We often think of consensual sex as the opposite of assault. But sometimes people say “yes” because they are coerced. And people often consent to sex that they really enjoy and want without ever saying “yes….” There is an awful lot of consensual sex happening that is, as students say, “kind of rapey,” or hurtful, or not very enjoyable for one person, or sometimes even for both. The point is not to be the pleasure police. After all, people can consent to sex, and even want to have sex that isn’t that pleasurable physically, because they want to comfort a partner or reaffirm a relationship or have a new kind of experience. And pleasure can have lots of meanings, from physical, to emotionally satisfying, to achieving some desirable goal, like acquiring status or a new experience.
Some students do practice affirmative consent, but many others use a range of social cues to make sense of whether or not a sexual encounter was consensual or nonconsensual. They use space as a shorthand for consent in ways that highlight how campus sexual geography shapes what students do and how they understand it. Students frequently assume that someone else choosing to be alone in a room with them signifies consent. In dark basements, crowded parties, and bars where the din makes conversation impossible, students frequently touch each other’s bodies without seeking, much less securing, consent. This touching would be much more recognizable as problematic in the library reading room, or on the campus lawn, or in a classroom.
During the time of our fieldwork, a series of highly publicized cases involving accusations of sexual assault had recently rocked the campus. Consequently, students were acutely attuned to the importance of consent, and had received many messages about school policy emphasizing consent as the bright line marking the difference between sexual assault and sex. Men, as a performance of decency and to demonstrate their desirable masculinity, had even begun to talk publicly and loudly about the importance of consent and their commitment to it. In the interviews, to minimize social desirability bias—the fact that research subjects often tell you what they know to be socially desirable, rather than what they actually do—we therefore deliberately asked students to describe a sexual experience in minute detail before asking any questions about consent. Surprisingly, almost no student brought up consent in their initial descriptions of a sexual encounter. Interview subjects were taken aback when they realized, upon being asked to recount their stories a second time, but this time to be explicit about how consent worked, that affirmative consent was not a defining characteristic of their sexual encounters. Some even realized they may not have gotten consent within past sexual interactions—interactions which, until the moment of the interview, they had thought of as consensual.