What Can We Learn About Consent From The Psychology of Sex?

Meg-John Barker

I wrote my book for Routledge’s Psychology of Everything series before the #metoo movement hit the headlines. However, consent was a central theme of the book, both explicitly in the chapter on how psychology has delineated ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’ sex over the years, and implicitly as a thread running through all of the other chapters. In this post I want to explore some of the main things we can learn from studying the psychology of sex to inform the current - vital - conversations that we’re having about sexual consent.

A key point to make before we start is that while non-consensual sexual behaviour is a huge problem affecting huge numbers of people, the question of how we should go about having consensual sex - and wider relationships - has been notable in its absence in both psychology and popular discourse. Mainstream psychology and sexology textbooks rarely include this topic in any depth, although it has been a key area of study in the more marginalised areas of critical and feminist psychology. Similarly coverage of consent is shockingly lacking in sex advice literature. When I studied the most popular sex manuals, websites, and newspaper columns I found that consent was rarely ever even mentioned, and when it was this was generally only in the context of kinky sexual practices, as if other forms of sex were somehow immune from the risks of non-consensual behaviours.

From my reading of the research, and the psychology of sex more widely, I would say that we need to turn this on its head. The conditions that make sex most likely to be non-consensual are all frequently present in what we might call normative sexual encounters, such as sex within ongoing heterosexual relationships or hook-ups. While kink communities are certainly not immune from non-consensual behaviour, the understandings and practices around consent within those communities often make it more likely that people will have consensual encounters.

What are the conditions that make sex less likely to be consensual? Here are some key ones:

‘Proper’ sex

  • The assumption that people must have sex in order to be healthy individuals and to maintain relationships
  • The sense that there is a set sexual script that must be followed, and that only that counts as ‘proper’ sex
  • The feeling that if this script is not followed then the encounter - and the individuals involved - are failures

‘Normal’ sex

  • A high level of fear and shame about ‘getting it wrong’ or being ‘abnormal’ which makes any kind of open communication feel dangerous
  • Rigid ideas about the gendered roles in sex, and the ways in which bodies should perform

How Consent Works

  • A ‘no means no’ understanding of consent where it’s assumed that people have consented if they haven’t actually said ‘no’ to what is happening
  • The idea that consent is given in a one-off conversation - or implicit interaction - that happens at the start of the encounter
  • Imbalances of power between those involved which make it very hard for one or more to communicate what they want and what they don’t want before, during and after
  • A wider culture of non-consent in relationships of all kinds

Sound familiar? These are actually the conditions under which the vast majority of sex happens in our culture, and the psychology of sex itself has - over the years - contributed to many of these conditions rather than endeavouring to challenge or shift them.

These are the conditions under which it becomes easy for those who want to engage in predatory sexual behaviour to do so and to get away with it. They are also the conditions under which the rest of us who would never want to act non-consensually towards another person - or towards ourselves - might easily find ourselves doing so.

Let’s explore what we can learn from the psychology of sex to inform our thinking in each of these areas. You can find out more about them all in the book too of course!

‘Proper’ sex

In the early chapters of The Psychology of Sex I explore how psychology and sexology have shaped our understanding of sex in such a way that we now have a pretty limited sense of what counts as ‘proper’ sex: ‘foreplay’ followed by penis-in-vagina intercourse leading to orgasm. This is the sexual script developed by researchers like Masters and Johnson which continues to underpin the ‘sexual disorders’ in manuals like the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

If this is what ‘proper sex’ means then we need disorders for penises that can’t penetrate, vaginas that can’t be penetrated, and people who struggle to orgasm from that kind of sex. We don’t need disorders for hands that become tired quickly, anuses that struggle to be penetrated, or people who struggle to have erotic fantasies, for example.

This limited script, and the assumption that it must always be followed to completion, probably explains why around half of the population consider themselves to have some kind of sexual difficulty. Ironically the pressures on penetration and orgasm are often the very things that make those experiences more difficult because trying to force bodies to do these things often results in the exact opposite - rather like trying to make yourself fall asleep when you have insomnia.

