A recent study published in the Journal of Social Psychology sheds light on how sexual arousal can influence a person’s attitudes related to sexual consent. The findings revealed that sexual arousal led both men and women to be more likely to endorse belief in female token resistance — the idea that women sometimes say “no” to sex when they really mean “yes.”
The conversation around sexual consent has grown in recent years, along with reports of sexual assault and coercion on college campuses. Although sexual consent has been the subject of many research studies, few of these studies have considered how perceptions of consent might be influenced by sexual arousal.
“My interest in this topic took off when I arrived in graduate school,” said study author Peter O. Rerick, an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma City University. “I have always found the ways that men and women communicate sexually very interesting, and when my advisor suggested a related project and I began combing through related literature, I knew I wanted to continue this line of research.”
Rerick and his associates note several reasons why sexual arousal might influence perceptions of consent. For one, people’s desires and motivations shape how they experience the world. In a sense, people see what they want to see — a concept called motivated perception. There’s also evidence that intense visceral states can cause people to focus on their own desires at the expense of others, and that strong emotions and desires can decrease attentional control and increase impulsivity. People may therefore be more likely to perceive someone as willing to have sex when they themselves desire it.
Additional findings suggest that when men are sexually aroused, they are motivated to obtain sex even in circumstances that are unfavorable or illicit. For example, men who are sexually aroused tend to report a greater willingness to engage in unsafe sexual behaviors, like forgoing condoms. They are also more likely to support sexually coercive behaviors.
Rerick and his team opted to conduct an online study among a sample of college students recruited from a western university. The final sample included 716 heterosexual men and women with an average age of 20, 72.6% of whom were women. The participants were divided into one of two conditions. In the arousal condition, the subjects wrote 300 words about a highly arousing sexual fantasy, completed the study measures, and then wrote 300 words about a very boring date. In the nonarousal condition, participants wrote these same two narratives but in the opposite order.
As part of the study measures, participants indicated whether they believed in token resistance — the idea that there are times when a person has every intention to engage in sex but says “no” when they really mean “yes.” Separate questions assessed the endorsement of men’s and women’s token resistance. Participants also answered questions assessing their attitudes toward assertive sexual strategies and affirmative consent.
The results revealed that the arousal condition did not affect men’s or women’s attitudes toward affirmative consent. However, both men and women in the arousal condition were more likely to say they believed in women’s token resistance than those in the nonarousal condition. When asked how many times a woman would need to say “no” to sex before they would believe she does not want sex, participants in the arousal condition gave a slightly higher number. Women in the arousal condition were also more likely to support men’s use of assertive sexual strategies than women in the nonarousal condition.
The study authors discuss the concerning implications of their findings. “If sexual arousal alters perception of direct refusals such that they are not believed to be sincere it can also increase the likelihood that the initiator will persist in pursuit of sex a partner does not want or will use more coercive strategies in doing so,” Rerick and colleagues write.
“I think the most important takeaway is that the mental state in which people are actually making decisions or interpreting what sexual behavior means is not the same as the mental state people have when they are just talking about it like we are,” Rerick told PsyPost. “Sexual arousal changes the way that people interpret and think about sexual behavior.”
The results also revealed unexpected gender effects. For women, arousal significantly predicted endorsement of female token resistance, while arousal only marginally predicted endorsement of female token resistance for men. Approximately 43% of women in the arousal condition endorsed female token resistance, compared to 32.6% of men. In the nonarousal condition, 34.3% of women and 26.2% of men endorsed female token resistance.
“I was a little surprised to see that women were significantly more likely than men to endorse belief in female token resistance, but ultimately I think the recent cultural conversation around, ‘no means no’ probably means we will continue to see this type of pattern going forward,” Rerick said.
In addition, arousal predicted women’s endorsement of male token resistance but did not predict men’s. Finally, women were more likely to believe in male token resistance than men were to believe in female token resistance. Thirty-six percent of women endorsed male token resistance, while 29.1% of men endorsed female token resistance.
The researchers say that these gender differences might explain why male victims of assault are often viewed more negatively than female victims. “Beliefs that men’s overt refusal of sex is an act of token rather than legitimate resistance can lead finders of fact, such as jurors or Title IX officers, to dismiss men’s claims of sexual assault,” the authors write. “In such a climate, men might fail to report victimization due to a fear of not being believed (Sable et al., 2006).”
A notable limitation of the study was that the students’ responses may have been affected by social desirability bias — sexual assault and consent are controversial issues on college campuses, and students may have been motivated to appear politically correct in their attitudes. Overall, the study results demonstrate how personal contextual factors can influence attitudes related to consent. The authors say that it is possible that other emotions or states of mind might influence such attitudes, like fear, anxiety, and anger.
“There are plenty of questions remaining. A major one comes from the fact that this study only asked people about men and women’s token resistance generally,” Rerick said. “It is possible that the results might change if we asked people specifically about their own behavior, as we have evidence from past research that people make different considerations about what their own behavior means compared to when they judge the behavior of others.”
The study, “Let’s just do it: sexual arousal’s effects on attitudes regarding sexual consent”, was authored by Peter O. Rerick, Tyler N. Livingston, and Deborah Davis.