Consent, Compliance, and the Challenges of Negotiating Sex

One of the most important and most tricky issues when it comes to sex is what we mean by consent. The notion of consent is often used to explain the difference between kinky sex and abuse, for example. And it’s often part of the conversation when we talk about how to tell sex and rape apart.

When I talk with people about what I think consent means, I usually use a three part definition:

  1. You have to say yes. Giving consent means that you have actively taken action. Consent is more than not saying “no.”
  2. You have to be able to say no. If you don’t have the freedom to say no without repercussions, you can’t actually give consent. A gun held to your head, whether literal or metaphorical, means you can’t truly consent.
  3. You have to understand the consequences of saying yes or no. If you’re too drunk or wasted, if you lack the mental capacity, if you don’t understand what you’re agreeing to, it doesn’t count. [As an aside, I don’t know when kids are able to consent. Different jurisdictions peg it at different ages, although I know some 15 year olds who are more able to do it than some 40 year olds. All I know is that kids are usually ready after they think they are and before their parents think they are.]

Although this definition of consent isn’t 100% complete, and it certainly leaves room for ambiguity, debate, and discussion, I’ve always thought that it covered most of the more important issues. At least until I read this article one the Kinsey Institute’s website, discussing the research article Sex without Desire: Characteristics of Occasions of Sexual Compliance in Young Adults’ Committed Relationships. They had 63 18-24-year olds in heterosexual relationships keep a journal of their sexual activity and 17% of the events were rated as “sexually compliant” (which was defined as “willingly engaging in sexual activity that one does not desire”).

Contrary to what some might expect, they didn’t find any gender differences in reports of sexual compliance. But both the men and women they studied said that men were more likely to initiate sexually compliant experiences, which means that guys are initiating sex even when they were complying. I suspect that there are a lot of reasons for that, including thinking they should have sex, or thinking that their girlfriends wanted it, or buying into a performance model of male sexuality.

Sometimes, people complied with sex in order to maintain the relationship, just as we might comply with doing the dishes or running errands. Other reasons included feeling low sexual desire and having past experiences of being pressured. And although it wasn’t among the themes that the researchers identified, I also wonder about one’s self-esteem, history of sexual assault, vocabulary around sexuality, and ability to set boundaries in other aspects of the relationship.

I also wonder about the relationships between sexual compliance and resentment. Doing something that we don’t really want to do in order to please a partner can easily fuel resentment, which is a great way to kill a relationship, and I’d be curious to see research that tracked couples over time to see how their level of sexual compliance influenced their relationship. I’m pretty sure there’s a strong correlation.

I’m glad to see research beginning to explore the nuances of consent. After all, consent doesn’t necessarily imply enthusiasm. And while I’m a fan of the BDSM community’s standard of Safe, Sane, and Consensual (and the more recent version, Risk-Aware Consensual Kink), there’s clearly more to it than consent. I’ll be curious to see further work in this area.

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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