Another problem is the assumption - in psychology and popular culture - that people must want sex and should have sex a certain amount in relationships in order to be ‘healthy’. Research with people on the asexual spectrum, and in long-term relationships, now demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to be a healthy individual, and to have a good relationship, without sex. In order for sex to be consensual people must know that it is always just as fine to not have sex as it is to have it, that all kinds of consensual sexual activities are equally ‘proper’ or legitimate, and that nothing else - like approval, the continuing of a relationship, or being treated well at work - is contingent on giving somebody sex (unless that has been explicitly and consensually negotiated).

‘Normal’ sex

Linked to these ideas of what counts as ‘proper’ sex are assumptions about ‘normal’ sex and sexuality which I aso explore in The Psychology of Sex. Back in the 1980s Gayle Rubin wrote that we culturally operate on a ‘sex hierarchy’: as if one type of sexual relationship (heterosexual, monogamous, coupled, non-kinky, etc.) is best, and all of the others are somehow inferior to that, often to the point of being regarded as mad (pathologised) or bad (criminalised).

So as well as the fear of straying outside of ‘proper’ sex by failing to follow the limited sexual script in some way, many of us also fear communicating openly about our erotic desires - even with ourselves - for fear that we may be exposed as being into some form of ‘abnormal’ sex. This is particularly cruel given that research into erotic fantasies suggests that the vast majority of us are into something that would be classified under the ‘paraphilias’ in the psychiatric manuals: whether that be mixing some kind of power, role-play, bondage, or intense sensations into sex, enjoying watching sex or being watched and found desirable, or playing with conventional gender roles.

The DSM now only classifies ‘paraphilias’ as ‘disorders’ if they cause distress or impairment to individuals, but given the degree to which these fantasies and activities are still stigmatised and marginalised in our culture, it seems likely that many - if not most - people will struggle with them in some way.

All of this results in a situation where people feel deeply uncomfortable talking openly about what they like, and don’t like, sexually. Researchers like Sandra Byers have found that even couples who had been together many years only undersrand about 60% of what their partner likes sexually, and about 20% of what they don’t like: hardly good conditions for consensual sex to be likely to happen.

Perhaps one of the main norms about heterosexual sex is that men and women should have very different roles: men initiating the encounter and performing sex on the woman; women either accepting or rejecting the initiation and being the ‘receptive’ partner. Men are assumed to have a natural sex drive and to need sex, while women are often seen as focused on love rather than sex and as not having active desires of their own. There are also strong gendered scripts about women being responsible for much of the emotional labour around heterosexual sex, particularly protecting men from any sense of rejection, for example by faking orgasms or regarding themselves as personally responsible if they find sex unsatisfying. Again, all of this creates huge pressures on women and on men, particularly those who don’t fit these norms. It also contributes to a set of conditions in which it’s all too easy for sex to become non-consensual.

How Consent Works

Finally the cultural understanding of how consent operates has actively worked against people having consensual sex for many years. We have strong cultural messages that it is sexy or romantic for people - particularly men - to seduce others into sex and to continually pursue them until they agree to a relationship. Even sex advice often reiterates the idea that it’s not hot to communicate about sex, and that people should surprise their partners with sexual scenarios, or have sex at a certain frequency even when they don’t want it.

In addition to these pressures to pursue people for sex and to perform sex on them rather than sex being a mutual thing, there’s often a ‘no means no’ understanding of what consent means. In other words anything goes so long as the other person doesn’t actively refuse it. However, when psychologists have studied this area they’ve found that we rarely refuse sexual - or even social - invitations with a direct ‘no’. Researchers asked young women and men how they would tend to turn down a friend’s invitation to go to the pub if they didn’t want to go. Generally they reported that they would say something like ‘I’m sorry I’m busy tonight’, or ‘I’ve got to finish this project’. Similarly, when they were asked what they’d do if they went home with somebody but then decided that they didn’t want sex, people of all genders said that they would say something like ‘I’m so sorry I’m actually really tired’ or ‘I’ve realised I’m not ready for this’. Crucially all the participants were clear that they would recognise such statements – from another person – as meaning the exact same thing as ‘no’.

