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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Andrea Waling, ARC DECRA Senior Research Fellow in Sex & Sexuality, La Trobe University

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Sexual consent has been a major focus in Australia for the past few years.

In early 2022 the federal government mandated consent education in schools. This includes information about what consent is, and how to ensure consensual relationships.

Across Australia, four states (Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania) and the Australian Capital Territory have now passed affirmative consent laws. While the precise wording of the laws differs between jurisdictions, affirmative consent can be defined as the need for “each individual person participating in a sexual act to take steps to say or do something to check that the other person(s) involved are consenting to a sexual activity”.

There have also been important campaigns, such as the Make No Doubt campaign in NSW, to educate about safe, pleasurable and consensual sex.

One challenge with sexual consent education is determining how it translates to real-life situations. As part of broader research seeking to answer this question, we wanted to understand how young heterosexual men and women understand and practice consent.

Our new study found that while participants mostly understood the concept of affirmative consent, they didn’t always put it into practice in the heat of the moment.

Read more:
Most states now have affirmative sexual consent laws, but not enough people know what they mean

Understanding sexual consent

Our research included a mixed group of 44 men and women aged 18 to 35, who were in relationships, dating or single. We spoke to them in focus groups and presented a variety of heterosexual sexual consent vignettes (scenarios) to discuss.

We wanted to understand how participants thought the characters should handle these situations, and how they would deal with these scenarios themselves. Scenarios were designed to be somewhat ambiguous, with no clear right answer.

An example of a vignette we used was Julia and Mark. They meet for drinks on their first date, and the chemistry is strong. They end up at Julia’s place, where she tells him she wants to take things slow and won’t be having sex that night. They start making out, and both begin to shed layers of clothing. Mark hesitates, unsure whether to continue, and Julia is uncertain how to signal her interest in other types of intimacy after setting a boundary.

A birds-eye view of a couple lying in bed.
Affirmative consent is now law in most Australian jurisdictions.
Anastasia Shuraeva/Pexels

Alongside the vignettes, we asked participants to share their understandings of consent, and their reflections on gender expectations around dating and sex, among other issues.

Participants demonstrated a clear understanding of consent practices in line with the affirmative consent framework. This included understanding that consent was the responsibility of all parties involved. Danny, a 23-year-old man, said:

It’s like equal responsibility in my eyes.

Participants also noted that straightforward, open communication alongside consistent verbal check-ins was important. As Abigail, a 26-year-old woman, said:

Both parties need to be actively engaging and checking boundaries as you go.

In theory versus reality

Despite appearing to understand the principles of affirmative consent, participants reacted differently when presented with varying scenarios. Instead of noting equal responsibility, most participants believed men in the scenarios were responsible for getting consent, and women providing it.

In discussing the scenarios participants highlighted the need to avoid assumptions and to encourage open communication. But this perspective shifted when discussing personal experiences and sexual consent. Here, participants expected partners to understand typical boundaries during sexual encounters, suggesting a shared sense of what’s “normal”.

In fact, participants felt following good sexual communication practices could dampen the enjoyment of sexual encounters. Some admitted that even though they knew the ideal approach, they didn’t always stick to it. As Alice, a 25-year-old woman, said:

Everything’s going well and we’re hitting it off, and then it moves into the bedroom and things just seem to flow, and I feel comfortable not having to necessarily overtly have that conversation then and there.

Lenore, a 28-year-old woman, said:

Sometimes, like, a conversation can almost kill the vibe, like if that moment is […] really hot and passionate and you’re giving them all the signals and they’re giving you all the signals, and then he was like, ‘So I want to just check in with you for a second’, I would be like, ‘Dude, come on, like, let’s just do the thing.’

Jeremy, a 34-year-old man, said:

I’ve regularly asked someone are they having a good time, you know, ‘is this okay’, ‘is this okay’, and be told, ‘No, you’ve ruined the moment’, which I found quite perplexing as someone who believes strongly in making sure there’s always consent.

Two hands make a heart shape in front of a sunset.
There’s been an increased focus on consent education in recent years.
Mayur Gala/Unsplash

Participants also indicated affirmative consent was more important in some sexual situations over others. In discussing one of the vignettes, Lenore said:

It would really depend on what he [scenario character] tried, to be honest, like if he’s flipped me around and chucked me into a new position, like, yeah, go for it. If he’s slapped me across the face in the middle of sex without clearing that first, no. It would completely depend on what it was and the way that he goes about doing it.


Our study is relatively small and cannot be generalised to the broader Australian population. We also focused only on consent in heterosexual relationships.

Nonetheless, our research provides some insight into how young men and women may be navigating consent during sex. The results don’t imply education on sexual consent is ineffective. Rather, they highlight a significant gap between knowing and applying that knowledge.

Our findings also point to a broader and more complex issue: the need for a whole-of-society approach to rethink sexual communication and consent. One in five women have experienced sexual violence, suggesting deeper problems of masculine entitlement and societal attitudes toward women. Focusing on consent between sexual partners is one way of shifting attitudes.

Read more:
How to get consent for sex (and no, it doesn’t have to spoil the mood)

Sexual encounters often involve intricate layers of emotion and experience, influenced by culture, religion, and other factors, with elements like shame, pleasure, joy, uncertainty, fear and anxiety.

Understanding the complex variables that inform decision-making in these contexts is crucial for creating educational resources that help people navigate sexual consent in different situations.

The Conversation

Andrea Waling receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the Commonwealth Department of Health, and the Medical Research Future Fund.

Alexandra James receives funding from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Lifestyles Australia.

Lily Moor does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. We spoke to young people about sexual consent. They understand the concept, but don’t always ask in the moment –