Abigail R. Riemer https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0859-6705
Kathryn Holland https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8340-4702
Evan McCracken https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3913-0956
Sarah J. Gervais https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2667-6370
Date of this Version
Published in Law and Human Behavior 46:6 (2022), pp. 440–453.
Objective: Colleges and universities are increasingly adopting affirmative consent standards of sexual assault, in which consent is defined as conscious and voluntary “yeses” given throughout a sexual interaction. We examined the impact of affirmative consent standards on perceptions of assault and consent.
Hypotheses: We hypothesized that in sexual assault scenarios involving physical force or verbal coercion, exposure to the consent standard would increase perceptions of assault and decrease perceptions of consent relative to not being exposed to the standard. We then explored whether dehumanization of the perpetrator or the victim mediates the association between assault type and sexual assault perceptions and how this relation changes on the basis of exposure to the affirmative consent standard.
Method: We exposed 909 participants (predominantly women: n = 574; predominantly White: n = 677; age: M = 28.61 years, SD = 11.10; students: n = 363, Mechanical Turk workers: n = 546) to an affirmative consent standard in a written policy, a video using a “cup-of-tea” metaphor to describe the consent standard, or no information on the standard. Participants rated perceptions of assault, consent, and dehumanization of a man and woman involved in a sexual interaction involving physical force, verbal coercion, or a consensual agreement.
Results:Participants who saw the affirmative consent video were more likely to perceive physical assault as assault compared with participants in the no-exposure control condition. Participants who read the affirmative consent
definition were no more or less likely to perceive physical assault as sexual assault compared with participants in the control condition. Participants exposed to the text definition perceived the consensual interaction as more assaultive than did participants in the video and control conditions. Perpetrator dehumanization also emerged as a mediator of the relation between assault type and assault perceptions.
Conclusions: These results suggest that exposure to consent standards sometimes aids sexual assault decision-making but also leads to confusion, even in scenarios in which consent is normally discernable.
Public Significance: Many institutions of higher education use affirmative consent standards, or a “yes means yes” approach, in attempts to stop sexual assault. Empirical evidence on how these standards shape perceptions of assault is mixed. University offices of violence prevention and Title IX officers may benefit from considering the manner in which students are educated about consent standards to understand the impact of training on sexual assault decision-making.
Includes Supplemental materials.