Research has shown that college students largely think that asking for sexual consent — “Do you want to have sex?” — “ruins the mood.” This is partly because it violates their sexual script, the norms and expectations that guide sexual encounters.
If explicit consent violates the sexual script, then students are left trying to discern consent from more subtle and implicit verbal and non-verbal cues. I did a research project to determine how they do this, interviewing 19 college students about their perceptions of sexual consent in popular television programs.
I discovered that students often interpreted the same scenes dramatically differently. For example, I showed them this scene from The Vampire Diaries:
Eleven of my 19 respondents brought up the issue of verbal consent. Five said the verbal interchange in the scene indicated consent; six said it did not. Their contrasting perceptions focused on the male character’s statement, “Let’s get out of here.” The five students who saw the scene as consensual were inclined to classify the declaration, “Let’s get out of here” as the moment where verbal consent is given. For example, Hannah said:
…like I mean he doesn’t outright say “do you wanna have sex” but he says “do you want to get out of here” and she’s like “yes.” That’s like the only one where there’s like an actual yes! [giggling] I mean like a verbal yes.
Hannah said the scene indicated consent because she equated “getting out of here” with sex.
In contrast, Natalie and five others disagreed with Hannah and those who considered the verbal exchange between Tyler and Caroline to be a form of verbal consent:
No, I would say, there was like no talk of consent, really… In the Vampire Diaries one, by him saying like, “let’s get out of here,” there might be an assumption associated with that and then her saying, “Okay,” like could be consent, quote, unquote. But, I don’t really think that qualifies, either.
Natalie believed there was a correct way to obtain verbal consent. When I asked her what would make this scene consensual, Natalie replied, “Basically saying ‘Do you want to, do you want to go through with this?’—something like that.” Obviously, Natalie viewed consent as a different kind of verbal question.
The differences in these responses to The Vampire Diaries scene are striking. While verbal consent is often held up as the gold standard, I found disagreement as to exactly which statements constitute consent. This disagreement sets the stage for serious miscommunication about students’ sexual intentions. Some students interpret a phrase such as “Do you want to leave?” as “Do you want to leave this party and have sex at my house?” while other students believe that only a phrase such as “Do you agree to have sex with me?” communicates sexual consent.
Nona Gronert will graduate from Occidental College this May with a degree in Sociology and Spanish Literary Studies. She aspires to become a professor of Sociology.