5 Types of Unwanted Sex and Their Consequences
Research from the Kinsey Institute on coercive and consensual, unwanted sex.
Posted Oct 13, 2019
"I think it is incumbent on all human beings to oppose injustice in every form." —Hugh Masekela
RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, reports sad statistics: 1 in 9 girls, and 1 in 53 boys, undergo sexual assault or abuse from an adult; over 80 percent of victims under 18 are female; and young women between the ages of 16 and 19 are at 4-fold greater risk compared with the general population. RAINN goes on to report that mental health issues are more common among victims, who are 4 times more likely to develop drug abuse or PTSD in adulthood, and 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with major depression later in life.
Societal attitudes about sexual abuse and assault are, as with other forms of trauma, characterized by maladaptive destructive attitudes — victim shaming and blaming, denial and rationalization, stigma, and generally cover-ups to avoid family and institutional consequences and exposure.
Given the continuum of unwanted and coerced sexual behaviors, from active to passive coercion, to intoxication and manipulation, to having unwanted sex to achieve goals or avoid problems, gaining understanding of areas of difference and overlap is critical on several levels: for individuals and their loved ones seeking to understand and deal with their own experiences, for perpetrators seeking to understand their own motives and behaviors, for clinicians, for policy makers, the criminal justice system, and collectively.
Classifying Unwanted Sex
Researchers Kern and Peterson of the Kinsey Institute (2019) conducted research with victims of assault and coerced or unwanted sex to define categories of coerced sexual activity and correlate them with various psychological outcomes, from PTSD to attitudes about oneself and the world, to attributions of blame.
Using participant samples from in-person and online survey respondents, they identified a group of 276 participants who reported one or more experiences of unwanted sex, about 55 percent of whom were women, 4 percent nonbinary, and the remainder men. Ages ranged from 18 to 66, average age of just over 30 years, the majority White (76.8 percent) and heterosexual (80.8 percent). Half were college students.
All participants were provided informed consent and resources to seek help. The study authors note that prior work has established that conducting research of this nature is safe for participants. Narrative reports and questionnaire data were analyzed to distill underlying categories of unwanted sex, and correlate those categories with consequences. This research is intended to clarify prior work in the field and set the stage for future investigation.
Narrative Descriptions of Participants’ Unwanted Sexual Experience: They were asked to discuss “sex that you did not fully want or desire regardless of whether you agreed to it or not”, asked about the kind of sex it was, and whether it was distressing. They were asked to go into as much detail as possible and included what happened before the unwanted sex, who initiated it and how it was started. They were asked to discuss experiences starting at 14 years old to avoid including data on childhood sexual abuse.
PTSD Screener: Participants completed a 4-item screening scale for posttraumatic stress symptoms.
Sexual Victimization Attribution Measure (SVAM): The SVAM looks at attribution of blame from five perspectives: characterological self-blame (it happened because of who I am) behavioral self-blame (it happened because of what I did or did not do), perpetrator blame, situational blame, and societal blame.
Posttraumatic Cognitions Inventory (PTCI): The PCTI looks at global negative thoughts about oneself, global negative thoughts about the world, and self-blame. Participants are asked to consider how unwanted sex affected their broader beliefs. For example, asking how much participants agreed with statements such as “I am a weak person” or “People can’t be trusted”.
Types of Coerced or Unwanted Sex
Researchers found evidence of five overarching situations: actively forced sex, non-resisted physically coerced sex, verbally and situationally coerced sex, non-coerced sex with avoidance motives, and non-coerced sexual with approach motives. They are distinct from one another statistically. Participants can report more than one type corresponding to different experiences.
1. Actively Forced Sex (29.3 percent): This category included what is typically called “rape”, where consent is explicitly refused but sex happens over objection. This included situations where force was actively used to get the person to have sex (e.g. grossly pushed into a position), sex was forced physically in spite of objection (e.g. going ahead with sex after being told to stop), or where physical violence was threatened to coerce sex.
