When an account of a sexual encounter between actor Aziz Ansari and a young woman who went by the pseudonym “Grace” went viral, discussion, anger and hurt swirled on the internet. There were many women who related to Grace and her experience, and there were others who chocked it up to “a bad date.” Men’s opinions fell all over the spectrum, too.
A lot of people criticized Grace for not immediately leaving when Ansari started to get pushy.
“Grace’s story inspires the question, ‘Why would a young woman willingly participate in sexual activity that she does not personally desire?'” wrote Vanderbilt University sociologist Heather Hensman Kettrey for The Conversation.
Kettrey, the researcher behind a new study of female sexuality, believes her findings shine light on the relationship women have with their own desire, complicated by pervasive “cultural messages that portray young women as the objects of young men’s desire, rather than subjects who possess their own desire.”
Though there’s no way of knowing what was going through Grace’s head that night, and every woman is different, the truth is that lots of women end up doing things they don’t want to do because they feel they should.
“Men are expected to make sexual advances toward women–and women are expected to simply respond to these advances,” Kettrey wrote. “Young women’s sexual desire and pleasure are viewed as secondary to young men’s desires. This can set young women up to accept unwanted advances and participate in undesired sex for the purpose of pleasing a male partner.”
What do women want when it comes to sex? The answers to that question vary wildly from woman to woman, a recent survey of more than a thousand ages 18 to 94 showed. But the fact that these women could answer questions about their desires probably means they’ll have healthy, positive sex experiences.
Why? Because owning and valuing your desires is likely good for you and your sex life.
Kettrey’s findings suggest that women who are comfortable with their sexuality and place the same importance on their own desires as their male partners’ are at a decreased risk of having sex, or types of sex, they don’t really want.
On the other side of the coin, women who think of sex as primarily for men’s benefit are more likely to do things they don’t want to do, simply because they don’t see their lack of interest as a valid reason to say no, Kettrey wrote.
It’s an uncomfortable dynamic to think about—but it’s not uncommon. Nearly one-third of the more than 7,000 heterosexual women Kettrey surveyed said they put their sex partners’ needs ahead of their own. Only half said it’s important for sex to be equally pleasurable for both people.
Nearly 7 percent of women say they’ve done things they didn’t want to do because they felt they had to.
To be clear, men are having unwanted sex, too. Men feel societal pressure to say “yes” to sex they don’t really want because any other response might be perceived as weird.
“Both young women and young men can agree to engage in sexual activity that they do not personally desire,” Kettrey wrote. “However, cultural scripts surrounding heterosexual relationships can make this a reality for women more frequently than for men.”
There are two sides to knowing what you want, Kettrey believes. When women don’t feel empowered to pursue their own sexual desires with their partner, they might not feel empowered to draw a hard line when they don’t feel comfortable.
“Young women who do not view their own sexual wants and desires as adequate reason to engage in sexual activity may be unlikely to interpret their lack of desire in a given scenario as reason to refuse sexual activity,” she wrote.
What does this mean for all of us? For men, it means recognizing the complicated dynamics that can be at play before and during sex. It also means paying attention to how your partner is responding, verbally and otherwise.
For women, it means feeling comfortable with your own sexuality and valuing your desires equally with your partner’s. Tapping into these feelings will help keep you safe and your sex life healthy and positive.
Having undesired sex is associated with poorer mental health and increased risk of sexual victimization, among other health risks, Kettrey said. But, according to her study, women who saw their desires as equal to their partners’ were 35 percent less likely to engage in those sex acts they didn’t really want in order to please their partners.
For society at large, it means getting more comfortable with female desire and sexuality. Allowing women to be sexual beings in their own right—not solely responders to the desires of their partners—can give them the agency to own their sexualities.
“Acknowledging young women as sexual subjects with desires of their own may safeguard young women from consenting to undesired sexual activity for the purpose of pleasing a partner,” Kettrey wrote.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.