ask often and be open to receiving feedback!