In terms of consequences, as shown in prior research actively forced sex was associated with greater PTSD symptoms and consequences overall versus other categories. Perpetrator blame was highest in this group as were average negative thoughts about oneself and the world. Blaming society was also stronger for this category. Actively forced sex, involving physical violence, abject helplessness and intimidation, represents, on average, the worst form of coerced sex. However, this does not diminish the impact and meaning of other forms of coerced and unwanted sex, though it does account for the great costs associated with rape.
2. Non-resisted Physically Coerced Sex (11.9 percent): These are situations where one either could not resist or did not have a chance to do so. It includes situations where the person was intoxicated from alcohol or drugs, where they were asleep when sex was initiated, or when a sex act was initiated by surprise even if the person was awake and unintoxicated (e.g. during sex, changing from one penetrative sexual behavior to another without warning). People in this group attributed greater situational blame and expressed greater negative thoughts about the world.
3. Verbally and Situationally Coerced Sex (31.8 percent): This category refers to times when sex occurs without physical force or coercion, but also without verbal consent, referring to when the person was persuaded or manipulated into sex after saying “no” or being uninterested. Behaviors described included: pressuring, being mean or hurting feelings, saying they’d break up if they didn’t have sex, and showing anger upon sex refusal. Examples included badgering for sex, using guilt to manipulate, and in a few cases doing something to manipulate the circumstances, for example trapping the person in an apartment or by taking car keys, and refusing the let them go (without explicit physical coercion) until they had sex. Perpetrator blame was higher in this group.
4. Non-coerced Sex with Avoidance Motives (19.5 percent): These are situations in which there is unwanted sex without coercion, but people agreed to sex in order to avoid a negative consequence (perceived or actual) or prevent something unwanted. Examples included agreeing to sex to protect someone’s feelings or to avoid interpersonal conflict or confrontation.
5. Non-coerced Sex with Approach Motives (7.2 percent): These are situations where sex is unwanted and without coercion, but people agree to sex to pursue a positive outcome. Examples included improving the partner’s mood or providing pleasure (without being nagged or guilt-tripped), or achieve a relationship outcome (e.g. keep sex going in the future even if unwanted at that moment, help the overall relationship by providing sex, etc.).
Toward Positive Change
It’s important to understand the differences among types of unwanted sex. Actively forced sex and non-resisted physically coerced sex overlap, but differ in the impact they have, in large part because it does not involve the same intensity of physical violence and associated experiences of fear and powerlessness.
In the case of PTSD, the level of threat to life and limb is highest with actively forced sex. Some forms of coercion are more insidious, involving emotional manipulation and psychological pressure. Being aware of these tactics makes them less likely to succeed, as being aware of gaslighting can take away its power.
For people who decide to have sex even when they don’t want to, but who aren’t under pressure, understanding different motives is important to better evaluate whether deciding to have unwanted sex is, in fact, the only or best way to address the positive and negative outcomes people hold in mind. Presumably, this is more often one-sided, suggesting a lack of communication about sex and relationship.
Discussion with the other person could surface underlying issues, representing the risk of triggering potential conflict while offering opportunities for dialogue and growth. Bringing up concerns is likely perceived as more problematic than “just having sex”. Given how complicated sex is in term of relationships and societal mores, it's not so easy to talk about it openly.
It’s important to think about the practical consequences of having unwanted sex. For example, if one partner consistently is engaging in unwanted sex, it is may exacerbate relationship issues over time, depending on how they feel about doing that, how they cope with it, and what the other partner notices.
Sexual assault and abuse remain unacceptably commonplace. It is an unwell norm. As with other forms of trauma that do the most damage, for example, adverse childhood experiences, focusing efforts on areas with the greatest burden can help the most people. This research provides a framework for further understanding and action.
National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673)
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Sara G. Kern & Zoë D. Peterson (2019): From Freewill to Force: Examining Types of Coercion and Psychological Outcomes in Unwanted Sex, The Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2019.1671302