Where "No" means "Yes, but I can't afford for you to think I'm easy"

A new study explores a culture of sexual coercion in Brazil.

Published May 17, 2006 3:16PM (EDT)

"Sexual debut": It's the neutral term sex researchers use in place of, say, "loss of maidenhead." (To me, though, it sounds like a party, perhaps even the opposite of a purity ball.) But this neutral term apparently also carries assumptions. The results of a new study published in Guttmacher's Family Planning Perspectives journal and titled "Gender Role Beliefs at Sexual Debut: Qualitative Evidence From Two Brazilian Cities," according to its authors, "challenge the implicit assumption of the majority of quantitative studies that first sexual intercourse, an oft-used demographic benchmark, is a wanted and mutually agreed-upon experience in which partners have more or less equal control." The report shows how deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about men and women can make their sexual debuts -- and later experiences -- well, anything but a party.

A primary observation of the study was that in these cities (Recife and Belo Horizonte, where researchers conducted extensive focus groups with low- and middle-income women ages 18-21 and 30-39), "No" may often mean "Yes, but I have to go through the motions of saying 'no' so that you don't think I'm sexually experienced and so I don't interfere with the important ritual of the male 'conquista.'" Said one participant: "Even if she wants him to continue, for her to be conquered, she says, "No, no, no," and lets him come and grab her so that he doesn't think that she's easy, you know."

"Saying no to sex under all circumstances also feeds the social belief that women's refusals of sexual advances are insincere and therefore need not be taken seriously," write the researchers. You think?

Further, "reputation" is more than a matter of high school angst. In a society that -- as you see -- circumscribes female autonomy to begin with, well, it helps to have a man around. "In Brazil, a man's support and protection greatly increases women's access to social status, financial well-being and protection from other men's sexual advances in the public sphere," say the researchers. (Note: by "social status," they mean social acceptance and stability, not, say, appearance on the society page.)

And the thing is, participants said, there are meninas para namorar, and there are meninas para casar -- girls you date, and girls you marry. (They're describing their culture, not making their own whore/Madonna distinctions. "A woman walks by in little shorts and a plunging neckline, [the boys say:] 'That's tasty.' A girl walks by nicely made-up, [and the boys say:] 'That's the woman of my dreams.'") It's not just that women don't want to be "seen as sluts" -- it's that their hopes for stability, and possibly even safety, rest largely on being a menina para casar.

Many women also said "yes" to sex for fear that to say no -- and mean it -- would make him leave, or worse, make him hurt her. "The perception of negative consequences for not having sex with their partner was so pervasive that women felt pressure to engage in sexual intercourse even when their partner did not express any threat," the researchers note. "The beliefs that men need sex and will abandon or abuse their partner if she does not provide it create an environment in which sexual coercion of women is the rule rather than the exception."

The authors' conclusions? Basically, that researchers should explore the cultural context of "sexual debut" more thoroughly, and that the men and women in question could benefit from deprogramming at an early age. "It is critical that future research on sexual intercourse, not only at debut but throughout the life course, take into account the fact that women may be having sex out of fear because they are functioning under certain culturally informed assumptions that limit their ability to control the sexual situation," they say. "Fostering a more egalitarian model of sexual behavior that allows both women and men to choose whether to have intercourse will go a long way toward decreasing unwanted sexual experiences."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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