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The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020 resulted in limited social and sexual interactions with potential sexual partners. Through the use of virtual methods, individuals have increasingly searched for ways to engage with others in a safe manner. However, online interactions can be fraught with miscommunication, and unsolicited behaviors may lead to dating violence and cyberbullying. Additionally, training and guidelines for obtaining consent during a sexual encounter often focus on face-to-face interactions, leaving online sexual encounters largely ignored. A survey was released to a mid-sized northeastern university in the fall of 2020. Participants (N=692) completed an online questionnaire using the Qualtrics survey software that asked open-ended questions about their attitudes and behaviors regarding consent in an online dating interaction. We focused on the question “When talking to someone virtually that you are interested in, what sexual behavior would make you feel uncomfortable,” in order to explore how students define and obtain consent in virtual encounters. Researchers analyzed the data using a thematic approach, developing codebooks to organize the data by themes. Results showed that individuals look for signs of consent in their virtual conversations and encounters with potential partners. Common unwanted experiences included: “sending nudes,” “sharing my messages without my permission,” and “pushiness.” Additionally, a number of responses discussed unsolicited messages and pictures, which illustrate individuals' negative reactions to non-consensual behaviors in a virtual environment. Results from this qualitative analysis suggest that obtaining consent for sexual experiences in a virtual sphere is a complex phenomena that does not have clear scripts. Based on the study’s findings, data collected can be used to make further changes to sexual assault and prevention training on college campuses, including discussions of how to give and obtain consent in virtual interactions.



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Consent During the Growing Age of Virtual Sexuality