Men's Reactions to Female Sexual Coercion

Mar 01, 2001

Men's Reactions to Female Sexual Coercion

One of the long-standing myths about sexual coercion is that a woman cannot make a man have sex with her. Prevailing stereotypes about women's physical weakness, disinterest in sex, sex-role passiveness and gentle nature lead many people to assume that women are not capable of such an act (Anderson and Struckman-Johnson, 1998). In reality, research has shown that substantial numbers of men are subjected to the sexually aggressive behavior of female strangers, acquaintances and lovers.

Prevalence

Over a decade ago, we found that 16% of a sample of 268 men at a small Midwestern university reported that they had been forced to have sexual intercourse on a date (Struckman-Johnson, 1988.) A few years later, we documented that 30% of a sample of 204 college men had experienced an incident of pressured or forced sexual contact with a female perpetrator. For 20% of the men, the incident resulted in sexual intercourse (Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson, 1994). In a replication of this survey, 43% of 318 men reported having had at least one coercive sexual experience with a woman since the age of 16. The incident culminated in sexual intercourse for 27% of the men (Anderson and Struckman-Johnson, 1998).

Other researchers have reported similar findings. Lottes (1991) reported that 24% of 171 men at an Eastern college had been coerced into sexual intercourse. Fiebert and Tucci (1998) found that 24% of a sample of 182 college men in California had unwanted sex with an insistent woman in the past five years. In a survey of two Canadian universities, O'Sullivan et al. (1998) reported that 24% of 156 men had experienced some type of sexual coercion in heterosexual dating. Larimer et al. (1999) found that 21% of a sample of 165 fraternity men at a Western college experienced unwanted sexual contact. Going beyond the college campus, Isely and Gehrenbeck-Shim (1999) documented that 6% of 3,635 male rape victims requesting assistance at 172 agencies had been assaulted by a woman.

Dynamics

How does a woman accomplish sexual coercion of an adolescent or adult male? Our research suggests that women are most likely to use psychological pressure such as verbal pleading and arguments, emotional blackmail, and deception. Another common approach of sexually aggressive women is to take advantage of a man's intoxicated state. A typical scenario, according to male victims, involves a predatory woman who encounters an inebriated man (or contributes to his drinking) and pursues him until he falls asleep or passes out. The woman then manually or orally stimulates him to erection and mounts him for sexual intercourse.

Sexually aggressive women only occasionally resort to force tactics, which we define as intimidation with size, threats of harm including blackmail, physical restraint, physical harm or use of a weapon. In our surveys, about 12% or less of male victims reported that a woman used force against them, but in most cases, the force was not extreme. Women locked men into cars, blocked their retreat from a room, grabbed at them, threw them down on beds and floors, sat on them, and tied them up. In some instances, women pinched, slapped and hit men who tried to stop their advances. A few men reported that women blackmailed them into having sex by threatening to divulge damaging information to parents, employers or girlfriends.

Reactions

Men's strong negative reactions to sexual coercion by another man have been well documented (Myers, 1989; Scarce, 1997). Several researchers have described men's reactions to sexual assault by perpetrators who included both men and women (King and Woollett, 1997; Sorenson and Siegel, 1992).

Only a few studies have exclusively examined the effects of female sexual coercion of adult men. The classic work is that of Sarrel and Masters (1982) who discussed the emotional impact on 11 men who had been sexually molested by females. In the course of counseling for sexual problems, the men revealed recent and past incidents of forcible rape, abuse by a baby-sitter, incest and assault by a dominant woman. The authors documented a posttraumatic reaction involving depression and sexual aversion and dysfunction.

Most of the information about male reactions to female sexual coercion comes from surveys of college men. Larimer et al. (1999) discovered that fraternity men who had experienced sexual coercion had more depressive symptoms, more alcohol use and more alcohol-related problems than fraternity men who had not been sexually coerced. It was not known whether these states were caused by the coercion experience. O'Sullivan et al. (1998) found that male victims had a range of positive to negative reactions to unwanted sexual contact at the time it happened. Nearly 40% of male victims reported being not at all upset, whereas 17% were extremely upset at the time of the incident. One-fifth of the men indicated that the incident decreased their involvement in social activities, and 19% had impairment of academic functioning.

Our research also revealed that college men have mixed reactions to female sexual coercion. In the 1988 study, 21 male victims were asked to categorize how they felt about being forced to have sexual intercourse at the time it happened (Struckman-Johnson, 1988). Twenty-five percent said they felt good, 50% felt neutral and 25% felt bad. One-fifth of the victims reported that long-term effects had occurred. In our 1994 study, almost half of the male victims rated the incident as having no negative impact, whereas 23% rated the negative impact in the moderate to severe range (Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson, 1994). We found no differences in sexual self-esteem between men with and without coercion experience. In a similar survey in 1998, we determined that 33% of male victims rated the incident as having no effect, 30% were mildly to moderately upset, and 14% had a severe negative effect (Anderson and Struckman-Johnson, 1998). Our general conclusion is that at least one out of five men has a strong negative reaction to sexual coercion from a woman.

We speculate that many men are not upset by female sexual coercion because the event is "sex-role congruent." According to cultural scripts, men are expected to initiate and to pursue ever-increasing levels of sexual intimacy with female partners. Therefore, when a man is confronted with a sexually aggressive woman, he is likely to view it as a positive opportunity to have sex, not a violation of will (Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson, 1996). O'Sullivan et al. (1998) suggested that female sexual coercion may even enhance a man's reputation and thus prevent negative effects. Zweig et al. (1997) added that a man's sexual script may protect him from feeling negatively about himself because he had sex. Another protective factor is men's size and physical strength-they may feel that they have little to fear from a smaller, weaker female perpetrator. It is also possible that men deny or minimize their victimization because of masculine standards to be self-reliant (Struckman-Johnson, 1991).

In what situations, then, are men distressed by female sexual coercion? Foremost, we have found that a man is likely to be greatly upset when a woman uses physical restraint against him. Even if the man knows that he can escape, he is still likely to feel shocked, confused and possibly frightened by a woman's use of force. Men are also likely to have a strong negative reaction when they are exploited by a woman while they are intoxicated, especially if the woman is unattractive. Dozens of men in this situation have told us how upsetting it was to be unable to physically stop the sexual interaction. Others resented the woman for taking away their right to choose who they would have sex with.

A third distressing circumstance is when a young man with conservative sexual standards loses his virginity to a sexually coercive woman, who is usually older. Numerous young men in our surveys have reported that this type of incident prevented them from having their "first time" with a partner who was specially chosen and well-loved. Another upsetting circumstance is one in which a sexually aggressive woman causes a man to betray another woman in his life.

Finally, men tend to be negatively affected when the female perpetrator is a powerful authority figure. For example, in a recent study, we found that some men in prison were profoundly upset when female staff coerced them into sexual activity (Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson, 2000).

In our research, we have not systematically assessed the nature of psychological trauma experienced by male victims. Through written survey comments and interviews, however, we have found that men who are very upset by an incident of female sexual coercion are likely to experience subsequent distrust and wariness around women and to have relationship difficulties.

Much research suggests that men who are sexually coerced by either a woman or a man are unlikely to report the incident to the police, tend not to reveal the sexual incident if they seek medical treatment, and are unlikely to seek psychological support or therapy for subsequent emotional problems (Pino and Meier, 1999; Sorenson and Siegel, 1992.) Psychiatric and medical professionals are encouraged to address this hidden victimization by asking their male clients if sexual assault has occurred in their past and, if so, to provide or refer them to appropriate treatment.

References:

References


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2.

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3.

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4.

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