After Experiences of Unwanted Sex, Queer Women See Men as “Stupid”
Queer college women experience some of the highest rates of unwanted sex but remain some of the most overlooked in research. Here, we examine self-identified queer women’s accounts of unwanted sexual encounters with men. These stories suggest that from these women’s point of view, current practices of consent fall short when it comes to navigating and interpreting their sexual experiences. Perhaps due to their position away from heteronormative sexual scripts or experiences of having sex with people of different genders, findings also suggest that non-heterosexual women are in a better position to more clearly identify and articulate when their sexual wants are misunderstood or ignored (particularly by male partners).
What we did
The data presented here come from a study conducted by Dr. Jessie Ford from 2015-2017 at an elite private university. The study focused on 110 students’ experiences of unwanted sex, and this blog post includes quotes from the 20 interviews with participants who identified as queer women. We identified participants as queer women if, at the time of the interview, they told us they were lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, or another sexual orientation other than heterosexual. These women in our sample described a range of unwanted sexual experiences with men, ranging from unwanted groping to physically forced sex.
Participants were recruited through a screening survey conducted in two undergraduate courses and by recruitment flyers that were placed around campus asking if students had had “unwanted sex” and were willing to be interviewed about it. The flyers recruited 18-25 year olds who were students at the college. Three-fourths of interviews (84/110) were conducted in person by Ford, and the remaining interviews (26/110) were conducted by trained research assistants. Interviews lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours and were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Everything below in italics is a direct quote from the transcribed interview, except passages in brackets ([…]); those are the authors’ words to put the passage in context with information on what we believe was meant based on the context of the interview.
People often ask — with whom are queer women having unwanted sex? Our calculations from the OCSLS (Online College Social Life Survey) conducted by Paula England shows that the vast majority (over 85%) of unwanted sex reported by queer women occurs with men.
One might speculate that after an unwanted sexual experience with a man, queer women might avoid sex with male partners. We found, however, that queer women did not necessarily write off sex with men because of past experiences of unwanted sex. It was continued experiences with male partners, who consistently engaged in specific practices that reinforced their frustrations, that served to color their perceptions of male sexuality. The quotes below tell queer women’s stories of unwanted sex with men and make clear how the fact that many of them have had both male and female partners allows them to see the gendered dynamics of sex between men and women through a distinctive gender lens.
Men Seen as Unable or Unwilling to Read Cues that Women Want to Stop
- I honestly think I was very articulate with it [saying no]. And even if I became inarticulate with it, it was very clear by my facial/bodily expressions that I didn’t want to…. just like very few guys that I have met in my life have the ability to read other peoples’ emotions effectively. Which definitely affects the way that situations like this [unwanted sex] pan out. [Respondent 108]
- I think he saw it as flirting when I was like, “I don’t need you…you need to not touch me.” But I’m really bad at saying no which is a really big problem and it gets me in tricky positions because I don’t often say no, but I very, very clearly do not want to be where I am. [Respondent 103]
- The next morning he was like, “what the fuck are you telling people? I didn’t do anything to you. What are you thinking? I thought you wanted it.” In my head I was like, “I pushed you off of me three times and made it clear to you that I did not want to do anything with you.” [Respondent 86]
- What’s weird about it is just that because I know him and I know he’s such an idiot throughout the whole thing I was so uncomfortable and I didn’t want to do what he was doing, but I wasn’t especially threatened. [Respondent 91]
When we talked to queer women about unwanted sex, they often characterized men as lacking in communication skills needed to both ask questions and comprehend answers. This lack of skill causes problems in their eyes because the act of confirming consent was often seen as the responsibility of men. This view may be one that has been reinforced by sexual assault prevention programs that assume that men are usually the initiators in sex with women. Such programs often stress the importance of affirmative consent and therefore suggest that men should be the ones to “check in” with their partners during sexual encounters.
Yet queer women used unambiguous language to describe men as poorly equipped to take on this task, saying things like, “he’s such an idiot” or, “he’s stupid.” In these women’s views, they had met their responsibility to give or deny consent by providing physical or verbal cues that they didn’t want to continue–cues they saw men to have missed or ignored. While they see themselves as responsible for providing clear cues when they want to stop, the quotes show that they do not see this responsibility to include an overt verbal demand like, “Stop.” We can speculate that they find this difficult because it conflicts with a gender norm that women should be “nice” and accommodate male desire, as well as an expectation that nonverbal consent cues should be acknowledged and accepted.
