Jesse Ford is a PhD student in sociology at New York University. She recently conducted a study where she interviewed men who say they’ve had unwanted, nonconsensual sex with women.
“The goal was to dig deeper into the experiences of these men: how the sex unfolded, why they didn’t want it in the first place and why they didn’t just say, ‘No.’” Ford explains.
The study, which was published by Oxford Academic, was inspired by the #MeToo movement and the lack of male voices coming forward to take about their experiences. Ford interviewed a total of 39 college-aged men from various ethnic background who all reported having unwanted sex with women.
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. 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.”
Ford quickly noticed a pattern as to why the men said they engaged in unwanted sex with women: pressure.
“(T)here is this social pressure that men like sex a lot and women can choose yes or no,” one man told him. “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,” another said. “That was a lot of why I went ahead with it.”
A third man added: “I even said ‘thank you’ afterwards even though I didn’t really want to have sex. I was still playing the role of someone who wanted to be in that moment … I didn’t want to give off any impressions of weirdness.”
Many described having unwanted sex in order to project an image and to take advantage of a sexual opportunity. They worried that saying “no” to sex might be strange, immature, offensive or emasculating. A looming fear was ridicule, and they didn’t want to be talked about as the kind of man who rejects sex with an attractive woman, lest others might see them as a “virgin,” an “idiot” or someone who’s “gay.”
“I do think it’s important to understand how and why it happens,” she concludes. “And it does make me wonder if it’s a missing piece in the overall debate over sex in our culture.”