Exploring the Complexities of Sexual Consent and Voluntariness in Swedish Youth Intimate Partner Violence

By Clara Fahlstadius

Photo by Karl on Unsplash

Participating in the European Conference on Domestic Violence (ECDV) in Reykjavik, Iceland was an inspiring experience. As ECDV brings together researchers, practitioners and civil society from both in – and outside Europe, it creates a vibrant buzz and offers diverse and interesting presentations. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in so many empowering discussions and for everyone’s great interest in intimate partner violence among youth. In my presentation I shared some thoughts on my dissertation thesis which aims to seek an understanding of processes, ambiguities and ambivalence in youths’ sexual consent.

In summary, this project aims to deepen our understanding of youth sexual consent by exploring the difficulties of consent within specific relational and contextual settings. It also seeks to gain knowledge on how young people navigate the complex landscape of expectations and ambiguity in their experiences of sexual consent in intimate partner relationships. Sexual consent is deeply intertwined with expectations and stereotypes based on gender, age and sexuality – which are often a guiding force for youth at the starting point of their sexual lives, conditioning their sexual experiences.

Since 2018 Sweden has a rape law based on voluntariness. The law changes were prompted by an intensive debate in Sweden, and other Nordic countries are debating and investigating similar changes. In short, what the new law wanted to achieve was a focus shift from the defendants use of force, to the involuntariness of the victim. Also, negligent rape was introduced into the criminal code. In practice this means that both the possibility of performing non-coercive but unwanted sexual acts and the possibility of pleading ignorance have been distinctly decreased. Yet, according to research the implementation in court has notable challenges, especially regarding situations where statements of voluntariness are mixed with statements of involuntariness (Brå, 2020).

Youth intimate partner violence (YIPV) is an under-researched topic in Europe. However, the STIR-study has provided important knowledge on the extent and pervasiveness of violence in young people’s relationships (Barter et al., 2017). A central part of the violence young people experience is sexual, which underlines the importance of studying sexual violence and consent. In a Swedish context Korkmaz (2021) has shown how IPV is present in young people’s daily lives, for example that they often go to the same school as their partner or the person they are dating, which in turn can have strong negative effects on their mental health and relationships if they experience sexual violence or nonconsensual sex. These specific conditions surrounding young people are crucial to take into account while studying their experiences and understanding of sexual violence and consent.

Sexual consent can be simple – yet, there’s an inherent ‘slipperiness’ concerning the process of consent – delicate and difficult to pinpoint. Exploring this ‘slipperiness’ is important for both legal practice and young people’s sexual experiences.

The dissertation has a multidimensional approach. By using focus groups, individual interviews and court judgements we hope to gain valuable insights which can inform both policy and practice in addressing issues related to sexual consent and sexual violence in youth intimate partner relationships.


Barter, C., Stanley, N., Wood, M., Lanau, A., Aghtaie, N., Larkins, C., & Överlien, C. (2017). Young people’s online and face-to-face experiences of interpersonal violence and abuse and their subjective impact across five European countries. Psychology of Violence, 7(s), 375-384.

Brottsförebyggande rådet. (2020). Den nya samtyckeslagen i praktiken.

Korkmaz, S. (2021). Youth intimate partner violence in Sweden: Prevalence and young people’s experiences of violence and abuse in romantic relationships. Department of Social Work, Stockholm University.

About the author

Photo: Sören Andersson

Clara Fahlstadius is a PhD student at the Department of Social Work, Stockholm University. Her research revolves around sexual consent in young people’s intimate partner relationships, especially focusing on relational and contextual aspects and processes of ambivalence and ambiguities.