Heterosexual men have unwanted sex with women for two reasons, interviews with 39 college men suggest: in order to conform to gender expectations and to avoid uncomfortable interactions.
“Although women experience a higher burden of sexual assault and harassment, heterosexual men also report unwanted sex,” says study author Jessie Ford, a doctoral candidate in New York University’s sociology department.
“My findings indicate men are motivated to have unwanted sex through a process where they try to avoid embarrassing themselves or their partner and seek to behave in interpretable ways. In particular, men consent to unwanted sex because accepting all opportunities for sexual activity is a widely accepted way to perform masculinity.”
“There is also a tendency—one that likely applies to women as well as to men—that once a sexual interaction starts with a partner who seems to want sex, the desire to keep the exchange on an even keel eventually facilitates unwanted sex,” she adds.
What the men said
In her study, which appears in the journal Social Forces, Ford interviewed 39 racially diverse college men who reported having unwanted sex with a woman. Interview times ranged from 45 minutes to two hours. During interviews, Ford asked respondents about how the unwanted sex unfolded and what made this experience unwanted.
“So, I guess it makes you unmanly if you don’t want to have sex.”
Their explanations for having unwanted sex centered on their broader ideas about gender, which revealed the following: how men were expected to act; what men were expected to want; and what actions might make men lose face with their partner or others.
“I think it’s an undercurrent to my thought-making…that guys are supposed to enjoy sexual intercourse under any circumstances,” said one student.
“(T)here is this social pressure that men like sex a lot and women can choose yes or no,” explained another. “So, I guess it makes you unmanly if you don’t want to have sex.”
“When a girl comes on to you, you’re just like ‘ok, I’ll accept this’ because that almost never happens, in my experience at least,” described a third. “So, I guess that was a lot of why I went ahead with it.”
More broadly, Ford concludes, men simply aim to keep interactions smooth and avoid awkwardness—which can mean engaging in unwanted sex.
“When describing sex, these men did not talk about uncontrollable biological urges or powerful female seductresses so much as they described a normative commitment to keep the interaction going smoothly,” Ford recounts.
When asked why he didn’t stop a sexual encounter, one respondent said, “She might think I was a little strange…Like she got rejected…I think she would feel weird or surprised.”
Notably, only eight out of 39 men reported being intoxicated when they had unwanted sex.
“What allows a man to save face or make sense is substantially informed by gender,” Ford concludes. “Moreover, men conduct their sex lives in the shadow of presumed gendered reputational consequences. They fear ridicule if stories are told portraying them as the kind of man who declines sex with an attractive woman.”
“However, what’s striking is that, although these college men’s experiences involve sex, which we sometimes assume to be a largely biologically driven affair, these men report deploying the same tactics for the same reasons that a person tries to keep the banter going when talking to someone at a dinner party,” she adds. “People try to fulfill interactional expectations, even when the cost is high.”