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Why Do Young Straight Men Have Sex They Don’t Want?

Expectations around masculinity lead college men to go along with unwanted sexual advances from women

Despite popular belief, young straight men don’t always want to have sex.

In fact, depending on the study, somewhere between 6.8 percent, 31 percent and 43 percent of heterosexual men will have unwanted sexual contact in college, and almost always with a female aggressor.

“I think it’s somewhere between 7 and 13 percent — about half the rate of women,” says Jessie Ford, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University, who tells me that number could be as high as 20 percent, depending on how you ask the questions.

Ford asked five questions via an in-class survey when recruiting men at an elite private university for a soon-to-be published study on heterosexual men’s accounts of unwanted sex:

Since you started college…

Have you had sexual intercourse that was physically forced on you?

Has someone tried to physically force you to have sexual intercourse, but you got out of the situation without having intercourse?

Has someone had sexual intercourse with you that you did not want when you were drunk, passed out, asleep, drugged or otherwise incapacitated?

Have you had sexual intercourse that you did not want because someone verbally pressured you?

Have you ever performed oral sex or hand stimulation of a partner to orgasm mainly because you didn’t want to have intercourse?

Ford interviewed 39 men who answered “yes” to at least one of these questions and indicated the experience was with a woman. “It’s complicated,” she admits. “Women don’t ask heterosexual men for their consent during sex. So these men made a range of conscious decisions to just go ahead with it.”

I was curious about the thought process that led to these decisions, so I asked Ford to share with me what her study’s participants had told her as well as an explanation of why these young men hadn’t put a stop to something they’d clearly decided they weren’t interested in doing.

Stopping the sex would’ve been ‘weird.’

Tyler, 18: I didn’t want to be in that position because [sex] still was something that was kind of an emotional thing for me. But then, I also didn’t want to say anything because I thought it would just be kind of weird. It would make the situation awkward.

Jack, 19: She might think I was a little strange [if I stopped having sex]. Like she got rejected… I think she would feel weird or surprised.

Max, 19: I couldn’t really shrug her off or something once she started kissing me in the elevator. That would’ve been weird to me… 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.

Ford: “Sometimes it’s hard to find the words to describe what happened here. So the word ‘weird’ becomes an inclusive term to talk about their experience. One thing they meant by ‘weird’ is ‘awkward.’ They didn’t want things to get uncomfortable, tense and full of conflict. Unwanted sex eased the situation. Another way they used ‘weird’ was to describe something that was actually confusing. For example, ‘This woman wouldn’t leave. She kept hanging around, and it was weird. I’m not used to women acting like that.’”

Losing boners and faking orgasms is better than being known as the guy who turned down sex.

Adam, 21: I even faked an orgasm. That was a first. I didn’t think guys ever had to do that… Even physically like it just wasn’t — it didn’t feel good enough to make me climax. There was just like nothing there for me.

Unnamed: Even if I saw this girl again and she told her friends, “Oh, that guy couldn’t even keep it up,” I could live with that more than her saying like, “That guy is gay, he didn’t even wanna fuck me.”

Ford: “There’s pressure for men to want sex and to perform. That said, it’s considered less of a failure in masculinity to lose an erection than it is to refuse sex. To smoothe the interaction, Adam feigns the most polite exit of all: a proper climax. It serves as a way for Adam and his partner to save face. By doing so, he ends the sex in an acceptable way — an action in line with traditional sexual scripts that dictate that sex ends with male climax. He wasn’t alone either. Three or four of the men in my study mentioned faking orgasms without me even asking about it.”

I’d rather have sex than make her feel bad.

Adam, 21: I could have told her to leave, but I didn’t. Because I guess I didn’t want to be rude. Yea. I’m not very confrontational. I can’t imagine telling her to her face I want her to leave. That would have been harder for me to do [laughs] than going through with it and possibly damaging her. It’s kinda shitty when I think about it.

Greg , 21: I don’t really like to make people feel bad about themselves. Also there is this social pressure that men like sex a lot and women can choose yes or no. So I guess it makes you unmanly if you don’t want to have sex. Maybe, probably.

Tyler, 18: 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. I wanted to stick to the conventional script.

Ford: “A lot of this is about not wanting to hurt feelings, which is something that happens in every normal social interaction. There are so many loaded things that could be interpreted from saying ‘no’ to someone’s face. Adam, for example, didn’t want to hurt her feelings or make her feel stupid, embarrassed or slutty. And so, he’s being polite and doing the work — meaning having sex — so that she won’t be sad, embarrassed, humiliated and/or hurt.”

Sometimes both view it as unwanted sex.

Jeremy, 18: I told her I wasn’t that into last night. She says, “Yeah, I could tell, but that’s what I thought you wanted so I thought I might as well.” I said, “Wait, you thought I was pressuring you?” She says, “Yeah, you were pressuring me!” I don’t think either of us wanted it, but we were in a situation where we didn’t communicate. It wasn’t rape, but it was unwanted.

Ford: “There’s an idea in sociology called ‘interactional smoothing.’ For example, when we interact with someone at a dinner party, we try to keep the interaction smooth so that it’s pleasant and interesting. It’s almost subconscious — i.e., we both laugh at the same joke so the conversation doesn’t become burdened with awkwardness.

“Something similar is happening in this sexual encounter. Jeremy is deciding whether to have sex and go along with it even though he knows he doesn’t want to. On every level, it’s been insinuated that sex is going to happen, so he’s thinking she’s going to feel weird and uncomfortable if it doesn’t. The next morning he found out she was going through the same emotions in her head because she felt guilty that he’d come to visit her to have sex. On every level she was trying to make the encounter smooth, and he was doing the same thing. As a result, they both did something they didn’t want to do. It was a total breakdown in communication.”

And sometimes ‘no’ actually works…

Brent, 21: I do [say no] nicely. I’m like, “Oh, I have to go back to my room.” Or: “I’m really tired.” Sometimes they’re like, “You’re a pussy…” Well, they don’t say that. I don’t know verbatim what they say, but their reactions are something like, “Wow, that’s sad.”

Andy, 21: I’ll straight-up say, “There’s something you should know: We’re not gonna have sex tonight.” I’m not gonna wait until they try to do it and be like “no.” Because if you say it in the moment, they feel bad or get upset. They’re definitely a little surprised by it — that a 20-year-old guy is turning away sex. But I feel like I would rather surprise them as little as possible with that.

Connor, 19: This one girl, we were talking and she was perfectly nice. But then it got to the point where she was grabbing me, grabbing my tie, pulling me in to kiss me. At one point, I was sitting down, and she just sat on my lap straddling me. I had to grab her and be like, “Stop! Get off me!” She was drunk. That was the other reason I didn’t want to hook up with her, because I feel like I need to be equally drunk. I would never want to get with someone completely more messed up than I am. I don’t want to get in trouble. I don’t think it’s right to do, either.

Ford: “There were two specific scenarios in which guys felt they were justified in avoiding unwanted sex: First, when women were perceived as not being attractive enough. You don’t actually gain status for having sex with a girl who’s overweight or “ugly” (this was the language that men used). It’s accepted that even if you are a straight man who wanted sex all the time, you might not want to have sex with someone who’s considered to be not attractive. Second, when the woman was intoxicated. A lot of these guys said something like, ‘It’s not that fun to have someone who is sloppy and doesn’t even know what’s going on. They’re going to give me the worst blowjob of my life. They can’t even kiss. And I’m worried they’re going to throw up on me and in the bed.’ They were also protecting themselves from horror stories they’d heard about getting in trouble for taking advantage of incapacitated women.”