New report outlines sexual coercion by girls

Unwanted sexual coercion is often framed as a female problem with male perpetrators, however, a new report published in the journal 'Psychology of Men & Masculinity' asserts that unwanted sexual encounters – with females perpetrators – is not uncommon among young men ages 16-24.

Tim Kimzey/Spartanburg Herald-Journal/AP/FILE
T-shirts display messages on the Clothesline Project at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. The project addresses rape and domestic violence, with students painting empowering messages against sexual assault and violence on T-shirts, which are displayed on a clothesline in the middle of the quad at the campus on Feb. 20.

Campaigns targeting young women to warn and protect them against unwanted sexual encounters are prevalent, and often a hot topic for parents raising girls. As these campaigns educate teens and young adults about sexual aggressors, boys and men are most often framed as the perpetrators.

However, a report published last week in the journal “Psychology of Men & Masculinity” sheds light on the pressures that young men also face when it comes to sexual relationships. According to the report, 43 percent of high school boys and college-aged men reported having an unwanted sexual experiences, with females as the lead perpetrators in sexual coercion.

These findings could open the door for parents of boys to talk with their sons about unwanted sexual advances, as well as outline what does count as aggressive sexual coercion, which studies have shown can lead to risky sexual behavior, unhealthy perspectives on romantic relationships, and even substance abuse.

"Sexual victimization continues to be a pervasive problem in the United States, but the victimization of men is rarely explored," says lead author Bryana H. French, an assistant professor of education at the University of Missouri, in a statement about the report. "Our findings can help lead to better prevention by identifying the various types of coercion that men face and by acknowledging women as perpetrators against men.”

Of those men surveyed who had admitted to an unwanted sexual experiences, 95 percent said that a female acquaintance was the aggressor, and described females as using, among other things, "seductive, and peer pressure tactics" to coerce partners into unwanted encounters. 

According to the report, of 284 US high school and college students, ranging in age from 14 to 26, who responded to the survey about unwanted sexual encounters: 

  • 18 percent reported sexual coercion by physical force; 
  • 31 percent said they were verbally coerced; 
  • 26 percent described unwanted seduction by sexual behaviors; and 
  • 7 percent said they were compelled after being given alcohol or drugs. 

As outlined by the report, sexual coercion included: verbal, substance, seduction, and physical coercion. Quoting earlier studies, the report defined sexual coercion as the use of "physical force, harm, authority, blackmail, verbal persuasion, manipulation, pressure, or even alcohol or drugs used for the advancement of sexual behavior.” 

Of those surveyed, half of the students admitted that coercion led to intercourse, 10 percent reported an attempt to have intercourse, and 40 percent said the result of coercion was kissing or fondling.

Observations in the report also included that while more psychological distress is associated with what are considered "forcible rape" cases, verbal and substance coercion leading to unwanted sexual encounters were also associated with psychological distress. In particular, forms of "substance coercion" – using alcohol or drugs to impair a partner's judgment – was also associated with sexual risk-taking, such as not using a condom. 

The authors of the report write in their findings that there is a need for further scientific study of this aspect of sexual relationships, in an effort to better define the line between sexual seduction and sexual coercion.

While this study is on the leading edge of research into this angle of sexual coercion, it does raise a unique perspective and gives parents of young men more of an opening to talk about different forms of risky sexual behavior and peer pressures relating to sex.

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