#LoveIrishResearch BLOG: SMART consent – how we feel, say and show agreement to sexual intimacy

We are pleased to welcome Dr Pádraig MacNeela, Lecturer in the School of Psychology at NUI Galway, to our #LoveIrishResearch blog series. Through the IRC’s Research for Policy & Society scheme, Dr MacNeela has received funding from the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme and from the Council to conduct research in collaboration with Rape Crisis Network Ireland. He writes today to tell us about the “SMART Consent workshop” developed with the support of this funding.

The topic of sexual consent is commanding considerable attention on college campuses in the U.S., the UK, and now Ireland. Researchers, advocates and activists encourage us to think critically about how consent to intimacy is sought, given, and maintained. Putting this in context, sexual consent is an informal agreement between individuals, reflective of the informal ‘social contracts’ that underpin our interactions with other people more generally, but in a domain that is particularly important because it is variously associated with both sexual assault and the achievement of positive sexual expression.

We have been researching sexual consent since 2013 and have designed practical workshops (the ‘SMART Consent workshop’), which enable third level students to explore consent through interactive, challenging and fun activities. The workshop is underpinned by theories of social norms and sexual scripts, and informed by qualitative and survey findings from research that we have carried out with over 2,500 students. The SMART acronym is critical to the workshop, it stands for consent being relevant to

  • All Sexual orientations / gender identities
  • Your state of Mind (free from pressure, thinking clearly, a feeling of willingness)
  • All forms of intimacy and sexual Activity (from kissing to penetrative sex)
  • All Relationships (committed, casual, etc.), and involves
  • Talking and nonverbal consent – Consent involves Feeling it, Saying and Showing It.

For researchers, consent is familiar as the form of agreement given freely but formally by our study participants. The willingness to engage in sexual intimacy is an instance of informal agreement. As with other types of interaction this agreement is guided by stated or unstated norms and roles, and guided by implicit or explicit communication – for instance body language and verbal agreement. The shared understanding of this interaction is known as a sexual script, which enables the sexual partners to interpret, predict and respond to each other’s behaviour. This is obviously different to the way that formal consent operates. Sexual consent is also a dynamic process – involving issues like how agreement to one act relates to agreement to take part in a different act or how agreement can be revoked due to a change in willingness. Sexual consent is also highly contextual – it is impacted by features like the capacity to agree (e.g., as a result of drinking alcohol), the nature of the relationship between the partners (for instance, a casual encounter compared with a steady relationship), the impact of gender expectations on sexual scripts, and sexual orientation. Contextual factors such as these can impact on the degree of trust and mutuality that is experienced when agreement is sought and considered, and on the type of sexual script that is active in the minds of the partners involved.

We argue that the SMART Consent workshop is a valuable experience because much of what we know about how informal sexual consent operates – the process and context factors for instance – is acquired implicitly rather than discussed or spoken about openly between peers. This can give rise to consent being a grey area. Can a smile, for example, be taken as a signal of agreement to have sex. So far, nearly 1,000 students have taken part in our workshop. After their experience of discussing ambiguous case scenarios, hearing about research evidence, and learning from each other, participants have rated the workshop as highly enjoyable. We also see quantitative evidence of change in consent attitudes following workshops. The experience appears to address a gap for many in the preparation they received at school for negotiating consent.

For our research team, working on the SMART Consent initiative has been an exercise in finding ways to apply theory and research findings to create a practical and enjoyable group experience for college students. It is also a demonstration of the vital role of collaboration in implementing a new research idea – with the help of supporters such as Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Students Unions, the Union of Students in Ireland, academics and student support services. The future success of this initiative and others like it will depend on being able to enrich these collaborations further, and to work with third level institutions to mainstream positive sexual health education.