Over the course of their lifetime, girls and women have a lot of unwanted sex.
The term “unwanted sex” is used in many different ways. I’m using it to refer to sexual activities that are seemingly consensual but unwanted. It is so common that in a recent study of sexual pleasure, researchers changed their focus because every participant talked about navigating unwanted sexual experiences. Principal researcher Dr. Emily Thomas notes that “While some women spoke about faking orgasm in positive ways, for instance, as a pleasurable experience that heightened their own arousal, many talked about feigning pleasure in the context of unwanted and unpleasurable sexual experiences.” Another study finds that girls feel less empowered to say “no” to unwanted sex than boys, and this does not vary by race or ethnic group. An older study finds that American women “consent” to higher rates of unwanted sex than women in Russia or Japan.
Unwanted sex has become a part of everyday living, and while it seems harmless on the surface, it actually lays the cultural foundation for rape. When we as a society believe that women are obligated to have sex, even when they don’t actively want to, it adulterates consent. Instead of viewing sexual consent as a two way street, we view it as an exchange where a man has an unspoken right to have sex with a woman unless she actively protests it.
In other words, the norm of unwanted sex in our society sets the consent default to rape.
How and why is unwanted sex reinforced as the norm? First, gendered societal expectations that are taught from a very young age establish men as “pushers” of sex and women as “gatekeepers.” This plays out in numerous scenes in movies and television programs, as well as pornography proper. Secondly, we learn early that women’s sexuality exists for men’s consumption through images of sexually objectified girls and women in popular culture. Cultural acceptance of women as sex objects also establishes men as the great validators of women’s worth. One study finds that women who fear their partners will lose interest in them if they don’t have sex are the most likely to “consent” to unwanted sex. The pusher/gatekeeper roles and the gendered pleasure hierarchy dictate decisions that often entail unwanted sex.
If we want to dismantle the house of rape culture, we have to start by eradicating its foundational pillars – the normalization of women’s sexual objectification, gendered sexual roles, the de-prioritization of women’s sexual pleasure, and unwanted sex.