Breda O’Brien: Sex, alcohol and consent – what the research tells us

‘Consent, personal autonomy, and choice are the new holy trinity of modern mores’

‘Modern sexual mores are naive in a different way. The assumption is that sex can be just another recreational activity without any downside, so long as consent is present.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Modern sexual mores are naive in a different way. The assumption is that sex can be just another recreational activity without any downside, so long as consent is present.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

As the last exams of the Leaving Cert approach, parents begin to worry instead about the infamous sixth year holiday. It can be no comfort to read headlines declaring that 11 per cent of women students at third level believe that they have been sexually assaulted.

Recent research with students in Galway and Cork confirms there are significant issues with alcohol, and with sexual consent, in people who are in their late teens and early 20s.

Some of the findings merit greater discussion. For example, 22.5 per cent of women said they were comfortable with the idea of casual sexual intercourse – but 42.5 per cent said they believed women in general would have no difficulty with it. Only 18.6 per cent of women students said they were comfortable giving oral sex, but 36.1 per cent said they believed their peers had no problem engaging in it.

Since the 1960s, it has been known that people do not always tell the truth to pollsters. A German pioneer in opinion polling, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, discovered that for elections, the most accurate results are obtained by asking something like this: Aside from your own opinion, who do you think is likely to win this election? (A poll which asked a similar question about the recent marriage referendum was uncannily accurate.)

So the higher figure may be more accurate – about 42 per cent of women may have no difficulty with casual sex.

Or the lower figure, 22 per cent, may be the one that most accurately reflects reality, because young women may be responding to what they perceive to be social norms, but which are instead simply wildly exaggerated claims.

Even at the higher figure, nearly three-fifths of young women are uncomfortable with sex outside the context of a romantic or committed relationship.

Clear gender differences

Kinsey Institute researcher Justin Garcia, who has published extensively in this area, attempts to explain the difference between men and women using evolutionary theory. With glorious academic understatement, Garcia says that “in humans, producing a viable offspring, from gestation through lactation, takes females longer than it takes males”. No kidding.

So evolutionary behaviour theorists believe that it made sense for males to be more promiscuous, while females are likely to be “choosy concerning their mates because they invest more in each offspring, and they stand to lose more if they make a poor reproductive choice”.

Other factors, such as higher levels of testosterone, may also account for men’s higher level of comfort with casual sex.

And yet, despite clear gender differences, only 53.2 per cent of men were comfortable with the idea of no strings attached sex, and the perceived norm for their gender was 58.3 per cent. A majority, certainly, but there is a significant minority who do not fit the stereotype.

US research has repeatedly shown that both young men and women aspire to committed romantic relationships. Why are we not talking about this?

True consent

Consent is obviously vital. Having sex when someone is incapable of true consent, or resorting to force or pressure is wrong and abusive.

But is consent enough? Consent, personal autonomy, and choice are the new holy trinity of modern mores. But they neglect bigger questions, such as whether having sex with someone you have just met is a good idea, even if you are sober enough to walk along a two by four suspended four feet above the ground.

It neglects completely the possibility that you might give consent and then regret it.

As cultural values around sexuality have changed, online and traditional media have amplified and exaggerated the changes, thereby reinforcing and accelerating the pace of change.

Scary concept

There is a story told of a Reverend Mother who used to patrol discos with two tennis rackets used to separate amorous couples with the admonition “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.”

That was over 30 years ago, and her efforts were doomed to failure even then. However, modern sexual mores are naive in a different way. The assumption is that sex can be just another recreational activity without any downside, so long as consent is present.

Consent should be a given. The workshops which have followed the NUI research and which encourage people to question assumptions about consent, willingness to engage in sexual activity in the first place, and the role alcohol plays are a welcome acknowledgment of the human complexities involved.

But given the impact of a tsunami of porn encountered early in life, our obsession with alcohol, and an unwillingness to present commitment as an ideal, it is only a beginning.

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