Heterosexual Men's Accounts of Unwanted Sex

“Going with the Flow”: How College Men’s Experiences of Unwanted Sex are Produced by Gendered Interactional Pressures

While scholars are giving greater attention than previously to sexual assault against women, they have ignored the fact that men report unwanted sex as well. This article examines 39 heterosexual men’s narratives about their experience of unwanted sex in college. My analysis of these data shows how unwanted sex with women is interactionally produced through a process where men seek to save face and to make sense to others. Unwanted sex relates not only to interactional processes, but also to the content of what is considered acceptable behavior in heterosexual interactions. That is, cultural norms governing gender provide the content for what allows a man to save face, and for his actions to make sense to a female partner. In particular, men consent to unwanted sex because accepting all opportunities for sexual activity is a widely accepted way to perform masculinity. Findings also show that men conduct their sex lives in the shadow of presumed gendered reputational consequences. They fear ridicule if stories are told portraying them as the kind of man who does not jump at any opportunity for sex with an attractive woman. Moreover, it seems that women, as arbitrators of men’s sense of self, may play an important role in policing masculinity and upholding gender expectations, at least in undergraduate sexual cultures. Amidst current attention to sexual assault on college campuses, I argue for a closer look at the importance of interaction and the implicit gendered rules of what is considered acceptable and masculine in heterosexual interaction.

About the Author

Jessie V. Ford is a PhD candidate at New York University. Her interests include gender, sexuality and public health. She is particularly interested in the ways that gender inequality is embedded in the sexuality of young adults.