Social Dimensions of Sexual Consent Among Cisgender Heterosexual College Students: Insights From Ethnographic Research

Jennifer S. Hirsch, Shamus R. Khan, Alexander Wamboldt, Claude A. Mellins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Purpose: Nonconsensual sexual experiences on college campuses represent a serious public health problem. The preponderance of existing research on students’ actual consent practices is quantitative, lab based, or focused on how single dimensions of social context shape consent practices. Filling those gaps and illustrating ethnography's potential to lay the groundwork for innovative prevention, this paper draws on research conducted with undergraduates on two interconnected campuses to examine multiple social dimensions of sexual consent practices. Methods: Data include in-depth interviews with over 150 students, 16 months of participant observation, 17 focus groups, and key informant interviews. Research conducted for this study took place between September 2015 and January 2017 at Columbia University and Barnard College. Results: Although sexual consent is often approached as an individual or interpersonal practice, this research highlights potentially modifiable social dimensions of consent. These seven dimensions of sexual consent practices are as follows: (1) gendered heterosexual scripts; (2) sexual citizenship; (3) intersectionality; (4) men's fear of “doing” consent wrong; (5) “drunk sex”; (6) peer groups; and (7) spatial/temporal factors shaping when consent is assumed. Conclusions: Effective promotion of consensual sex, as a strategy to prevent assault, will likely require understanding and modifying the social structures that shape consent practices, rather than just legislation that mandates the promotion of affirmative consent. We describe seven potential modifiable social contextual dimensions of consent practices, along with related strategies to promote consensual sex and prevent sexual assault.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)26-35
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Adolescent Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


  • Consent
  • Ethnography
  • Gender
  • Higher education
  • Sexual assault
  • Sexuality
  • Universities


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