Illustration by Michiko Wild

Consent is a conversation, not a question

Professor, behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely conducted an experiment on a group of male MIT students in 2005. He invited the subjects to a common space at the college to answer a questionnaire consisting of questions like “Would you stop hooking up with someone if you forgot a condom?” and “Would you try to have sex with someone even if they were too drunk to give consent?”

Most of the subjects answered the questions ethically, suggesting that these men may have taken a class on consent and were respectful, upstanding people. The subjects were then prompted to go back to their dorm room, watch porn and answer the same set of questions on a computer while they were aroused. The results were shocking. While they were aroused, their tolerance for disgust was heightened, and most subjects answered ‘yes I would’ to questions like “Would you lie about having been tested for STDs so that someone would agree to have sex with you?” and “Would you continue to try to have sex with someone even if they told you they didn’t want to?” Keep in mind that the subjects had just answered these same questions earlier that day and given the opposite responses.

This experiment gives some insight into the shortcomings of how colleges tend to teach students about consent. Most people go into sexual experiences with good intentions. If we talk about consent as an initial question, we are ignoring a situation that many college students find themselves in, one in which their desires and boundaries, whether made explicit or implicit, were misinterpreted or ignored after consent was given. 

In my lessons on consent, I was never encouraged to keep on talking after the initial “yes.” But consistent and ongoing communication before, during and after sex is crucial. This back and forth establishes an open line of communication between partners that simply asking for consent does not. Do not be afraid to talk too much. It just takes one person to break the ice and make the other feel comfortable voicing their feelings.

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