By Amelia Eichel
Professor, behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely conducted an experiment on a group of male MIT students in 2005. He began by having subjects come to a common space at the college and 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 turned on, 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 exclusively within the context of sexual assault (which is equally as important), 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. This situation can result in someone feeling uncomfortable and violated.
In this situation, there is a disconnect between what one participant wants and/or thinks the other wants and what the other person actually wants. Consistent communication before and during sex about what each other do and do not want creates a dynamic between partners that simply asking for consent does not. It is important that both people make it clear to the other that they care about what the other person is experiencing. This way, both people become comfortable telling the other what they do and do not want to do before and during sex.
Consent as a conversation rather than a question can yield better communication and trust between partners and ultimately a more comfortable and enjoyable sexual experience.