Tyler, an 18-year-old freshman at New York University, panicked when an innocent flirtation started to escalate. Alone in the young woman’s dorm room, a hookup immediately unfolded, and he silently hoped that things would start to fizzle out.
But they didn’t. “She just kind of climbed on top and that’s when I looked up like ‘is this happening?’” Tyler explains. “She wasn’t looking at me. If there was some eye contact, then I might have said something or gestured: ‘Can we not do this?’ But her eyes were closed. I was thinking, ‘I don’t really want to be doing this right now; this wasn’t what I had in mind…’”
Tyler was one of 39 heterosexual young men that NYU researcher Jessie Ford interviewed in her study about men’s experiences with unwanted sex. In the beginning of her doctoral candidacy, she began noticing a trend in emerging research on unwanted sexual contact.
“Straight men are reporting what would be called ‘sexual assault’ in much higher rates than you’d expect,” Ford says. “By the end of college, it happens to as many as 12 percent of these men.”
So Ford dug deeper, and found that many young men are having sex they don’t actually want for two major reasons: to conform to gender expectations and to avoid uncomfortable interactions.
A major aspect of male gender expectations is the widely-held idea that ‘there’s no such thing as men not wanting to have sex.’ Because of the pressure placed on their masculinity, many men feel obligated to accept any and all sexual opportunities thrown at them.
“The men tell me, ‘If I turn this down, I’m going to look like a wuss, or a virgin, or gay,” Ford says. Their buddies have a tendency to make matters worse. They’ll ask, “What’s wrong with you? This is a sexual opportunity. Take it!”
Unwanted sex also arises when attempting to avoid awkward situations. “The men told me, once you’re in a sexual encounter with a woman and it becomes clear that she wants to have sex, it can become really difficult to leave,” Ford says.
This happens to women, too. Once a sexual interaction starts, either the woman or the man might feel they’ve gone too far into the encounter to turn back. Somehow, having sex they don’t want seems easier than saying no. In the case of Jeremy, another 18-year-old student Ford interviewed, both partners felt pressured to follow through with sex neither of them wanted.
He reflects, “So, that’s when I told her, like, ‘yo … I wasn’t that into last night.’ She says, ‘yeah I could tell, but that’s what I thought you wanted, so I thought I might as well.’ I said ‘wait, you thought I was pressuring you?’ She says, ‘Yeah. No I wasn’t. You were pressuring me!’"
Jeremy continues, “I don’t think either of us wanted it, but we were in a situation where we didn’t communicate. It wasn’t rape, but it was unwanted.”
Avoiding awkwardness sometimes also means not rejecting a woman who’s ready to bump uglies because it may embarrass her. “They worry that if a woman is rejected when she’s trying to have sex, she might feel like she’s too easy or unattractive,” Ford says.
“[It’s hard to say no] because first I don’t really like to make people feel bad about themselves. Also there is this social pressure that men like sex a lot and women can choose yes or no. So I guess it makes you unmanly if you don’t want to have sex…” explains Greg, a 20-year-old sophomore.
However, because the power dynamics are entirely flipped, straight men’s unwanted sexual encounters differ drastically from women’s. Ford has also discussed sexual assault with many women and gay men, and found that a physical power difference tends to make unwelcome sexual encounters a more traumatic experience.
After all, if a straight man really wanted to end a sexual interaction, unless he’s somehow physically incapacitated, he could. “Women and gay men, on the other hand, could have sex physically forced on them. There’s the threat of violence and the potential that they could be raped.” Ford says.
This explains why, on average, women tend to reflect on sexual assault from a more emotionally-disturbed frame of mind. It also explains why, if an encounter leaves a woman feeling violated, she’s better able to communicate that. Men tend to simply internalize their unwanted experience.
Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of reasons why straight young men wouldn’t want to have sex. “Sometimes, they’d only had sex with people they loved, and they weren’t looking for casual sex with someone they just met. Sometimes, it’s because there’s not a condom. Some men care a lot more about love and safe sex than you might expect,” she says.
Ford’s research reminds us of the necessity for an improved education of mutual consent — for men and women both.