The Importance of Studying Consent and Consent Violations in Collective Sex Environments
Frank (2018) has provided a thorough and thought-provoking review of the recent literature on collective sex environments as it pertains to sexual health risks. Frank’s analysis is commendable and challenges the common stereotype that collective sex environments are inherently risky, while also highlighting how specific environmental features have the potential to increase or decrease risk. In addition, this review calls attention to the numerous challenges faced by those who seek to implement safer-sex interventions in these environments, from individual factors (e.g., conscious risk-taking) to features of the setting (e.g., gatekeeping), with the goal of encouraging researchers to consider novel approaches.
This important and comprehensive review is worthwhile for many reasons, not the least of which is that it establishes an ambitious agenda for future research on collective sex. That said, there were a few areas in Frank’s (2018) review that were touched on a bit too briefly that are worthy of a more prominent role in research efforts going forward. Specifically, more consideration is needed with respect to the issues of sexual consent and sexual victimization and, further, how they might vary across different collective sex environments.
Issues of consent and victimization are under a spotlight in the #MeToo era; however, the ways in which they intersect with collective sex have been all but ignored in popular discourse and in most sexuality research due to the pervasive assumption that sex is an almost exclusively dyadic activity that occurs beyond public view. Research indicates that this assumption is incorrect; “social” sexual experiences are far more common than previously thought. For instance, data collected in 2015 from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior indicates that 18% of men and 10% of women in the U.S. (M age, 47.1 years) have had a threesome, 12% of men and 6% of women have had group sex, 6% of men and 5% of women have been to a swingers’ club, and 4% of men and 3% of women have been to a BDSM club (Herbenick et al., 2017). Substantially higher numbers of men and women indicated interest in exploring each of these sexual activities.
Given this level of interest and participation in “social” sex, coupled with the fact that consent education (when it occurs) focuses exclusively on dyadic encounters, a thorough understanding of how consent is navigated in collective contexts is warranted. This Commentary will focus on identifying productive avenues for future research on consent and sexual victimization in collective sex environments from the perspective of social and personality psychology.
Consent in Collective Sex Environments
Frank (2018) argues that “an understanding of consent as an ongoing process—without obligations to continue or be inclusive—is widespread in collective sex environments.” At the same time, Frank advances that consent in more “mainstream” (i.e., non-collective) environments is something that is often a “mysterious and illusory achievement.” This characterization of collective sex environments as unique places where everyone cares about consent and understands how to obtain it is not limited to Frank’s review; indeed, it is evident in many other writings on the subject, including some that describe consent as the “single universal characteristic” and a “fundamental tenet” of certain forms of collective sex, especially BDSM (Pitagora, 2013, p. 27). However, more research is needed to determine whether this characterization of collective sex environments generalizes broadly, given the limitations of existing research (which include, among other things, small and highly self-selected samples, not to mention social desirability concerns). Further, if collective sex is indeed characterized by enhanced consent practices, more research is necessary to understand why. For instance, it could be that collective sex tends to draw participants who are disproportionately likely to care about issues of consent or who have had better consent education to begin with. At the same time, perhaps these environments are simply better at teaching and reinforcing consent practices, in which case, studying collective sex environments could potentially offer helpful models for consent education more broadly.
In order to tease apart these explanations, one potentially fruitful direction for future research would be to analyze the personality traits and characteristics of those who engage in collective sex compared to those who do not. Are the former higher on traits that are likely to increase consent communication, such as the Big Five factors of agreeableness, which is characterized by having more care and concern for others, and conscientiousness, which is characterized by more attention to detail (McCrae & John, 1992)? Likewise, are they lower on the Dark Triad traits of narcissism (which involves feelings of entitlement), Machiavellianism (which involves being highly manipulative), and psychopathy (which involves a lack of empathy; Furnham, Richards, & Paulhus, 2013)? To the extent that such a personality pattern exists, it would suggest that there may be a selection effect at play in terms of who is likely to visit a collective sex environment in the first place, which could account for previous research findings suggesting that consent is more well understood and widespread in this sexual context. If true, however, it would be vital to assess whether this personality pattern holds across different collective environments in light of the fact that different environments attract different populations. As a result of population (and personality) variability, consent and the means through which it is obtained may vary considerably across contexts.
