social pressure to appear masculine leads straight men to have unwanted sex
Heterosexual men’s experiences of unwanted sex are often overlooked. We tend to see sexual assault perpetrators as male and victims as female—and usually that is true. However, there are many pressures men face that lead them to have unwanted sex. In this post we explore what is expected of men, what is stigmatized, and how these social factors can result in a man deciding to have sex that he doesn’t actually desire. Three distinct themes were discovered in an analysis of qualitative interviews with male college students. First, there is the narrative that men always want to have sex. Second, men are expected to take advantage of every sexual opportunity. Third, men navigate situations purposefully avoiding the stigmatized labels “pussy,” “bitch,” “virgin,” or “gay.”
The data come from a study done by Jessie Ford in 2015 and 2016 at an elite private university. The study focused on men’s experiences of unwanted sex with women. Ford interviewed 39 men about their experiences of unwanted sex and this blog post displays quotes from these interviews. Participants were recruited by a screening survey in two undergraduate courses and by recruitment flyers around campus. The flyers specified that the study was aimed at 18-25 year olds who had experienced unwanted sex since college began. The interviews were conducted in person and lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours. Although some men interviewed reported physically coercive situations that led to unwanted sex, the respondents quoted in this blog post did not discuss any physical violence. However, the quotes below illuminate three distinct social pressures men face that led them to engage in sex they didn’t want to have.
people assume that men always want sex
A number of men were acutely aware of the expectation that men always want sex:
Interviewer: Do you have friends who have had unwanted sex (men especially)?
Respondent 1: It’s definitely there; it’s a thing. Because men always “want it” so it doesn’t get looked at. People are still going to high five them when they have sex.
Respondent 2: For a guy it will always be seen as good for him. Men aren’t so inclined to say no. Not that they are more inclined to say yes but to say no—if they have reservations they always have the fall back that it will be good for them as a social status.
Interviewer: To gain a number?
Respondent 2: Yeah sex will almost never be negative socially for men. Because of that it translates into sex will always be good for me because of the status boost.
Respondent 3: Yeah like okay if the woman wants it, it seems like no reason why a guy doesn’t want it.
Interviewer: There’s no obvious way for men to say no once it’s progressing?
Respondent 3: Once you get into that whole—once you start making out then it kinda all goes downhill from there. If it’s a woman, she can stop it at any time, for a guy once you get to that making out phase or she’s touching you it’s like, okay, this has to happen.
Interviewer: But then your girlfriend or partner is like, no I wanna hook up.
Respondent 4: Yeah and you’re just like okay I guess it would be weird if I said no. Especially as the guy if I ever try to say I’m not in the mood…if I push it’s weird but if she wants to do it, it’s really weird if I say no I don’t.
Interviewer: Why is that weird?
Respondent 4: Because I’m supposed to want it all the time.
men feel pressure to take advantage of every sexual opportunity
In addition to the expectation that men always want sex, there is a simultaneous pressure that men should take advantage of every sexual opportunity because they may be limited. Women are often seen as the gatekeepers, frequently saying no, which leads to the idea that men shouldn’t pass up any chances:
Respondent 5: You’re assuming that a guy won’t turn down sex because he’s a guy. So they play into that. A lot of guys fall into that. You always have the voice in your head saying “Well, why am I not having sex?” When I was 14 I always wanted to have sex…The stereotype is that girls are better with words and I think that translates into the pressures being more verbal than physical. The mind game of like “Well, it’s a limited time offer, if you don’t have it now, you won’t have it.”
Respondent 6: She was so straight up about it, “I wanna have sex with you,” it kind of turned me off. I kind of felt bad. She was very verbal. “Come here, touch me, eat me.” I was just like “alright.” I just kind of did it, oral, whatever I learned through different experiences…because when you’re not having consistent sex you’re more inclined to just be like I need sex, so I’ll get this over with.
Respondent 7: I feel like guys put a lot of effort into having sex so when a girl comes on to you you’re just like “Okay, I’ll accept this” because that almost never happens, in my experience at least. So I guess that was a lot of why I went ahead with it [unwanted sex].
Interviewer: It was like here’s an opportunity.
Respondent 7: Yeah. Why not take it.
don’t be a pussy, bitch, or virgin; and definitely don’t be gay
Men’s discussions of the pressures they felt made clear that they were avoiding certain stigmatized labels. Several of these—pussy, bitch, virgin, and gay—came up often enough to convince us that these are stigmatized identities that most want to avoid:
Interviewer: Was there a moment where you calculated consequences? Like she might be pissed or feel weird?
Respondent 6: I did think a lot about consequences and I would be looked at as a bad pledge. I thought they were going to be like this kid’s a pussy. He can’t slam. Even though [my university] is not really like that in terms of Greek life I thought they would think I’m a bitch. I thought she would lie about me and talk shit. I don’t know what girls make up or what they would say to get back at me.
Respondent 8: If I didn’t think she was attractive I never would have hooked up or had oral sex with her in the first place. It’s not like we were eight drinks in like “I’ll sleep with whoever”. We were reasonably clear headed. It was a conscious decision [to have sex].
Interviewer: How do you think she would interpret it if you said no?
Respondent 8: Primarily she would have thought it was weird.
Respondent 8: Because she would think “this doesn’t follow the signs I got before.” Beyond that, she might think I never had sex before. I wouldn’t want her to think that if it wasn’t true. Some of it is posturing.
Respondent 9: If I don’t do it she will feel rejected. Don’t want it but she’s attractive. Maybe there are self-esteem issues but she can have almost any guy she wants so if I don’t want to that will let her know maybe I’m gay. Just kind of this pressuring experience, have to do this for what will happen if I don’t.
Interviewer: Were you almost being polite?
Respondent 9: Yeah. You could say polite or go with the flow or just doing what you feel like society has told you to do…I had a friend who just said it really straight, we were at a frat party one time. He knew this girl was into me and was like, “Dude she’s right there, are you gay?” That’s the kind of sentiment.
As we can see from these conversations, sometimes men engage in sex for reasons other than sexual desire. Unwanted sex can and does result from men’s efforts to appear masculine. Men sense that they are expected to want sex all the time, and to take advantage of every sexual opportunity. If they don’t, they fear that they will be seen as a “bitch,” “pussy,” a “virgin,” or as gay. These expectations and stigmas amount to a rigid definition of heterosexual masculinity that puts men in difficult situations when they don’t want sex. They can either refuse to have sex and risk the bad reputation that results from deviating from the definition of manhood, or they can engage in sex that they don’t really want to have.
Furthermore, due to social expectations around sex, men seem to have fewer acceptable pathways than women for saying “no.” As we have seen, a lack of desire is an invalid excuse. Getting out of a situation comes with reputational risks. As Ford shows in a forthcoming paper, it can be easier to just “go with the flow” and have unwanted sex, which may be detrimental to their wellbeing. It is important to understand the nature of the various pressures on men to engage in sex if we want to reduce unwanted sex. Recent national attention to women’s experiences of sexual assault on campus have led many universities to adopt policies requiring affirmative consent during unfolding sexual encounters. Such policies are based on the hope that normalizing asking for consent will reduce women’s experiences of having unwanted sex by putting the onus on the initiator—usually the man—to get consent. If such a policy is actually followed by those initiating sex, it relieves women—and men, in the case that the initiator is a woman—from having to say no to avoid sex. We don’t yet know how much such policies change sexual dynamics. But the analysis here suggests that beliefs about gender are deeply embedded in sexuality, and it may take changes in these expectations and stigmas to make a serious dent in unwanted sex for heterosexual men or women.