Contesting the terms of consent

how university students (dis)align with institutional policy on sexual consent


  • Nona Maria Gronert University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Joshua Raclaw West Chester University



sexuality, sexual consent, conversation analysis, higher education


Universities’ sexual consent policies remain the focus of national media and government attention in the United States. Affirmative consent (i.e. physical and verbal consent) is increasingly the norm for institutional definitions of consent; yet these policies remain at odds with how students report consenting to sexual activity. In this paper, we examine how students formulate their understanding of sexual consent in ways that either resist or align with their university’s policies on sexual assault. Using conversation analysis, we analyse interviews in which students make explicit references to university policy when defining personal definitions of consent. We show that interviewees who do not align with university policy orient to this position as problematic and accountable, and conduct significantly more interactional work when defining consent. These findings illustrate the complex challenges that university students may face in articulating personal understandings of sexual consent, which may have consequences for policy and sexual consent programs.

Author Biographies

Nona Maria Gronert, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Nona Maria Gronert is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests include gender, law, sexual consent and sexual violence. Her dissertation focuses on the politics of sexual assault and sexual harassment at one public Midwestern university.

Joshua Raclaw, West Chester University

Joshua Raclaw is an assistant professor in the Department of English at West Chester University. His research draws on conversation analysis to examine language and bodily action in English talk-in-interaction. He is co-editor of Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality (Oxford University Press, 2014), and he has published in Research on Language and Social Interaction, Journal of Pragmatics, Language and Communication and other journals.


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How to Cite

Gronert, N. M., & Raclaw, J. (2019). Contesting the terms of consent: how university students (dis)align with institutional policy on sexual consent. Gender and Language, 13(3), 291–313.