This photo is an artistic representation of the blurred lines of sexual consent in situations where individuals may feel pressured or obligated to say yes, even if they may not want to. Unwanted consensual sex is prevalent on college campuses. (Photo Illustration by Roshan Giyanani)

Understanding unwanted consensual sex

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With rape and assault at the forefront of the gender violence conversation, a quieter, less discernible type of gender violence is happening across the country with a name that matches its ambiguity.

Although less outwardly repulsive, researchers believe it to be traumatic nonetheless.

In a 2002 study entitled “Why Some Women Consent to Unwanted Sex with a Dating Partner: Insights from Attachment Theory,” unwanted consensual sex is described as sex that is consented to when one truly does not want to participate. The study says this happens for such reasons as not wanting to disappoint a partner, fearing one’s partner will break up with them if they deny sex and belief that men have a higher and uncontrollable sex drive.

It happens at Lehigh.

There is the 20-year-old Lehigh student who said she has sex with her boyfriend, even when she doesn’t want to, because she doesn’t want to fight.

There is the 20-year-old Lehigh student who said she felt obligated to sleep with a date after a date party and then thought, “I didn’t want to do that.”

There is the 19-year-old Lehigh student who said he sees men at Lehigh pressure their friends into having sex.

There is the possibility that unwanted consensual sex can happen in any relationship, regardless of gender, sexuality or seriousness of the relationship.

Nicole Johnson, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh researching the implementation of prevention programming for gender-based violence, found a study on sexual behavior conducted by a researcher at San Jose State University, Jason Laker. The researcher followed a group of students from their first year on campus and recorded their sexual behavior.

Johnson said the researcher categorized these experiences into four types of sexual behavior: rape; traumatic but consensual sex; enjoyable but lawfully non-consensual sex; and enjoyable, consensual sex. Johnson said traumatic but consensual sex — a sexual encounter which is consensual yet results in one partner feeling traumatized — is closest to the idea of unwanted consensual sex.

“Consenting to unwanted sex in a committed relationship may just be one more form of negotiation for the relationship’s sake,” said Rita Jones, the director of the Women’s Center. “In the same way that it is, ‘Fine I’ll go grocery shopping, you clean the bathroom.’”

Johnson said consensual unwanted sexual behavior can result in an unhealthy relationship with sex. A lack of association between sex and pleasure can have a negative effect on the couple’s sex life. Johnson said this will result in couples enjoying sex less, and in more serious cases could cause significant mental health concerns and possibly PTSD.

Although the study specifically references couples, it happens outside of committed relationships, as well.

Sleep-away formals and date parties, social functions where each member of an organization brings a date to the party, usually located at a bar or restaurant, could contribute to consenting to unwanted sex.

“You think, ‘Oh well they invited me, it’s being paid for, I need to give them something in return,’” said Samantha Randall, ’18, a member of Break the Silence. “There should never be the idea of expected sex. That obligation, there’s no such thing as an obligation towards sex, at least in my opinion.”

Socialization could also contribute to this behavior.

Danielle Lindemann, a professor of sociology and women, gender and sexuality studies, said there’s some evidence that women are socialized to be more accommodating, to be more submissive and less aggressive.

Jones said she thinks men and women are socialized in such different ways that they may not be able to understand each other’s nonverbal cues. While men’s nonverbals may signal that the interaction doesn’t matter to him, women’s nonverbal cues may signal she is overly excited about the interaction, when she’s actually not.

Johnson said research about how we identify nonverbal cues has found that in any other situation but sex, we pay attention to nonverbal cues. But during sex we tend to ignore them. She said we are lying to ourselves about not being able to recognize nonverbal cues during sex and need to stop.

In Lehigh’s code of conduct, consent is defined as “a mutual agreement to participate in a specific activity at a specific time. Consent must be clear, knowing, and voluntary. . . . Consent must be clearly communicated (for example, by way of mutually understandable words or actions), mutual, non-coercive, and given free of force or the threat of force. . . . A previous dating or sexual relationship, whether with the respondent or anyone else, cannot imply consent to future sexual acts.”

Karen Salvemini, Lehigh’s equal opportunity compliance coordinator, said consent is not obtained if it is sought through fear, coercion or force.

“Coercion can also take the form of, ‘If you don’t have sex with me, I’m breaking up with you,’ even if it’s not explicit like that, but if your relationship has created that type of coercion where you feel like you have to have sex with them to keep them in that relationship, that could definitely be a form of coercion where we would say you’re not giving consent,” she said.

Salvemini said under university policy, consensual unwanted sex would not be considered consensual sex and a student could go through a formal sexual misconduct case.

Randall agreed with Salvemini. Randall said unwanted consensual sex isn’t actually consensual at all.

“To me, that middle ground is one of the less understood aspects of what gender violence looks like,” Randall said.

Unwanted consensual sex is not exclusive to women.

Jones said young men, especially those age 13 to 17 may feel pressured to have sex to prove their masculinity or fit in with other male friends, even if they don’t want to engage in sexual behavior.

This behavior is also not limited to heterosexual couples.

“What we know anecdotally is gay and lesbian couples experience intimate partner violence at very similar rates to heterosexual couples,” said Chelsea Fullerton, the director of the Pride Center.

Although partner violence may happen at similar rates, societal pressures for same-sex couples may be different than those for heterosexual couples.

“Intimate partner violence among LGBTQ people can take the form of threatening to out someone,” Fullerton said. “So say they are not out to their family members or their workplace, that can be a tool of emotional and relational manipulation that a partner could use.”

Randall said for people who are transgender, methods of coercion could include denying resources, such as testosterone or use of pronouns — for example, using “it” rather than preferred pronoun.

Jones said the construction of gay masculinity along the premise that gay men should want sex all the time could also contribute to consenting to unwanted sex.

Knowledge of consent is important in these situations.

“Consent is when all parties make a mutual, verbal — usually verbal but not always — clear, unaffected agreement to participate in whatever sexual activity,” Jones said. “They all agree to the same thing, in the same way, and only that thing, and it’s done each time. And there is no substance or something interfering, like drug or alcohol, as well as not coerced.”

Jones said consent education could help stop these unwanted consensual sex situations.

Johnson is working to implement consent education first into college sex education, then high schools and middle schools. Jones said there is evidence that consent education should start even earlier, in elementary school.

Lindemann said sexual education in this country is not as rigorous as it should be.

“Sometimes women, girls, learn about consent, but there’s really no focus on also teaching the boys and the men what it means to get consent,” Lindemann said. “Also, sex-ed programs generally focus on heterosexual relations, excluding some same-sex ones.”

For Randall, it all comes down to understanding.

“Understanding is a lot of the problem, the lack of understanding around what consent is,” Randall said. “People are confused by alcohol and consent, when it can be given, when it can’t. Once that education is there, that will help a lot of these situations.”

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3 Comments

  1. Consent is the current level of legality. Are we OK with just legal (grade of D) or do we want more (grade C, B, A).

    The power of sex demands respect and commitment

  2. “Salvemini said under university policy, consensual unwanted sex would not be considered consensual sex and a student could go through a formal sexual misconduct case” – If this is true, that is a really big deal and probably deserves a follow-up article.

  3. How on earth is someone supposed to know when it’s unwanted if the other person has explicitly consented? By that standard, if I say I’m too tired but do it anyway, it’s non-consensual. Pretty sure that would shock my husband. That’s a pretty slippery slope ripe for abuse.

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