Sex with Women Seen as More Communicative and Comfortable than Sex with Men
According to our interviews, many women who identify as queer have had some romantic or sexual experience with non-male partners. We found that 20% (4/20) of the queer-identified women had only kissed another woman, and 80% (16/20) had gone farther. Some of their frustration and disappointment with men’s failure to acknowledge signaling comes from contrasts between their experiences with women and men partners.
- [Having sex with only women was] a lot more comfortable [than my experiences with men] because I didn’t know what I was doing and neither did they so it was kind of figuring it out together and also just discussing everything first and making sure everything is okay. It was never in a way that was pushy or from intoxication. It was very forwardly consensual. [Respondent 88]
- Girls are way more up front about what they want from relationships, and way more emotionally communicative about what they’re looking for, and you can have an adult conversation with them. I think at my age guys are still thinking with their dicks. ….[for example] if I start getting a read from [another woman] that they might want to have sex….I say, “Hey, I’m kind of confused. I’m getting mixed signals from you.” I say that. I don’t grab them and throw them into furniture. [Respondent 96]
- I always make a conscious effort to ask a lot of questions when I’m with a woman because a) I don’t really know if she’s into me and b) I want to make sure I’m not making her feel weird in any way. I just notice as a pattern, I ask a lot more [than I do with guys]. [Respondent 90]
In interviews, many women described dramatic differences between how they experience sex with men versus sex with women. For respondents who made the distinction between experiences, they frequently described more fluid power dynamics and more communication with female partners, which ultimately led to more communicative, consensual encounters. Importantly, some queer women reference being less “sure” about expectations during a same-sex encounter with a woman, which may suggest that the sexual scripts are less clear. In such instances, women ask more questions in order to navigate wants and desires, which in turn generally led to more positive sexual encounters.
Gender norms create problems
- A lot of guys…confuse being a leader in the sense of taking initiative and pursuing someone with making unwanted advances….They confuse that with this kind of archaic belief of having to be the first person to message, first person to initiate, first person to ask for sex. I think they value that image more than the communication between whoever they are pursuing. [Respondent 109]
- Also, guys are stupid. They like fall asleep [after they orgasm] and then you’re just like “oh, annoying.” [Respondent 108]
- I can’t speak for all, but…women don’t necessarily feel entitled to abuse, harass, utilize the power dynamic in a relationship. They don’t really do that….I think that’s a gender situation…..[Men] are still hardwired to think a certain way and a lot of guys have to unlearn that. The way that people have to unlearn racism. [Respondent 87]
Some queer women that we interviewed connected unwanted sex to their broader critiques of sexist gender dynamics and norms of masculinity. These women expressed particular distaste for men who abused power or prioritized their own orgasms. While anyone who experiences unwanted sex might share these sentiments, these articulations were more pronounced in our interviews with queer women than they were with heterosexual women.
There are no easy answers for how to reduce experiences of unwanted sex. These narratives of queer women and their experiences with people of diverse genders, however, provide clues into potential intervention points. The frustration expressed by the women suggests that there is a disconnect between their standards of consent and what men are actually practicing. It is, perhaps, their experiences with different genders that gives them a broader understanding of what consent can look like. Current definitions of consent position unwanted sex as imposed by people in positions of power (often men) onto people with less social and physical power (often women). This framework doesn’t acknowledge people who deny consent nonverbally, outside of traditional heterosexual scripts, or amidst intersectional dimensions of power (e.g., sexual experience, age, etc.). Looking at the words of queer women, it becomes clear that simplistic models of consent education have failed to acknowledge the complex reality of their unwanted sexual experiences.
Moreover, while perhaps current frameworks make some sense if men are universally initiating sex, there seem to be inconsistencies around what constitutes asking for consent. The women here don’t believe men have done that. What constitutes having communicated consent? In the view of the queer women we spoke to, they did use words or actions to communicate their desire not to go further. Their male partners were either unable to read the cue or, despite reading the cue, unwilling to stop. If we were to interview the men in these encounters, we speculate that they might complain that the cues weren’t clear. In that case, is the answer to get women to overcome traditional gender expectations that they be “nice” and clearly say, “I don’t want to do this?” Or is the answer to teach men to pick up on the kinds of cues women are now providing? If we think that men are willfully ignoring understood cues so they can have sex, is the answer to impress on them the consequences of not establishing consent? Should we encourage movement on all these fronts? The experiences and voices of queer women provide a unique lens on the gendered nature of the issue of consent, as well as a framework for imagining how consent education can move beyond simplistic definitions of power.
Elena Riecke is a student at Columbia University working on Master’s degrees in a joint program in Social Work and Public Health. Jessie Ford recently received her PhD in Sociology from New York University, and is now a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Paula England is a Silver Professor of Sociology at New York University.