Just as there are societal pressures on women to consent to sex they don’t want, many men experience similar but different pressures to do the same. And widespread misconceptions about men’s sexuality could be harming them.
A 2014 University of Missouri study found that more than 40 percent of high school- and college-age men have been raped or had unwanted sexual experiences of some kind, either by force or through verbal coercion. Ninety-five percent of those unwanted advances were from female acquaintances, the victims said.
Recently, a researcher from New York University shed light on the pressures young men feel to have sex they don’t want. Sociologist Jessie Ford interviewed 39 racially diverse college-age men who said they had had unwanted sex—not by force, but because they pursued or went along with sexual encounters they weren’t truly interested in having.
In the interviews, the men said they had sex they didn’t really want in order to conform with gender expectations and to avoid awkward situations—and Ford is concerned that men don’t feel empowered to talk about their true feelings surrounding sex.
In an article about her work for the Conversation, Ford wrote about “the blurry line of unwanted sex”—she doesn’t categorize the experiences of the men she spoke with as sexual assault, nor do the men themselves. It’s a very sensitive line to walk.
“It’s important to clarify the difference between ‘unwanted sex’ and ‘assault.’ With sex that’s unwanted (but not assault), a person makes a choice to have sex even though they could have stopped it,” Ford wrote. “In contrast, with sexual assault or rape, the sex is both unwanted and forced. In other words, all sexual assault is unwanted sex, but not all unwanted sex is sexual assault.
“The men that I interviewed felt they could have stopped the encounter, but didn’t for various reasons. These men were reluctant to call their experiences sexual assault, and were more comfortable with terms such as ‘unwanted’ and ‘nonconsensual.'”
She sees this as a potential missing piece of our national conversation about sexual assault.
“I don’t want to equate their experiences of unwanted sex with those of women who have been sexual assaulted,” Ford wrote. “But I do think it’s important to understand how and why it happens. ”
The men in Ford’s study said they had sex they didn’t want often to smooth over social situations—they didn’t want the women who were pursuing them to feel uncomfortable or rejected, and they didn’t want to feel embarrassed themselves. They felt pressure to take any opportunity to have sex. And they also didn’t want to be labeled in the social sphere as weird about it.
Only 8 out of the 39 men said they were drunk when they had unwanted sex.
“Instead, most of the scenarios ended up being pretty ordinary,” Ford wrote. “Some said they didn’t want to have sex because they didn’t feel a connection. Others were hesitant because they were tired, there was no condom or they wanted to do something physical other than intercourse. More often, men went through with sex because it seemed easier than just saying ‘no.'”
Here’s what some of Ford’s study subjects said. The first subject was a college freshman who was still new to having sex when he had an unwanted experience:
“There was little talk of uncontrollable biological urges, or powerful female seductresses,” Ford wrote. “Instead, many described having unwanted sex in order to project an image and to take advantage of a sexual opportunity.”
The widespread assumption that men cannot have unwanted sex could be reinforcing harmful standards of masculinity and hurting young men who feel external and internal pressures to say “yes.”
“It does make me wonder if it’s a missing piece in the overall debate over sex in our culture,” Ford wrote.