Sexual consent within unwanted/non-consensual sexual experiences
: exploring definitions, understanding and impact amongst university students in Northern Ireland

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Sexual consent is often considered the defining characteristic of sexual violence and, thus, it can be considered a fundamental concept in differentiating between consensual (and, non-consensual) sexual activity. Yet, what sexual consent means and how that meaning is applied has been poorly explored, particularly amongst university students. The necessity of focusing on this population is highlighted by the high prevalence of unwanted/non-consensual sexual experiences (USEs) reported by university students around the world. Yet, a dearth of research has considered students at Northern Irish universities. The aims of the current thesis include 1) identifying the prevalence and impact of USEs amongst students attending university in Northern Ireland; 2) exploring students’ sexual consent understanding and the relationship to USEs; and 3) examining the factors related to sexual consent understanding. To address these aims, first, a systematic literature review sought to collate consent definitions and measurements in currently available research. Results indicated that consent was inconsistently defined, more often simplicitly, and usually measured by assessing students’ consent attitudes and beliefs (or, occasionally, rape myth acceptance). Second, to better understand how students defined consent and explore the relationship between USEs and sexual consent understanding, a quantitative survey was implemented across two universities in Northern Ireland. Results indicated that 62% of sampled students reported at least one USE whilst attending university and those reporting USEs reported significantly more adverse mental wellbeing outcomes; moreover, significant differences between those reporting USEs, and their consent attitudes and beliefs were also identified. Analysis of students’ consent definitions suggested that students’ conceptualizations were not discrete with students demonstrating awareness of common elements related to consent. Third, focus group discussions with students sought to contextualize the survey findings; results indicated that education was a significant concept: lack of education might contribute to poorer consent understanding and exacerbate factors that might decrease consent understanding; improving education across all ages (e.g., primary, secondary, and tertiary) was deemed necessary to reduce USEs at university and beyond.
Date of AwardJun 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorOrla Mc Bride (Supervisor), Susan Lagdon (Supervisor) & Cherie Armour (Supervisor)


  • Sexual consent understanding
  • University students
  • Northern Ireland
  • Unwanted/non-consensual sexual experiences
  • Rape myths
  • Mental wellbeing
  • Mixed methods

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