A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Defining Consent Online Symposium (.pdf).

In the spring of freshman year, shortly after leaving a party with a guy friend, Lydia and he had sex that Lydia describes as unwanted. As the hookup unfolded, Lydia, then a 19-year-old freshman, recalls: “Part was me was like ‘it’s fine, it’s not gonna be an issue, it won’t change anything, it’s just sex, it’s not a big deal’ while the other part is thinking pretty much the opposite. This is intimate…he could see me differently as a person. He might think I was a whore or easy. Or the opposite even: if I said no, he would think I didn’t like him as a person or…that I led him on or something like that and I was being a bitchy girl to him. I didn’t really want that.”

In the end, Lydia went along with sex. When I interview her one year later, as part of a larger study on unwanted sex, she talks about the pressure she felt to go through it—pressure to avoid having him think she’d been leading him on and pressure to project an image of a woman who can handle herself. Lydia also describes the social awkwardness of the encounter, explaining “it would be very uncomfortable to say no at the time because I was over at his place. I would have to leave and get all my stuff and I didn’t know what he would say.”

Some outside observers would call this non-consensual sex. Others would put the blame squarely on Lydia for not being assertive enough to say no. Lydia did not consider this an assault, nor did most of the 110 students who reported similar instances of unwanted sex to me. Yet they all described a combination of powerful social pressures that made it seem especially difficult to say no.

Uncomfortable reality

I argue that many of these social pressures stem from a desire to avoid making things uncomfortable. Some of the impulses that make these pressures so powerful are admirable – the desire to preserve someone’s feelings, not to disappoint expectations or make others feel let down, etc. A few, I will show later, stem from fear of harm. But most, I found, are just plain normal – the desire to save face, deflect awkward situations, and/or stave off potential ridicule or resentment.

In most everyday interactions, the pressure to be polite and avoid hard feelings is a social lubricant, helping social life flow smoothly. But when it comes to erotic interactions, these social expectations are not only highly gendered but also largely unsuitable to the changing sexual and romantic terrain that college students now inhabit. This terrain includes a world of delayed marriage, filled with more egalitarian male-female friendships than the past, but also more freedom for everyone to have casual sex, a freedom that may become a burden in the context of a campus hookup culture where sex may or may not lead to dating.

My interviews with students at a large private university in the northeast make it clear that in this environment there is a lot of sex that people only openly admit was unwanted after the fact. This is sex that they did not want at the time yet went along with despite not experiencing physical force or threat of force. A minority of my respondents — some women and non-heterosexual men — reported being afraid to say no to a man who was coming on to them for fear that he might react physically. Surprisingly, however, much more common in students’ accounts was the profound importance of gendered social expectations.

The synergy between “nice” and “easy”

Most of my respondents had unwanted sex because in social interactions, even sexual ones, people work to manage their partner’s feelings. A very common feature of interviews was for respondents to emphasize how the pressure of the situation created a momentum where it was “easier” to have sex than it was to call a halt. Understanding how and why this happens reveals the limits of talking in terms of either “sexual victimization” or “sexual empowerment” — or even “individual choice.” There are still real sexual predators on campus, of course. But in other cases, gender stereotypes and habits from the past interact with changing sexual and romantic practices to make it difficult for even well-intentioned individuals to have the mutually consensual sexual encounters they would likely prefer.

One of the strongest messages given to young girls is the importance of being “nice” and not “hurting people’s feelings.” And that sticks. Across interviews, many women described actively internalizing the idea that women/girls are supposed to be nice (not “bitchy”), and concluding that one way of being “nice” in an erotically-charged situation is by having sex, rather than have a partner think you were “just leading him on,” as the interchange below illustrates.

Penelope: “I really don’t know how to say no when a guy wants to have sex, I feel terrible when I say no…Don’t want them to see me as someone who doesn’t want to have sex. At the same time, don’t want them to see me as weak.”

Interviewer: Are those the things you think women are supposed to be balancing?

Penelope: “Yea. Having a lot of confidence but also not seeming easy. Cute and sexual, but not slutty.”

-Penelope, 19-year-old sophomore (heterosexual)

In several instances, women described feeling responsible for finishing what they “started.” Once women had given a man a green light — gotten in a taxi with him, touched him erotically, or done something else that he might take as a signal for willingness to have sex, there was an expectation for women to follow through, even if they did not actually want sex.

Most women are aware that some college men sort women into types (e.g., sluts, girlfriend material, etc.) and use these categories to decide if she “deserves” respect (Armstrong, Hamilton and Sweeney 2006; Ray and Rosow 2010). Such categorizations, which draw on sexist stereotypes, can place a woman in the category of “easy” simply because she has opted to spend time alone with a man in a place where sex could plausibly be on the agenda. In some instances, women felt they must follow through with sex because they believed that they had given this impression. In particular, women who engaged in casual sex sometimes reported feeling that because they were deemed more sexual they had less right to decline sex. Some queer and bisexual women also recounted scenarios where they felt that being alone with a man set in motion certain expectations that they should go along with sex because, after all, they slept with men and with women alike.

Below, Amy, a bisexual woman describes how her past sexual experience—the fact that she “sleeps with everyone”—in a sense made her feel she could not say no in this context.

