Consent is a hot topic in the #MeToo era, particularly after Babe.net published allegations about actor Aziz Ansari, and the New Yorker’s viral “Cat Person” short story confirmed many women’s complicated relationships with sex. Lots of women, it turns out, feel pressured to have sex when they don’t want to. Even adult film actress and director Stormy Daniels revealed on "60 Minutes" that she had sex with Donald Trump even though she wasn't attracted to him. The line between consensual yet unwanted sex and nonconsensual sex is a thin one indeed. Now, a new study by Heather Hensman Kettrey, a research associate at Vanderbilt University, explains why so many women end up in the situation Daniels described: consenting to have sex with someone when they would really rather not.
Kettrey’s findings suggest that women who prioritize their own pleasure and have agency over their sex lives are less likely to have unwanted sex. Kettrey writes that “pleasure prioritization and sexual agency are associated with lower odds of performing undesired sexual acts to please a partner—and sexual agency is associated with lower odds of succumbing to verbal pressure for intercourse.”
For those well-versed in consent standards, this is isn’t altogether shocking. “Often women are socialized to be accommodating and polite,” sexuality educator Nicole Mazzeo told AlterNet. “A lot of it is politeness, and fear that the other person will be hurt by your rejection.” Heterosexual women who are more aware of this type of socialization can break free from their belief that sex has to focus on the man's pleasure.
The findings of Kettrey's study, which surveyed 7,255 college-aged women, are stunning. Nearly 90 percent of women say they’ve performed undesired sexual acts just to please a partner. Almost 80 percent of women have prioritized a partner’s pleasure over their own.
“The belief that sex is all about fulfilling male desire may set women up to engage in undesired sex for the sole purpose of pleasing a partner,” Kettrey explained. “If a young woman’s desire is not sufficient justification for engaging in sexual activity then her lack of desire in a given situation will not be sufficient justification for refusing sexual activity.”
Kettrey told PsyPost that society still perpetuates the sexist stereotypes that men are more interested in sex than women are, and that women’s desire is unimportant compared to men’s. This can cause both men and women to believe that, for women, sex is a necessary yet undesirable task.
Kettrey and other scholars want to draw attention to these imbalances, as well as reframe studies about sexuality to include women’s desires. Men have historically been the dominant subjects of studies on sexual desire. “I want the average person to question the ways we, as society, talk about masculine/feminine gender roles in sexual relationships,” Kettrey told PsyPost. “Stereotypes about men’s (presumed) strong desire and women’s (presumed) lack of desire are not helpful.”