Abstract: Understanding Sexual Consent Among Adolescents: A 30-Year Scoping Review (1990-2020) (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Understanding Sexual Consent Among Adolescents: A 30-Year Scoping Review (1990-2020)

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Valley of the Sun D, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Carolyn O'Connor, MSW, Doctoral Student/Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Stephanie Begun, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background and Purpose: A critical avenue for the prevention of sexual violence is sexual consent awareness and education. This is especially important for adolescents who most often lack experience and education and as such, may be particularly vulnerable to victimization. In order to advance the content and delivery of sexual education and prevention programs, it is essential that we understand how adolescents define and navigate sexual consent processes. To bridge this gap in knowledge, our scoping review sought to: (1) identify the range, extent, and nature of existing research; (2) synthesize findings to issue an overview of sexual consent conceptualizations and processes among adolescents; and (3) establish the existing gaps to guide future research. The current study was guided by the research question: what is known from the existing literature about how sexual consent is defined and practiced by adolescents?

Methods: This study followed the established framework outlined by Arksey and O’Malley (2005). Six multidisciplinary databases from three platforms (ProQuest, EBSCO, and Ovid) were searched using relevant key terms. Following deduplication, 7,375 articles were reviewed by the authors based on a set of inclusion and exclusion criteria. Studies were retained if they were published between 1990 and 2020 and reported findings on sexual consent conceptualization, communication, or behaviour among adolescents ages 10 to 17. The following data was extracted and charted from those articles that met the criteria: year of publication, country of origin, study aims, population, sample size, study design, methodology, measures, analytic strategy, and key findings. These key findings were then subjected to a qualitative thematic analysis using an inductive approach in order to construct a narrative account of the existing literature.

Results: Sixteen articles were identified that answered our research question and provided pertinent results regarding adolescent sexual consent. All articles were published between 1996 and 2020 and the studies were geographically diverse. The majority were qualitative (56%), followed by mixed methods (25%) and quantitative (19%). Our thematic analysis identified five central themes: the use of non-verbal/indirect communication to consent, especially bodily reciprocity; an expectation of verbal/direct communication to indicate non-consent, despite the ubiquity of normative refusals; boys’ strategic and relentless use of pressure to obtain sex; girls’ acquiescence to unwanted sex to please their partner and maintain the relationship; and sexual precedence, the belief that consent is not required for subsequent sexual interactions.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings point to concerning trends in the beliefs and behaviours of adolescents regarding sexual consent, which may hold serious implications for their risk of victimization. This is particularly true for girls, who face distinct pressures at both societal and interpersonal levels. Furthermore, contemporary sexual education tends to emphasize a communicative model of consent that does not appear to align with adolescents’ lived experiences, creating the potential for inapplicability and disengagement. This review established opportunities for future research, including which sources inform sexual consent understanding as well as how sexual and gender minority adolescents navigate issues of sexual consent.