Galvanized by high-profile incidents on American campuses in recent years, politicians, educators, and activists have demanded increased national attention to issues of sexual assault and consent. In advancing this cause, advocates draw on a striking body of evidence. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women will be raped in the course of their lifetime, while 1 in 5 female college students will experience sexual assault while in school. Those statistics change for men, however – 1 in 71 will be raped within their lifetime, and 1 in 16 will be sexually assaulted while in college.
Yet for many focused on prevention, semantics matter nearly as much as statistics: To combat sexual assault, consent must be understood fully and clearly. “We’ve got to talk about this,” former Vice President Joe Biden recently told a group of college students. “Consent requires affirmative consent!”
Other influential figures have called these terms into question, raising concerns about how we describe problematic sexual encounters. In 2017, Department of Education civil rights official Candice E. Jackson stated that as many as 9 in 10 cases of sexual assault don’t involve “an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.” Because they involve contextual factors such as both parties being drunk, Jackson expressed uncertainty that such incidents should be considered assaults at all. Later, in response to public criticism, Jackson clarified her statement by emphasizing the importance of thoroughly investigating all sexual assault allegations.
In this project, we sought to gauge the public’s perception of the terms at the heart of this painful but powerful debate. We asked over 1,000 Americans to define rape and consent in terms they believe to be true and to describe their own experiences and anxieties related to these issues. Our results don’t suggest a basis for defining consent democratically: It’s certainly possible for a majority to be misguided. Rather, they reveal the conflicting perspectives Americans bring to discussions of rape and sexual consent and the seething cauldron of debate that still surrounds the subject.
In the graphic above, our semantic analysis of participants’ responses reveals some telling areas of agreement. Many of our respondents defined rape and consent in relation to a single word: “no.” Across the political spectrum, participants said that coercing another person to continue once that word was spoken qualified as rape.
Perhaps this consensus attests to the success of past “No Means No” public awareness campaigns, an approach that some advocates have reconsidered in recent years. This shift has been prompted by the concern that some might see the absence of “no” as equivalent to consent, a troubling view echoed by some of our respondents. Others set the standard for consent higher, insisting that clear and mutual agreement was necessary. These opinions are represented by the prominence of terms like “verbal,” “permission,” and “agree” in our consent word cloud, suggesting that consensual communication must be explicit rather than tacit.
Many of our respondents suggested their sexual encounters were fraught with fear – either that their consent might be violated or that they’d be accused of doing so to their partner. For both men and women, fear of either outcome rose dramatically in scenarios involving drinking. In fact, research suggests roughly half of sexual assaults involve alcohol.
Women expressed elevated concern that an intoxicated partner might attempt to rape them, whether or not they themselves were sober. Yet they reported their highest levels of fear with regard to a scenario in which they were drinking and a sober person might take advantage of them. Men also identified such a scenario as the context in which they were most likely to be accused of raping their partner. The only possible optimistic interpretation of this data is a growing understanding of the way intoxication makes consent impossible: According to federal Title IX regulations, a substantially impaired person cannot consent to sexual activity.
Another compelling data point emerged from our findings: Roughly half of our male respondents said they might feel discouraged to report that they had been raped. While estimates suggest victims are far less likely to be male than female, these findings do reflect the complicated interplay between gender norms and conversations surrounding consent.
Though men consistently scored each scenario lower on our scale, both genders were relatively similar in their assessment of each situation, with averages falling within two points of each other in all cases. Regardless of the gender of each person described, participants identified sex without resistance from either intoxicated party as the least problematic scenario. In situations in which one party was unconscious, respondents rated the encounter much closer to rape, particularly if one party knowingly took advantage of the other.
The greatest difference in opinion among genders came in the case of an unconscious male violated by a conscious female partner. Women were actually significantly more likely to rate this scenario as rape than men, perhaps reflecting our earlier findings of the ambivalence men felt about reporting rape. Unfortunately, recent research suggests that men are victimized by women at rates higher than previously understood, and gender stereotypes often prevent appropriate reporting and support.
Assessing the Aftermath
Alcohol demonstrates a pernicious effect on these findings as well, indicating higher rates of regret for drunken consensual hookups than those that took place when respondents were sober. This trend held true for both genders, though the difference was more significant among men. While some studies have suggested men are less likely to regret casual hookups than women, our findings show that difference is essentially erased when alcohol is involved.
In an unanticipated result, men also considered alleging rape against their partner more often following sober hookups than after drunk ones. Unfortunately, this may reflect the uncertainty about whether they’re entitled to legal recourse because they’ve been drinking.
In light of recent legal disputes, the question of when consent can be withdrawn during the course of a sexual encounter has been subject to intensified debate. The vast majority of respondents of both genders affirmed a person’s right to withdraw consent before or during a sexual act. Very few respondents said that consent could never be withdrawn once given.
A minority, however, stated that a person can withdraw consent subsequent to the act. Regardless, it should be noted that previous consensual experiences do not establish consent in the future. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, assuming that previous consensual experience guarantees consent subsequently is a serious and potentially harmful mistake.
Continuing the Conversation
For many of us, some of these findings are cause for concern or outrage, while others represent a positive consensus about clear and important boundaries. Whatever your opinions, our results reflect a continuing conversation about consent and its violation, both on college campuses and throughout the country. It’s a discussion we hope this project will help continue, so we can help advance the awareness of sexual assault and aid in its prevention.
In this respect and all others, StudySoup cares deeply about the health, safety, and success of college students. Visit us to learn more about what we do and to find tools you can use to succeed on your own terms.
In compiling this project, we surveyed over 1,000 American men and women about their own opinions and experiences related to sexual consent. We then analyzed their results in light of the self-reported demographic information they shared with us. All responses were submitted anonymously to protect the privacy of our participants. We compiled expert opinions from Alexis Moore, Neil Davis, and Keith Graves.
If you’d like to increase awareness of rape and sexual assault by sharing this project on your own website, we welcome you to use content provided on this page for non-commercial purposes. In so doing, please attribute us with a link back to this page so your readers can explore our findings in full.