“And then he at one point decided to take advantage of me and I was like ‘okay.’ I just kind of dealt with it…. I don’t think I have the right to make a big deal out of it because at the end of the day I sleep with everyone. So who cares. If you’re going to have a lot of sex, at the end of the day someone is going to try to fuck you up.”

-Amy, 19-year-old sophomore (bisexual)

Consensualish for men versus women

Accounts from men who had unwanted sex with other men reflected some of the same stereotypes as women’s descriptions about the need to accommodate male sexual neediness. They too described an expectation to “finish what you started” or to give the partner an orgasm. While this pressure is often documented in the heterosexual literature (Armstrong, England and Fogarty 2012; Bogle 2008), it was interesting to see the orgasm imperative transferred onto the male partners of men.

Heterosexual men also described incidents of having sex they didn’t actually want. But where women and gay/bisexual men described feeling pressure to ensure male partners’ pleasure, heterosexual men experienced the flip side of these gendered pressures – feeling that they would face social ridicule if they did not take advantage of any proffered sex.

During his freshman year, Mark woke up one night to find a woman on top of him, trying to have sex. He explains:

“We had our night out, got back from bars, crashed in my bed. 2 or 3 am there’s a random person in my bed on top of me. I guess I’m in more of a position at that point to be passive than to say what’s going on? I would rather not make a big deal of it…”

Interviewer: Did you end up having sex [with the woman]?

Mark: “Yea…. I wasn’t gonna be like you shouldn’t be here. It would just be weird. There’s 4 or 5 dudes in the suite asleep. I would rather not make a scene. What am I gonna do? Go complain I was raped by like honestly a really nice looking girl, just someone I personally didn’t vibe with…. So I’m not gonna be as aggressive, like ‘get off of me’ the way a girl would…If I did that to her and then she made it a thing or people heard about, it would be insane. I would have got shit.”

-Mark, 21-year-old junior (heterosexual)

Other heterosexual men described having unwanted sex to project an image or take advantage of a sexual opportunity. Men worried that turning down sex could result in ridicule or being viewed as a “pussy,” “virgin,” “idiot” or “gay.” It is notable that these terms are different from those applied to women who decline sex (i.e. “bitch,” “prude,” “tease”).

These uncomfortable gender pressures are magnified by the fact that in a sense, hookups are an incomplete institution, changing and evolving much like our expectations of gender and sex. For example, data from the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS)—a survey led by Paula England of over 20,000 students from 21 four-year colleges and universities between 2005 and 2011—show that only 40 percent of recent hookups involved intercourse, and 35 percent involved no more than kissing and some non-genital touching. Yet these findings contrast with the highly sexualized expectations associated with hookups and a culture of “pluralistic ignorance”—where students assume everyone else is having sex (Wade, 2012).

Saving face

In addition to gender expectations, another very common factor hindering people from refusing unwanted sex was their felt social pressure to save face, avoid conflict, or simply make the encounter less embarrassing or strained (Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1983). Such a scenario usually plays out as follows: a man or woman ends up alone with a partner. They realize at that point that they do not want to have sex for various reasons (e.g. “not feeling it;” would rather do something else; missing an ex-boy/girlfriend etc.). However, they consciously decide to go through with it rather than end the encounter.

“Then when he asked about the condom, I was like this is where I should cop out, but I just went along with it…For some reason, I figured that it would be less awkward if I just finished what had started and then left… If you leave in the middle there is some unresolved tension, whereas the first option is [to have sex], yes, it’s a little awkward but not unheard of. “

                                                                        –Meghan, 18-year-old freshman (heterosexual)

Much like Meghan, students often perceived that the encounter would conclude more neatly (e.g. “done deal”) if they had sex. Across interviews, respondents frequently described a desire to keep the encounter running smoothly, without “weirdness” or disruption, which discouraged them from calling an end to unwanted sex.

Interviewer: You said you felt pressure to keep going?

Jeff: “Definitely.”

Interviewer: Was that from her?

Jeff: “Yeah. I kinda felt…. It was me too, based on the situation. Felt like I had to go all the way. It was just necessary.”

Interviewer: Necessary?

Jeff: “Yeah.”

Interviewer: Why not stop it?

Jeff: “It would have felt weird to me. I can’t see myself…. I don’t know. I wouldn’t have done that.”

-Jeff, 25-year-old senior (heterosexual)

In many instances, men’s stories mirrored women’s, where being face-to-face with someone who wanted to have sex created a situation in which saying no felt either awkward or “mean.” Having unwanted sex was one way to resolve such a situation. Scholars argue that keeping the situation going in a way that is “normal” and fits expectations is a predominant motive during social interactions (Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1983). We see people engaging in “repair work” or trying to “smooth” over interactions on behalf of others, sometimes even when they have just met someone. Across interviews, accounts of saving face (one’s own or the other’s) and acting in recognizable ways fit into a larger narrative where going along with unwanted sex allowed people to avoid disruption, even at the expense of some personal discomfort.

