Sexual Precedent’s Effect on Sexual Consent Communication

Abstract

Sexual consent is one’s voluntary, sober, and conscious willingness to engage in a particular sexual behavior with a particular person within a particular context. Sexual precedent theory posits that people believe that engaging in consensual sex at one point in time implies consent to later sexual encounters with that person. By assuming consent once a sexual precedent is set, people may rely less on communication cues. We sought to provide quantitative support for the claim that sexual precedent influences sexual consent in people’s sexual relationships. To capture variability across sexual experiences, we collected daily sexual behavior data from each participant (n = 84) over a period of 30 days. We found a curvilinear relationship between sexual history with a partner and how people perceived consent during sexual activity with that partner (p = .003, ∆R2 = .089). A piecewise regression revealed that participants were less likely to report consent communication cues as sexual precedent increased until about 575 previous sexual behaviors (p = .003, R2 = .122); after this point, participants were more likely to report consent communication cues as sexual precedent increased (p = .028, R2 = .179). Overall, we provide the first quantitative evidence that consent conceptualization varies both within the person and across relationships regarding sexual precedent. In our discussion, we emphasize that sexual consent is contextual and cannot be assumed even after previous sexual encounters.

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Funding

This study was funded, in part, by the Doug Kirby Adolescent Sexual Health Research Grant from the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention, Indiana University of Public Health-Bloomington.

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Correspondence to Malachi Willis.

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Willis, M., Jozkowski, K.N. Sexual Precedent’s Effect on Sexual Consent Communication. Arch Sex Behav 48, 1723–1734 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-018-1348-7

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Keywords

  • Sexual consent
  • Sexual precedent
  • Communication