Generations of singletons today are dating in the midst of a new sociosexual paradigm: The Hookup Culture. Whether they are high school, college-aged, never been married or newly divorced, a growing majority of women and men across North America are opting for casual sexual relationships in lieu of a single partner commitment. Pair this with the equally unprecedented rise in social networking and texting to the top of communication mediums and we have something new to consider: If consent is what defines a mutually agreed-upon sexual encounter between partners, how does consent fit into virtual communication?
In my clinical practice I have met with women who have experienced the discomfort of receiving messages from people they had given their number, and later decided they had no interest in dating or hooking up with. What did these women do with those messages? They ignored them. They “hoped” they would stop if they didn’t respond. And if they did respond, it was with something crafted just vague enough so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings or be perceived as “mean”… reflecting the fact that so many women today still struggle against the broad social discourse that tells them holding boundaries and saying no makes them a “bitch.”
The challenge lies in that holding boundaries and reading social cues is generally made much more difficult by the fact that the receiving person isn’t standing in front of you. He or she is tucked behind an electronic device regardless of being miles away or sitting somewhere in the same bar. How many times have you misinterpreted a text or message, whether personal or professional, simply because you didn’t have the advantage of tone, facial expression and body language that would have otherwise accompanied the words? When it comes to genuinely representing human response, the Emoji keyboard has an incredibly long way to go.
So what affect does all of this conversation about consent in casual sex have on giving and receiving consent in virtual messages? If someone I have given my number to messages me in a way that that I do not want to continue, I have the opportunity to tell him/her, without any veil of ambiguity, and especially because I do not have the advantage of tone and body language, that I do not give my consent for those messages to continue. It is also important to consider that the person on the receiving end of my message might very well be influenced by ideas that tell him/her to believe sexually loaded content is the new normative for dating and hookup communication—because with regard to the current culture of casual sex, it IS. Think of it this way: If the message had come from someone I was attracted to and interested in hooking up with, I may have welcomed it and responded in such a way that gives my consent.
With each generation, women are finding more courage to talk publicly about their celebration of hooking up and are thusly cracking long-held assumptions about casual sex wide open. And with new social networking and dating apps being born what seems like seconds apart, it is of vital importance to bring a spotlight to the messages we’re sending each other when we’re screen to screen, as well as face to face. Even in a text, no means No. Full Stop.