Meeting: April 2020
Article: Birk Jensen, M. and Hunt, G. (2019). Young women’s narratives on sex in the context of heavy alcohol use: Friendships, gender norms and the sociality of consent. International Journal of Drug Policy. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.07.021
Mie Birk Jensen and Geoffrey Hunt’s article ‘Young women’s narratives on sex in the context of heavy alcohol use: Friendships, gender norms and the sociality of consent’ offers a close and carefully conducted analysis of how friendships shape young women’s experiences of alcohol consumption, sex and consent. The article argues that young women’s emotional response to sexual experiences that occur in conjunction with alcohol consumption are negotiated through friendships in ways that shape and are shaped by gender norms. In response, Jensen and Hunt offer the concept of ‘social consent’ as a tool to make sense of this process and conduct future research on gender, consent and alcohol consumption.
The article stems from a large-scale qualitative project examining gender and young people’s alcohol consumption in Denmark. While 140 in-depth interviews were conducted for the broader study, in this article Jensen and Hunt analyse interviews with 33 young heterosexual women who recounted sexual experiences in the context of heavy alcohol consumption. Drawing on Sara Ahmed’s work on affect, Jensen and Hunt approach emotional responses to these experiences as culturally generated performative processes. Specifically, Jensen and Hunt use the concept of ‘stickiness’ to analyse how young women understand and negotiate their emotional responses to sexual experiences in the context of heavy alcohol consumption and how these experiences performatively enact gendered subjection positions, or ‘stick’ to them (3).
Carefully working through the interview data, Jensen and Hunt first analyse how the young women position their friends as sources of support and/or judgment in developing understandings of sex and drinking. In a familiar dynamic, they argue that friends are central to negotiating sexual boundaries in practice. That is, young women’s friends often work to intervene during drinking occasions to ensure that they do not contravene standards of appropriate comportment. In this sense, friendships are intimate social relations through which gendered expectations of comportment are negotiated and, in many of the examples in this article, reproduced. The role of friends is particularly important here because actions that contravene these expectations, such as some sexual activity with certain partners, can ‘stick’ and leave young women in a shameful and regrettable position for not living according to expectations of women’s sexual restraint (5). Significantly, this dynamic works to position individual young women and their friends as primarily responsible for negotiating accountability and consent in drinking contexts, regardless of their level of intoxication, while deemphasising the role of sexual partners.
Jensen and Hunt further detail these dynamics by analysing the role friends play in co-authoring individual’s sexual experiences. This was especially pertinent to experiences characterised by acute intoxication, of which the young women had little clear memory. In these cases, friends worked to recount and co-author the experience by explaining what occurred and framing its meaning. Troublingly, in this process sexual experiences that individual young women reflected on as potentially regrettable, or questioned their ability to consent to, at times became re-constituted or authored as ‘funny’ drinking stories. While this positions ‘inappropriate’ practices as funny rather than ‘unfeminine’ or regrettable, Jensen and Hunt argue that it also reproduces the focus on individual responsibility and stifles opportunities to critically reflect on consent (6).
In working through complex dynamics of socially negotiated consent, Jensen and Hunt argue that approaches focussed solely on interactions between sexual partners do not pay enough attention to the sociality of consent. In order to emphasise this sociality, especially in the context of heavy alcohol consumption, Jensen and Hunt offer the concept a ‘social consent’. While accepted notions of consent tend to focus on an interaction between existing or potential sexual partners, for Jensen and Hunt
the term social consent provides a framework for understanding negotiations of consent that take place together with or through friends. (7, original emphasis)
Social consent does not efface or ignore the importance of analysing consent between sexual partners, rather it broadens the analytic lens to also consider the fundamentally social character of consent. The notion of social consent requires engagement with the gendered social arrangements that co-produce understandings of young women’s sexual activity and negotiations of consent that occur in conjunction with alcohol consumption.
Jensen and Hunt conclude by suggesting that harm reduction and education strategies need to engage with the interrelationship between friendship groups and gender norms that shape consent and understandings of young women’s alcohol consumption. Indeed, the article suggests such strategies need to actively attempt to dismantle damaging notions of ‘respectability’ and proper/improper feminine comportment that currently limit the realms of possibility for young women to seek consensual and pleasurable forms of sociality.
This article is an example of a nuanced and carefully conducted qualitative analysis with significant implications for future research on youth alcohol and other drug consumption, consent and efforts to support young people’s capacity to negotiate gendered social orders.
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