Together, these findings suggest why campuses cannot rely on court judgments and punishments alone to solve these kinds of cases. Nor should they just shrug them off, telling people they should have been more assertive about their wishes. Instead, as people negotiate these social spaces and changing mores while struggling with increasingly dysfunctional gender expectations, we need to think about how to get a more productive conversation going about how to reconfigure these gender expectations, reducing the pressure people feel to conform to them.

A conundrum: Cases where force is not actually threatened but genuinely feared

I include a final section on the more equivocal cases where people say that they had unwanted sex because they feared that saying no might trigger violence. These cases involved quite a different scenario from the rest of my findings. In situations that were neither physically forceful nor overtly coercive, some women still recalled acquiescing to sex because of the possibility that otherwise the man could overpower them. It was common, for example, for women to reference men’s size, strength, or physical presence when describing unwanted sex, or to recall being aware of these things.

Jackie: “He was physically looming over me. He did what he wanted and didn’t ask me what I wanted. Just that.”

Interviewer: Would you say that sex was unwanted?

Jackie: “Kind of, but I did agree to it so it was consensualish.”

Interviewer: Consensual and wanted?

Jackie: “Less wanted. Consensual but unwanted. There we go….”

Interviewer: So you decided to have sex with him?

Jackie: “Yea. ’Cause he was looming over me.”

-Jackie, 18-year-old freshman (heterosexual)

In Jackie’s retelling of “consensualish” but unwanted sex with a man she met on Tinder, she implies that his physical affect reminded her of his ability to use force, and this was part of the reason she went along with sex. it is not clear whether this “looming” is in fact a threat that he would force her to have sex if she said no. It is possible that his objective size difference just gives her this impression. But perhaps he is, consciously or not, reminding her that he is capable of this. Situations where it is difficult to decipher whether a given gesture is harmful or innocuous have been documented elsewhere in relation to racism and sexism (Gordon and Riger 1989; Jackson 2010). It is precisely this kind of “uncertainty” in the context of structural or historical power differences that reproduces inequality without there being an outright demand. Across interviews, many women reported not knowing whether a man might “snap” as a reason to go along with sex.

This fear is real, and in many cases rational, statistically speaking. However, adjudication processes and court cases will not solve this issue because no force was used or threatened. So, what do these cases imply? It is a conundrum. On the one hand, you can’t prosecute men (it’s usually men) for being so big that they scare someone. On the other hand, given the track record of so many men, you can’t blame a woman or for that matter a smaller man for being afraid to say no, any more than you can expect a black person stopped by a white cop not to respond differently than a white person would, even if the white cop is respectful and turns out to not be a racist.

In fact, I found that this type of unwanted sex also occurred for men having sex with men. For Lincoln, unwanted sex unfolds with a man he meets online.

“On the way I was super scared. I felt like I was going to die in a way. We end up in his apartment, He tries to pour me some wine but I refuse to drink it because I’m not sure what’s in it. And he like keeps on untying my pants and I don’t want it. I was like could we talk first? And he just kept doing it. I didn’t know how to react.”

-Lincoln, 20-year-old sophomore (gay)

Lincoln goes so far as to describe fearing he might die. He is afraid to drink the wine. In his uncertainty, he imagines rape and nonconsensual drugging are things that could happen. Other men who had sex with men described similar scenarios where they were uncertain whether an encounter was unfolding in a way that was dangerous or ordinary. Paradoxically, in their view, sometimes it was better to have unwanted sex than to risk getting forcibly raped.

In my data, heterosexual men did not worry about or even consider the possibility of violent escalation in their accounts, but several women and gay/bisexual men reported that this thought inhibited them calling an end to the encounter or from trying to leave, even in cases where a man had done nothing to indicate that he would use force. This finding has implications for current debates around affirmative consent. Given that this potential for violence may be present, this would suggest that an affirmative consent strategy might be helpful in situations where women or gay/bisexual men are unsure as to whether they are in danger. In such situations, an overt discussion of consent, and greater communication in general, might help reinforce and reaffirm one’s ability to stop or slow an encounter. Perhaps campus-wide discussions are needed to make it clear that this potential for violence can be in the air, and that men need to offer reassurance that they will respect a no.

In closing, it is high time for a multi-pronged strategy that is not just focused on going after predators but also on developing a new erotic culture. Such a shift could include teaching women that being nice doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries while teaching men that they don’t always have to orgasm. These findings also make a good case for the importance of empowerment education, which has been proven to be effective, but is often criticized for just teaching women how to say no, not teaching men to stop raping (Gidycz & Dardis, 2014).

While there is no substitute for getting men to stop raping, my research indicates there is a subcategory of unwanted sex where the man probably would stop pushing if the woman didn’t feel so compelled to be “nice” and if women (and some men too) didn’t subscribe to the idea that a man just can’t stop beyond a certain point of arousal, or that stopping would be cruel. Therefore, empowerment training could be an important tool for women (and some men) to learn how to say no to unwanted sex, even if other work is needed to stop predatory behavior. As part of a multi-pronged strategy, combining empowerment training with messaging (e.g. raising men’s consciousness of the need to offer reassurance) could play a very positive role in reducing unwanted sex.

Jessie V. Ford is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University Jf3179@cumc.columbia.edu