Teenagers have an overly simplistic understanding of consent that often ignores relevant non-verbal cues, a new study suggests.
“If we’re really committed to preventing sexual violence, then we need to engage young people in the discussion of what consent means much earlier in development,” says Caroline Kuo, an associate professor (research) of behavioral and social sciences and associate dean of diversity and inclusion at Brown University’s School of Public Health.
“I think having a simplistic view of consent—of just ‘no’ or just ‘yes’—misses the nuances of consent that we need to work into the process of preparing young people to engage in that process.”
For the study, Lindsay Orchowski, an associate professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, interviewed 33 Rhode Island high school students between ages 14 and 18 about their perceptions of sexual consent.
What does silence mean?
The researchers find that while most of the students could define consent as saying “yes,” their understanding of how consent translated into real-life experiences varied.
“…both parties need to fully engage in the consent process.”
Both male and female students believed that, in general, girls conveyed consent non-verbally in sexual encounters—and, therefore, that silence during sexual activity could be interpreted as an indication of both consent to and enjoyment of that activity.
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Specifically, girls indicated that their female peers would convey sexual refusal through non-verbal cues, and most boys reported their male peers would proceed with sexual activity until they heard the verbal expression of “no,” the paper reports. Additionally, most of the participants shared the view that establishing consent was unnecessary if two teenagers had already engaged in sexual activity.
These findings, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, corroborate earlier research on socialized gender roles in sexual consent, says Kuo, who was also involved in the project.
“Although there might be gender differences, both parties need to fully engage in the consent process,” she says. “No one person is responsible for the consent process.”
Kuo adds that consent is a process, changing one’s mind is natural and normal, and consent should be an important part of many activities, beyond just sexual activity.
“All too often, we talk about consent in the context of penetrative sex, but actually asking for permission and giving permission should be a principle that we infuse into everything,” she says. “If my friend wants me to play soccer, I can consent to playing soccer. If I want to hug my friend, I should ask if that is okay. Having the discussion of consent connected only to intimacy is a missed opportunity.”
The authors state that sexual violence prevention programs for high school students should include ways to provide the opportunity to practice verbal and non-verbal sexual consent communication and recognition skills, such as structured role play.
“I think that presenting consent in this simplistic verbal emphasis of ‘no means no’ is a disservice for teaching young people how to really navigate the complexities of consent,” Kuo says. “We know that for young people, especially teens, lots of communication occurs that’s non-verbal. We need to support our young people in recognizing all of those forms of communication, which have important roles to play in the consent process. The non-verbal components of consent take careful attention and are really vital.”
Orchowski says that the research addresses a significant gap in the research literature on sexual violence.
“Although adolescents are at high risk for sexual victimization, most research on sexual consent focuses on college students,” Orchowski says. “Development and evaluation of sexual assault prevention programs for high school students is also lacking. An understanding of sexual consent is at the foundation of sexual assault prevention efforts. This data can inform our efforts to educate high school students on sexual consent in the context of sexual assault prevention programs.”
Coauthors of the paper are from Brown and Rhode Island Hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supported the work.
Source: Brown University