Biological Sex and Sexual Orientation Affect Sexual Consent

Introduction

Although often publicly presented as a simple, binary (yes or no) phenomenon (Withers, 2019), science is revealing sexual consent to be complex and variable. Part of sexual consent’s complexity is it depending on such factors as gender, relationship status, and types of sexual behavior (Willis et al., 2019). Using a novel, non-binary measure, the present study tested whether people’s judgments of sexual consent depend on biological sex and sexual orientation.

Method

Two-hundred-sixteen freshmen- and sophomore-level college students with a mean age of 21 years (SD = 4.5) served as experimental participants; sixty-three percent identified themselves as women.

Following informed consent, students served in one of four sexual consent conditions. The conditions required the students to listen to 15 short stories (four to six sentences in length) being read to them. The stories were about two people involved in a “sexual” activity. The conditions only differed based upon who is initiating the “sexual” activity within the story: Heterosexual-Male (n = 52), Homosexual-Male (n = 59), Heterosexual-Female (n = 60), or Homosexual-Female (n = 45). After reading each story, students judged whether the story was about sexual consent; if students judged it to be about sexual consent, then they were asked to rate the level of sexual consent for the two people involved in the “sexual” activity: The person initiating the “sexual” activity (Initiator) and the person following the initiation (Participant).

Sexual consent was measured on a continuum-like Likert scale from 0 to 7 with 0 equaling No Consent and 7 equaling Complete Consent.

After reading the 15 short stories and rating their levels of sexual consent, experimental participants answered three questions about themselves (i.e., biological sex, sexual orientation, and age).

Results

Ranging from 63% to 99%, overall stories were judged as being about sexual consent 91% of the time. The overall mean sexual consent rating of the Initiator (4.6, SD = 1.7) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.3, SD = 1.0, p < .0001).

Ranging from 63% to 100%, Heterosexual-Male stories were judged as being about sexual consent 92% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Heterosexual-Male Initiator (5.0, SD = 1.4) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.2, SD = 0.6, p < .0001).

Ranging from 62% to 100%, Homosexual-Male stories were judged as being about sexual consent 91% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Homosexual-Male Initiator (4.7, SD = 1.9) was significantly different from the Participant (2.6, SD = 1.3, p < .0001).

Ranging from 64% to 100%, Heterosexual-Female stories were judged as being about sexual consent 87% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Heterosexual-Female Initiator (4.3, SD = 1.7) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.3, SD = 1.1, p < .0001).

Ranging from 62% to 100%, Homosexual-Female stories were judged as being about sexual consent 93% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Homosexual-Female Initiator (4.2, SD = 1.5) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.2, SD = 0.8, p < .0001).

Ranging from 69% to 100%, Heterosexual-Male stories were judged by women (n = 35) as being about sexual consent 95% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Heterosexual-Male Initiator (5.2, SD = 1.4) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.1, SD = 0.6, p < .0001).

Ranging from 47% to 100%, Heterosexual-Male stories were judged by men (n = 15) as being about sexual consent 86% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Heterosexual-Male Initiator (4.8, SD = 1.4) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.4, SD = 0.6, p < .0001).

Ranging from 64% to 100%, Homosexual-Male stories were judged by women (n = 33) as being about sexual consent 88% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Homosexual-Male Initiator (4.4, SD = 1.7) was significantly different from the Participant (2.3, SD = 0.9, p < .0001).

Ranging from 57% to 100%, Homosexual-Male stories were judged by men (n = 23) as being about sexual consent 94% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Homosexual-Male Initiator (5.0, SD = 2.3) was significantly different from the Participant (3.1, SD = 1.5, p < .0001).

Ranging from 74% to 100%, Heterosexual-Female stories were judged by women (n = 35) as being about sexual consent 89% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Heterosexual-Female Initiator (4.5, SD = 1.9) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.3, SD = 1.2, p < .0001).

Ranging from 48% to 100%, Heterosexual-Female stories were judged by men (n = 23) as being about sexual consent 83% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Heterosexual-Female Initiator (4.1, SD = 1.3) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.3, SD = 0.7, p < .0001).

Ranging from 66% to 100%, Homosexual-Female stories were judged by women (n = 32) as being about sexual consent 92% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Homosexual-Female Initiator (4.1, SD = 1.5) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.0, SD = 0.8, p < .0001).

Ranging from 54% to 100%, Homosexual-Female stories were judged by men (n = 13) as being about sexual consent 93% of the time. The mean sexual consent rating of the Homosexual-Female Initiator (4.6, SD = 1.4) was significantly greater than the Participant (2.5, SD = 0.5, p < .0001).

Discussion

For two people involved in a potential sexual activity, the present study found three possible sexual consent scenarios: (1) Sexual consent for both an Initiator and Participant of a sexual activity; (2) Sexual consent for the Initiator, but not the Participant; and (3) Sexual consent for neither Initiator nor Participant. The biological sex and sexual orientation of the Initiator affects judgments of sexual consent. Male Initiators are more likely to be judged as having sexual consent during sexual activity than female Initiators. Further, male Participants are more likely to be judged as having sexual consent during sexual activity than female Participants. Furthermore, when considering who is doing the judging, Initiators of sexual activity who are heterosexual are less likely to be judged as having sexual consent when being judged by men than women; however, when Initiators of sexual activity are homosexual, they are less likely to be judged as having sexual consent when being judged by women than men. Lastly, regardless of sexual orientation, Participants in sexual activities are more likely to be judged as having sexual consent when being judged by men than women. It should also be noted, this study’s novel measure of sexual consent is evidence for it being a non-binary phenomenon. Knowing sexual consent from variable contextual and measurement perspectives will decrease the potential of sexual assaults from occurring.

This is the abstract of a talk given at the 2021 Southwestern Psychological Association. A video of this talk can be seen here: Biological Sex and Sexual Orientation Affect Sexual Consent: SWPA 2021 — YouTube

References

Kleinplatz, P. J., Ménard, A. D., Paradis, N., Campbell, M., & Dalgleish, T. L. (2013). Beyond sexual stereotypes: Revealing group similarities and differences in optimal sexuality. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 45, 250–258.

Santelli, J. S., Grilo, S. A., Choo, T.H., Diaz, G., Walsh, K., Wall, M., Hirsch, J.S., Wilson, P.A., Gilbert, L., Khan, S., & Mellins, C.A. (2018). Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college? PLOS ONE, 13, 1–18.

Willis, M., Hunt, M., Wodika, A., Rhodes, D., Goodman, J., & Jozkowski, K. (2019). Explicit verbal sexual consent communication: Effects of gender, relationship status, and type of sexual behavior. International Journal of Sexual Health, 31, 60–70.

Withers, M. (2019). Keeping the concept of consent simple: Yes means yes. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-day-slavery/201910/keeping-the-concept-consent-simple-yes-means-yes

Dr. Don Lucas, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and head of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. He loves psychology, teaching, and research.

If you like this story, then check out Don’s videos on his YouTube channel, 5MIweekly: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQFQ0vPPNPS-LYhlbKOzpFw/featured, follow him on Instagram @5MIweekly, like him on Facebook: http://fb.me/5MIWeekly, and check out his website: http://5Miweekly.com

I am a Professor of Psychology at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. My research focus is human sexuality. I also host a YouTube channel, 5MIweekly.

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