While parents worry about their daughter’s risk of experiencing sexual assault, their sons are similarly at risk for having unwanted sex when they grow up, new research reveals. When study author Jessie Ford, a doctoral candidate in New York University’s sociology department, interviewed 39 college-aged men about their intimate experiences, she found that men also experience social pressures to have sex.
Her findings are a part of a larger dataset that is still being collected and currently includes over 100 heterosexual men and women, as well as LGBTQ college students. Ford spoke with Fatherly about how men and women interpret sexual experiences, and how both parties can avoid sexual coercion.
Fatherly: Why do men have unwanted sex?
Jessie Ford: Masculinity and awkwardness were the two biggest reasons men had unwanted sex. Sometimes they just didn’t want to hurt their feelings. A few men in the sample didn’t want to have sex with virgins because they think virginity is a big deal and the girl may get attached. There were also some scenarios where men wanted to use a condom and there wasn’t one, but ended up having sex anyway. Some men only want to have sex when they’re in love. I was surprised that multiple men faked orgasms, or have in the past.
Has “having sex” become easier than “talking about sex”? Is this a generational thing?
Maybe. There didn’t use to be the expectation that women would have sex. In the 1960’s you could take a girl to your room and just make out with her. But with college students today, if you go to their room, there could be that expectation. And I think there’s the broader thing that, instead of talking about feelings or sex, sometimes it’s just easier to go ahead and have it. They tend to perceive two choices: awkwardness or sex, and they’d rather have [sex] than experience confrontation.
Why is it so awkward or uncomfortable to opt out of sex?
It’s uncomfortable in general because if anyone suggests something and you turn it down, there’s the potential to hurt someone’s feelings. In terms of sex, it can make them feel undesirable or unattractive. There’s the assumption that everyone wants to have sex, so why wouldn’t you want to have it with me?
You mentioned that men were, overall, less adversely affected by the experience of unwanted sex. Do you have any theories as to why?
What seems to happen is women and men can have similar situations and women can feel like it’s assault and men can feel like it’s unwanted sex. Sometimes for women on the spectrum of sexual violence, women have felt like the couldn’t leave the situation — because he was bigger, because the door was locked, because they perceived the situation could have escalated. The feeling of the unknown and being disempowered by what could have happened. Men don’t talk about the women’s physical stature and none of the women partners of the men interviewed had a weapon or used force in any way. So there’s not the looming violence there, which could make it less traumatizing after the fact.
Men also use humor a lot to talk about the encounter and minimize it in all these ways, like talking about it in contradictory ways. He might talk about it with his friends, and his friend will laugh and be like “That’s hilarious. At least you got laid.” And through talking to his friends he’ll reposition himself as having this minimized crazy sexual encounter. But for women, let say she tells a friend a scenario where she has sex drunk and didn’t really feel like she consented. The friend might be like “That sounds like a really bad situation,” or “That’s technically assault.” So sometimes through talking to other people women process that they may have been sexually assaulted, whereas men, it kind of goes in the other direction.
Do men and women have unwanted sex for different reasons?
There’s a big overlap. Women report having unwanted sex because it was awkward to stop, that it was easier to have sex than to make a big deal about it. That’s it’s the easiest way to finish the date and go home. They also talk about not wanting to look like someone who’s a prude, or someone who leads guys on. So they’re both managing these gendered expectations and awkwardness.
There’s this collective ignorance where everyone thinks they’re the only ones who feel awkward, and it’s the same awkwardness you might experience at work or a cocktail party. It’s just an uncomfortable social situation you’re trying to manage without making it more uncomfortable. The difference is for women, there’s this idea in the back of their mind that a man could use physical force against them.
Are you ever concerned about your research being skewed or misused by men’s rights groups as a way to minimize sexual assault statistics about women?
I definitely am a feminist. I’m not really commenting on whether we should feel sorry for men, or whether this is equally important. I’m not trying to equate men’s experiences and women’s experiences in any way. I’m really just looking at it from a sociological perspective. I’m saying this is a phenomenon that happens and I’m interested in how it happens. I think men’s rights groups will always be there trying to discredit women with accounts of sexual harassment and violence, but this is part of a much broader story about gender inequality and sexual violence. It’s possible that the same hegemonic ideas that make some men commit sexual violence are the same ones that cause other men to have unwanted sex.
The other side is that the amount of work men were doing in these interactions — calculating “what does my partner think?” “Does she want to have sex?” “What should I say?” — the amount of what we call interactional work, kind of argues against this broader sexual assault debate which often asks if the men committing sexual assault are confused or actually malicious. My findings suggest men are pretty skilled in interactions and aware of what the woman wants. It’s evidence that, in sexual interactions, they can usually read cues for “no”.