Such findings have lead to ‘enthusiastic consent’ models which suggest that sex should only happen if there is mutual enthusiasm on everyone’s part for what’s been suggested. Again this is difficult to achieve unless people feel able to communicate their desires openly, rather that fearing being exposed as ‘abnormal’ or ‘disordered’. Also, it’s tough in cultures where everyone - or certain groups - are strongly socialised to express enthusiasm for things they are not really enthusiastic about like presents, social occasions, hugs, or work projects.

Some people have responded to #metoo by endeavouring to create contracts or apps whereby people can record their consent prior to having a sexual encounter. This maintains a problematic view that consent is a one-off interaction rather than something that needs to happen in an ongoing way throughout the encounter. People may change their mind about what they’re up for, or try something and realise that it’s not for them. Ongoing consent may involve verbal checking, or suggestion of multiple options including stopping, and/or more non-verbal forms of tuning into the other person’s responses.

#Metoo has also highlighted the vital importance of considering the relationship between power and consent. Do differences in age, gender, cultural background, race, body type, disability, class, role, experience of trauma, or anything else between us mean that we have different levels of power in this situation? How do these impact on the likely capacity of ourselves, and the other person, to be freely able to consent (or not) to what is being suggested? Are there pressures in play that make the other person feel that they should act enthusiastically, or say ‘yes’, even when they’re not keen? And how might we decrease those pressures, or at least bring them out into the open?

Something that is rarely acknowledged is how difficult - if not impossible - it is to ensure consensual behaviour in this one area of life - sex - when our wider relationships, communities, and cultures are not consensual. Going back to those studies about ‘saying no’, another thing they demonstrate is that we rarely operate in consensual ways around social encounters like going for coffee, doing something together at the weekend, making plans for the holidays, collaborating on a work project, etc. Our interpersonal relationships are shot full of non-consent on this level. Even though we know full well that somebody’s reluctance, or claim to be busy, or going quiet, or changing the subject, means that they don’t want to do what we’ve asked, it’s easy to pretend that a partner, friend or colleague might still be open to it because they haven’t actually said the word ‘no’, and to start with all the ‘go-on’s, ‘you know you want to,’ ‘do it for me,’ and other forms of persuasion.

And of course our wider cultures and communities are often predicated on non-consent. There have been some useful writings recently, for example, about how common and taken-for-granted non-consensual practices are within organisations, and within education. For example, people in positions of power over others often force them to do things; implicit rules state that people should be constantly available to their colleagues; and there are pressures to demonstrate ‘success’ in certain ways in competition with others. If we really want to take consent seriously we need to look at the way non-consent is normalised throughout our institutions, communities, families, and popular culture.

So how might we shift these common cultural understandings about sex to create the conditions for more consensual sex? These would be my suggestions:

Sexual diversity

  • Recognise that people can be anywhere on a spectrum from asexual to highly sexual, that this can change over time or stay the same, that it’s always absolutely fine for somebody not to want sex (now or ever), and that nothing else should ever be contingent on them having sex (unless explicitly consensually negotiated)
  • Acknowledge that there are vast range of activities that people can find erotic or hot - alone and with others - and that all of these ‘count’ as sex and are totally fine so long as they’re done consensually
  • Shift from goal-focused sex to process-focused sex: it’s about being present to the unfolding experience rather than reaching any particular goal
  • Emphasise sexual diversity rather than attempting to divide sex into ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ kinds, to remove the stigma around expressing our sexualities and erotic desires
  • Challenge any assumptions about particular gender roles for sex, or how certain bodies ‘should’ perform sexually

Consent culture

  • Move towards a model where sex only happens if all those involved really want it to happen
  • Embrace the notion that consent should be ongoing throughout the encounter
  • Recognise our power and privilege and the ways these play out in sex. Where we have more power and privilege than others use that in ways that give them the maximum amount of agency possible to the other person or people in the situation. If in any doubt whatsoever, don’t have sex
  • Address consent in our whole relationships - not just the sexual parts - and in all of our different relationships and communities - not just the sexual ones

Find out more…