Sep. 27 2018

There is a big disconnect between students’ actual sexual consent practices and current affirmative consent legislation efforts to make students aware of the laws (“yes means yes”), according to latest research at Columbia University and the Mailman School of Public Health. Effective promotion of consensual sex as a strategy to prevent sexual assaults will require more than just legislative mandates but a better understanding of students’ actual consent practices and the social forces shaping them. The research was conducted by Jennifer Hirsch, PhD, professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Claude Mellins, PhD, professor of Medical Psychology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Sociomedical Sciences. Hirsch and Mellins are co-directors of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a major research initiative to study sexual violence and sexual health among Columbia University undergraduates. The study findings are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Legislation mandating the promotion of affirmative consent is simply not enough, according to Hirsch and Mellins. The data highlight the limitations of affirmative consent legislation, and the results fill in some of the gaps to lay the groundwork for programs and policy interventions to promote consensual sex on campus.

The findings were based on in-depth interviews with over 150 undergraduate students from Columbia University and Barnard College over 16 months and included participant observations and focus groups that took place between September 2015 and January 2017. Hirsch and Mellins and their team describe the social dimensions of consent practices that shape students’ practices of giving sexual consent. Among them are gendered heterosexual scripts: men seeking consent and women giving it; sexual citizenship or one’s right to sexual self-determination; intersectionality, defined as how social inequalities intertwine with gender to shape consent practices; men’s fears of “doing” consent wrong; “drunk sex”; peer groups, and spatial and temporal factors shaping when consent is assumed.

Stories from students revealed that many experience the feeling that it is easier to have unwanted sex than to deal with the awkwardness of the interaction. In fact, in many cases the geography creates the outcome, shaping students’ understanding of what is likely to happen. Participants pointed to the time of day, week, semester and year as having an effect on sexual expectation. For example, “stopping by someone’s room at noon on Tuesday is different than texting to stop by in the wee hours of Sunday morning.”

New York State and a number of other states mandate that all incoming college students are instructed in affirmative consent’s importance, and require that their institutions of higher education teach affirmative consent (called “yes means yes”).

Taken together, the research points to potentially modifiable aspects of the social context that can be tackled. Since many undergraduates said they had experienced a sexual assault before they arrived as undergraduates, this includes revamping the content and comprehensiveness of sex education before a student comes to campus.

Co-author is Shamus Khan, chair, Department of Sociology. The study was funded by Columbia University with support by the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.