A Qualitative Analysis of Beliefs About Sexual Consent Among High School Students

J Interpers Violence. 2021 Aug;36(15-16):NP8290-NP8316. doi: 10.1177/0886260519842855. Epub 2019 Apr 11.


Examining how adolescents understand the concept of sexual consent, and expect to garner or confer consent in sexual encounters, can contribute to the design of age- and developmentally appropriate prevention programs that promote healthy adolescent dating and sexual relationships. The current qualitative study utilized semi-structured in-depth interviews (N = 33) to explore perceptions of sexual consent among high school students (ages 14-18). Thematic analysis identified three salient themes pertaining to (a) the definition of consent as indicating a verbal "yes" to engage in sexual activity, (b) beliefs that an array of verbal and nonverbal strategies would be utilized to garner or convey consent in actual sexual encounters, and (c) expectations that consent would be communicated differently following an initial sexual encounter. Specifically, whereas consent was defined as a verbal provision of affirmative consent, both male and female adolescents believed girls typically conveyed consent nonverbally in sexual encounters. Adolescent girls indicated that they would convey sexual refusal through nonverbal cues, whereas adolescent boys reported they would proceed with sexual activity until they heard the verbal expression of "no." Regardless of gender, participants shared the perception that adolescents who previously engaged in sexual activity can expect that sexual activity will happen again without the need for verbal consent, particularly within established relationships. These findings highlight important discrepancies in adolescents' definition of sexual consent-primarily through verbal consent-and how they behaviorally indicated sexual consent and sexual refusal-primarily through nonverbal actions.

Keywords: adolescents; sexual communication; sexual consent; sexual violence.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Qualitative Research
  • Schools
  • Sexual Behavior*
  • Students*