Hookups, sex and fluid consent

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Sept. 23, 2014, 12:05 p.m.

People at Stanford “hook up.”

Now, college students might not all agree on what that term even means: One study shows that while 94 percent of college students understand and use the term, the definition of “hooking up” is far more varied. This variety in interpretation matches the variety in hookups that actually happen – a statistic cited by Stanford professor Paula England states that 30-40 percent of hookups involve intercourse, while 25-33 percent involve just kissing and touching.

90 percent of college students believe that most of their peers have at least two hookups during the academic year. However, the true percentage of college students that hook up that often is far less than “most” – in fact, it’s around 37 percent. In some ways, this isn’t surprising: College students consistently overestimate what percentage of their peers drink, as well, and the idea that we often mistakenly generalize the behavior of our peers – pluralistic ignorance – is not a new one.

One of the biggest misconceptions about hookup culture – and any sexual activity in general – is that consent is a solid, immobile, structure. Once given it cannot be taken away; once set down on the table, it becomes a solid fixture.

It can be easy to think of consent as some sort of binding contract, especially when we talk about it in the theoretical sense. But real life tends to create complications.

One illustration: It’s Friday night, and a couple is grinning at each other across the dinner table. “How about sex tonight?” one of them asks, and they’re answered with an enthusiastic yes and a foxy grin. Consent, right? A few hours later and the couple is in the bedroom. One starts to strip and opens the drawer with the condoms in it. “Still down?” they ask. “I’m not feeling too well, actually…” is the reply. “How about another time?”

We can all imagine that scene playing out in our heads. Consent in the moment is not consent in the future; consent can be fluid. Intuitively, that makes sense.

However, when we take that example and look a little more in depth, we are forced to consider scenarios we may not have thought of before. What if we consent to sex but withdraw consent in the middle of it? What if we change our mind before anything happens? How do all of these ideas jive with our culture of casual hookups?

There are legal precedents defending the right to withdraw consent at any given time – but that doesn’t answer the question of whether withdrawing consent is hard to do in the first place. To sum it up: Is there societal pressure to keep consent rigid?

Christoph Vanberg published a study in 2008 supporting the idea that making promises significantly alters behavior towards the person to whom the promise is made. The leading theories behind why this happens are called Commitment-Based theories – where the person making promises feels the need to adhere to their commitments – and Expectation-Based theories – where the person making promises would feel guilt from going against the behavior expected from them.

Of course, these are two simple theories that purport to explain incredibly complex ideas and behaviors. They are two theories with kernels of truth in them, and they’re relevant to the discussions about consent and sex and respect we’re having on campus. But they aren’t nearly enough. The goal in thinking about theories like these is not to explain away some phenomena but to encourage discussion and critical perspectives on big issues.

As a society, we need to recognize that consent is a dialogue, not a contract. The conversation of consent happens before, during and after intimacy, as a beneficial narration to the story instead of a rushed prologue. By making consent explicit enough to be fluid, we also make concrete steps towards making intimacy healthier, safer and more communicative.

At Stanford, we cannot talk about dating or hookup culture or sexual assault without talking about consent. We cannot talk about consent, even, without realizing that it is a much more organic, intersectional and complex topic than we often reduce it to in discourse. Instead of seeing consent as a prerequisite box to check off before sex, Stanford students need to start talking about consent on the basis of its own merit, understanding that consent – fluid, dynamic, unique – is about much more than just hookup culture.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

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