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Beyond Awkward: The Menace of Unwanted Sexual Contact

Tales of first sex are too often tales of intimidation and dread.

Source: Pexels

I have been teaching a human sexuality class for many years at my university. One of the best aspects of teaching, in general, is that you get to learn from your students. Teaching about sex, specifically, is often uniquely instructive. I have learned much from my students over the years about their struggles, their hopes and fears, and their trials and errors as they undertake their sexual journeys.

In class, I try to challenge the students to face their discomfort, prejudices, and fears around sex, make peace with their own curiosity and allow themselves to learn about sex, speak frankly and think more deeply about it, and enjoy it more fully and safely, within their value systems and without shame.

A few years ago, I decided to include a storytelling activity as part of the syllabus. The task is straightforward: Students are asked to tell a 5-minute personal story that has to do with sexuality, broadly defined. The story has to be true, something they have experienced or witnessed; they are to speak at their level of comfort, so both "hardcore" (explicit sex) and "softcore" (romance) topics and language are acceptable; students must tell the story, rather than merely read it from notes or PowerPoint; the identity of others in the story must be protected (unless they gave consent); and at the end, this being a university, the students need to share a lesson they’ve learned from their experience. Individual performances are not graded. Everyone who tells a story gets the grade points.

I approached this assignment with some trepidation at first. And my students, upon hearing about it early on in the semester, often react with surprise and some anxiety. I explain that those who can’t do the assignment may opt for an alternative, written one that does not involve speaking in front of an audience. But I challenge them to challenge themselves to face their fears and share their stories and life lessons with their peers.

Throughout the semester, we work hard in class to create an atmosphere of openness and trust and a culture of mutual support and respect. So, by the time we get to the final week and the presentations, students, by and large, have grown more comfortable with each other, and with talking frankly about sex. Most of my students opt to do the presentation.

The great surprise, for me (and perhaps for them), has been how touching, moving and instructive many of the stories have been, and how much the students end up enjoying and valuing the exercise, both as storytellers and as listeners. The class is alive with honest, often raw emotions during storytelling. There’s laughter and there are tears. In their class evaluations, students routinely rate this portion of the class as the best and most memorable.

Over the years, I’ve noticed certain themes around which most stories tend to cluster. Sexual gaffes and blunders born of inexperience, anxiety, or excitement are common: A student who took the term "blowjob" literally and blew air on a partner’s penis when he asked for one; a student who broke his nose making a sex tape with his girlfriend, etc. Stories of embarrassing encounters with parents are also a staple: Having to explain a large box of lube that arrived at the parents’ address; sex in the kitchen interrupted by a shotgun-wielding father, and so on. Sexual derring-do and experimentation of all sorts are quite common (sex on the beach, it turns out, is often a bad idea, as is a threesome in a car), as are stories of young love and heartbreak: the first kiss, the cheating boyfriend, the summer fling (pro tip: if you break up with the young Italian Mafioso, you may end up finding a dead deer in your driveway).

This semester, however, I noticed another theme, emerging particularly from the stories of many of the women in class: it was a theme of ominous discomfort, of intimidation and dread, of unwanted sexual contact. Storytellers made repeated mention of the awkward feeling of not knowing what to do, what one does, when an encounter—in a car or a room or a back alley with a friend, a co-worker, a classmate—turns overtly and expressly sexual, often abruptly. Many of the women spoke of deciding to "go along" with demands or requests for sex in order to "get it over with," or out of pity, or peer pressure, or just due to an inability to form and articulate, in real time, a response adequate to the situation. As these stories were being told, a murmur of acknowledgment rose from the audience. Everyone knew what these students were talking about.

It seemed evident to me in these stories that we have not yet as a culture developed a vocabulary, and the requisite sexual socialization processes, to help young people navigate these moments when the question of sex—not in theory or in the abstract, but in practice, in the concrete—is raised between two (or more) people. We have not developed a clear social script for that encounter. Thus, most young people in this situation enter a realm of confusion and crossed signals, which is rife with the potential for misunderstanding and failure.

Granted, these kinds of dreadful early experiences are not always traumatic. Young people are by and large resilient, and not every troubled or failed sexual encounter constitutes a trauma. Much of life—sexual and otherwise—is learning from failures and mistakes. Yet it’s also true that first impressions matter, and that how we are initiated into the world of sex may in some nontrivial way color our whole journey. Research, in fact, paints a fairly clear picture in this regard. For example, Harvard researcher Laura Hawks and her colleagues, in a recent cross-sectional, nationally representative study of 13,310 American women aged 18 to 44, found that “6.5 percent reported forced sexual initiation (mean age at forced sexual initiation, 15.6 years).” The researchers also found that, after controlling for demographic variables, these encounters uniquely predicted a host of “adverse reproductive, gynecologic, and general health outcomes,” including unwanted first pregnancy or abortion, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, problems with ovulation or menstruation as well as more illicit drug use, overall poor health, and difficulty completing tasks owing to a physical or mental health condition.

Sexual intimidation and coercion, of course, are not reserved for first encounters, and neither are their adverse effects. Multiple studies have documented the high prevalence of unwanted sexual contact during the college years (see here for a review) and beyond. According to CDC data from 2015, “an estimated 43.9 percent of women… experienced… sexual violence during their lifetimes, including… sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences.” A 2002 study by Kathleen Basile of Georgia State University, using a 1997 national probability sample, revealed that 34 percent of women were victims of some type of sexual coercion with a husband or partner in their lifetime. As in my students’ stories, the women in this study reported multiple reasons for having unwanted sex with a current spouse or partner, including sex in return for a partner’s spending money on them, because they thought it was their “duty,” or after the partner begged, pleaded with, or bullied them.

The picture emerging from these data is rather grim. It appears that in the U.S., the pattern of sexual ignorance, intimidation, and coercion, introduced and established early, becomes even more prevalent and entrenched with time. In the least, one feels compelled to note that our cultural milieu—where looking sexy is valued, but being sexual is devalued; where sexual images and words are used to sell things, distract, scare, or get people off, but not to educate or enlighten; where youngsters are taught that the right way to manage their desire is to deny it and that finding pleasure in their bodies is bad—may be socializing young people into a rather cruel and exploitative sexual sphere, where the most vulnerable are given the least sufficient tools for coping and assigned the most blame when things go wrong.