What Can We Learn About Consent From The Psycholog...

What Can We Learn About Consent From The Psychology of Sex?

I recently wrote an article about #MeToo and consent based on my new book The Psychology of Sex.  I wanted to consider what we can learn from psychology and sexology to inform our thinking about consent. Here’s the article…

I wrote my book for Routledge’s Psychology of Everything series before the #metoo movement hit the headlines. However, consent was a central theme of the book, both explicitly in the chapter on how psychology has delineated ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’ sex over the years, and implicitly as a thread running through all of the other chapters. In this post I want to explore some of the main things we can learn from studying the psychology of sex to inform the current – vital – conversations that we’re having about sexual consent.

A key point to make before we start is that while non-consensual sexual behaviour is a huge problem affecting huge numbers of people, the question of how we should go about having consensual sex – and wider relationships – has been notable in its absence in both psychology and popular discourse. Mainstream psychology and sexology textbooks rarely include this topic in any depth, although it has been a key area of study in the more marginalised areas of critical and feminist psychology. Similarly coverage of consent is shockingly lacking in sex advice literature. When I studied the most popular sex manuals, websites, and newspaper columns I found that consent was rarely ever even mentioned, and when it was this was generally only in the context of kinky sexual practices, as if other forms of sex were somehow immune from the risks of non-consensual behaviours.

From my reading of the research, and the psychology of sex more widely, I would say that we need to turn this on its head. The conditions that make sex most likely to be non-consensual are all frequently present in what we might call normative sexual encounters, such as sex within ongoing heterosexual relationships or hook-ups. While kink communities are certainly not immune from non-consensual behaviour, the understandings and practices around consent within those communities often make it more likely that people will have consensual encounters.

What are the conditions that make sex less likely to be consensual? Here are some key ones:

‘Proper’ sex

  • The assumption that people must have sex in order to be healthy individuals and to maintain relationships
  • The sense that there is a set sexual script that must be followed, and that only that counts as ‘proper’ sex
  • The feeling that if this script is not followed then the encounter – and the individuals involved – are failures

‘Normal’ sex

  • A high level of fear and shame about ‘getting it wrong’ or being ‘abnormal’ which makes any kind of open communication feel dangerous
  • Rigid ideas about the gendered roles in sex, and the ways in which bodies should perform

How Consent Works

  • A ‘no means no’ understanding of consent where it’s assumed that people have consented if they haven’t actually said ‘no’ to what is happening
  • The idea that consent is given in a one-off conversation – or implicit interaction – that happens at the start of the encounter
  • Imbalances of power between those involved which make it very hard for one or more to communicate what they want and what they don’t want before, during and after
  • A wider culture of non-consent in relationships of all kinds

Sound familiar? These are actually the conditions under which the vast majority of sex happens in our culture, and the psychology of sex itself has – over the years – contributed to many of these conditions rather than endeavouring to challenge or shift them.

These are the conditions under which it becomes easy for those who want to engage in predatory sexual behaviour to do so and to get away with it. They are also the conditions under which the rest of us who would never want to act non-consensually towards another person – or towards ourselves – might easily find ourselves doing so.

Let’s explore what we can learn from the psychology of sex to inform our thinking in each of these areas. You can find out more about them all in the book too of course! Read more…


Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).