If the aforementioned pattern of personality correlates does not exist, though, it begs the question of why those who engage in collective sex would necessarily be better equipped to navigate issues of consent. While it is certainly possible that those who engage in collective sex have simply had better consent education, an alternative possibility is that collective sex environments themselves are teaching participants about the importance of consent and how to obtain it. There are several social psychological means through which this might occur, including explicit norms (e.g., posted signage or other formal communication of rules), social learning (i.e., picking up on consent practices through observation), and principles of reinforcement theory (e.g., being rewarded with a favorable response by seeking explicit consent or being punished and excluded for failing to obtain consent properly).
The ways in which consent practices are conveyed and learned will vary across environments for a number of reasons (e.g., sound, lighting, organizer preferences, population characteristics); however, by attending to the unique features of the environment, it may be possible to create unique interventions for that environment that promote consent more effectively. For instance, in an environment where consent tends to be communicated exclusively through nonverbal means, the use of bracelets to indicate consent preferences could potentially be utilized (just as bracelets are sometimes utilized to communicate HIV status in such contexts; Grov, Cruz, & Parsons, 2014). Further developing this example, a solid and color-coded bracelet could be used to convey varying levels of comfort with being approached by others or one’s preferred consent norms, such as (1) red to signify that one is only there to play the role of voyeur or to have sex with pre-identified partners, (2) yellow to signify that one is open to sex with others but that explicit consent is required before any physical interaction takes place, and (3) green to signify that one is up for trying almost anything but retains the right to communicate if and when something becomes uncomfortable. Such bracelets could be made of paper to minimize cost or, alternatively, a more expensive bracelet consisting of LED color-changing lights would allow individuals to modify their consent preferences at any time during a sexual interaction—a feature that would embody the concept of affirmative consent.
In short, to what extent do collective sex environments select for participants who care more about issues of sexual consent, and to what extent do these environments themselves serve as an effective means of teaching and modeling consent? We need more research to know. If consent is so widely understood in collective sex environments, as Frank (2018) and others suggest, we would do well to study why and potentially apply the lessons learned to consent education broadly—and if there are collective environments where consent seems challenging or problematic, it is worth considering whether we might be able to develop interventions that enhance consent communication in ways that are tailored to the unique features of those environments.
Sexual Victimization in Collective Sex Environments
Sexually transmitted infection risk is not the only risk with which we should be concerned when it comes to collective sex—the risk of sexual victimization in this context is worthy of attention in its own right. Unfortunately, extant data do not allow us to definitively say what the rate of sexual victimization is in collective sex environments in general relative to sex that takes place elsewhere, due to the research limitations mentioned earlier in this commentary (small and non-representative samples, social desirability, etc.).
If Frank’s (2018) reasoning is correct that “witnesses could offer protective benefits on both sides of the negotiation,” then victimization rates might very well be lower in collective sex environments. Intuitively, this argument makes sense. If one person signifies a lack of consent while another person continues to make unwanted sexual advances, witnesses could be beneficial in the sense that (1) they might actively intervene to stop the violation and/or (2) they could serve to verify what happened after the fact to event organizers (who would be in a position to bar the violator from attending future events) and/or to authorities (who would be in a position to prosecute the violator). However, whether either of these benefits would necessarily and reliably materialize is unclear.
From a social psychological perspective, the bystander effect would argue against consistent intervention following a consent violation in a collective context. The bystander effect refers to the counterintuitive phenomenon in which victims are less likely to receive help when there are more witnesses (Latane & Darley, 1970). This effect has been replicated many times (Fischer et al., 2011), with the results suggesting that as group size increases, the odds that any one person will help the victim decrease. This occurs, in part, because of a diffusion of responsibility in which people believe that someone else will step in and take responsibility for helping (Latane & Darley, 1970). What this body of research suggests is that when consent violations occur in collective sex environments, bystander intervention is unlikely when a large group is present.
Diffusion of responsibility is not the only potential reason to predict that bystanders might not consistently take action in response such consent violations. The very nature of collective sex environments might disrupt the cognitive processes necessary to recognize than an emergency is taking place. Bystanders must notice that an emergency is happening before they can intervene (Latane & Darley, 1970); however, in a collective sex environment, one may be distracted by their own sexual interactions and/or by watching and listening to other sexual interactions taking place at the same time. As a result of this high level of distraction and sensory overload, it may be that consent violations are less likely to be noticed, especially when someone communicates a lack of consent through nonverbal means.
With respect to whether witnesses would serve to verify what happened after the fact, there are potential social psychological barriers to this as well. One is that, as Frank (2018) notes, there is often a stigma associated with participating in collective sex. Witnesses might therefore be reluctant to make a report to authorities in the interest of protecting their own reputation. Likewise, participants in some collective sex environments are anonymous, which means that witnesses might disappear or otherwise be unidentifiable before a report can be made. That said, in tight-knit collective sex environments in which there are strict admission policies (i.e., all participants are vetted and identifiable) or attendees have strong identification with and commitment to the group/community, witnesses will likely be more willing to report violations; they may also be more willing to actively intervene when consent violations occur to the extent that their strong group identification leads them to feel more personal responsibility for helping.
In sum, there is reason to hypothesize that the protective benefits of collective sex environments with respect to policing consent violations and holding violators accountable may not always emerge. Research is therefore needed to explore what effect(s) bystanders have when it comes to assisting those who experience a consent violation in a collective sex environment. Again, however, it is important to note that this may vary across environments due to the size of the group, the nature of the environment, and individual differences (e.g., group identification and commitment) among the participants.
It is also worth attending to the question of how victims of consent violations in collective sex environments psychologically interpret these events and how that compares to the perception of consent violations in other contexts. For example, if someone experiences a nonconsensual event in a collective sex environment and they believe their lack of consent was obvious and there was no bystander intervention, how would that individual later reflect on the event? Would the lack of intervention be traumatizing or might it be interpreted through the lens of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1962), in which case the experience could be rationalized in a way that buffers the psychological impact? The way the event is interpreted would obviously have enormous implications with regard to whether such individuals labels themselves as victims, experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, and, further, whether they are likely to return to that environment in the future.
Related to the above, we would also do well to consider how collective sex environments impact people’s perceived ability to revoke consent or convey that they do not wish to participate in a given activity. Consent is something that can be challenging enough to convey in a context with just one other partner, but what about when there are multiple partners and/or observers present? Is there a “safety in numbers” effect that enables and encourages consent communication? In other words, is the fear of how a given partner could potentially react (e.g., with disapproval, anger, or violence) lessened in the presence of others? Alternatively, does the presence of an audience impair consent communication due to normative pressure to “take one for the team” and not detract from the sexual experiences of the broader group? Both reactions are, of course, possible and these responses are likely to vary across individuals and environments.
That said, the social facilitation literature (Sanders, 1981; Zajonc, 1965) may offer insight into when a given response is more likely. Research on social facilitation finds that the presence of an audience enhances performance on well-learned tasks, but impairs performance on new and difficult tasks. By this logic, among individuals for whom consent communication is well-learned, being in a collective sex environment may enhance their ability to communicate their desires. By contrast, among individuals who have difficultly communicating consent, collective sex environments may make this task even harder.
Consent and sexual victimization are understudied issues in the context of collective sex and exploring them through the lens of social and personality psychology may yield novel and useful insights. Certain social psychological concepts suggest that collective sex environments may pose unique challenges when it comes to detection and intervention in the case of consent violations (e.g., the bystander effect). At the same time, however, other concepts (e.g., social facilitation) suggest that these environments could potentially enhance consent communication and thereby prevent violations under certain circumstances.
Currently, we do not have enough research to know whether collective sex environments in general are more or less effective in promoting consent than other (i.e., more “mainstream”) environments. However, by better understanding the processes through which consent is learned and communicated and how this varies across collective sex environments, it may be possible to design environment-specific interventions that enhance sexual safety while also identifying models of effective consent instruction that could be utilized more broadly.
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- Pitagora, D. (2013). Consent vs. coercion: BDSM interactions highlight a fine but immutable line. The New School Psychology Bulletin, 10(1), 27–36.Google Scholar