Yes, Men Have Unwanted Sex, Too
The sexual script for men is just as disturbing — and restricting — as the one for women
In the past weeks we’ve seen the second women’s march and a spirited discussion about an account of “Grace,” a young woman whose date with comedian Aziz Ansari went horribly awry in her eyes, from being “by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had,” to unwanted sex — or what she considers sexual assault.
What she describes — a man repeatedly pushing sex without noticing (or without caring about) what she wants — is something many, many women have experienced in encounters with men. And while few men have committed the litany of misdeeds of which (Harvey) Weinstein has been accused, countless men have likely behaved as Grace says Ansari did — focusing on their own desires without recognizing what their partner wants.
The danger of believing men ‘always’ want sex
I have been with men like that, for sure, and had my own #MeToo experience. Still, as the mom of two young men, I wondered if men have ever felt similar pressures from women to have unwanted sex, to have to “perform” and whether the belief that men always want sex has put men and women at a disadvantage.
To a certain extent, that appears to be true.
The sexual script for men is just as disturbing — and restricting — as the one for women. As a study headed by N. Tatiana Masters indicates:
traditional sexual scripts for men have them desiring sex, not necessarily being desired, having strong “sex drives,” frequently being the ones to initiate sex and push it to the next level of intimacy, and needing to be sexually skilled.
That puts pressure on men, too, in ways we may not cut them slack for, according to a study headed by Sarah Hunter Murray:
most men indicated that their sexual desire was sometimes feigned in order to appear more masculine or reduce the chance of upsetting their female partner. This was due to a felt social pressure to demonstrate certain actions and behaviours that were consistent with traditional sexual scripts and norms. The findings from this study suggest that men’s sexual desire is more complex and relational than previous theoretical models and past research suggest.”
Pressure to be ‘masculine’
In another study, sociologist Jessie Ford found that men are constrained by a narrow view of masculinity:
men consent to unwanted sex because accepting all opportunities for sexual activity is a widely accepted way to perform masculinity. … There is also a tendency — one that likely applies to women as well as to men — that once a sexual interaction starts with a partner who seems to want sex, the desire to keep the exchange on an even keel eventually facilitates unwanted sex.”
Put all these studies together and it’s hard not to have a broader understanding of what men think they should and shouldn’t be like around women. We tend to think of women as the only ones getting bombarded by messages in the media that focus on their hotness, but men aren’t immune. They, too, are influenced to focus on sex by popular culture such as music videos that portray men surrounded by half-naked women and hearing other men boast about frequent sexual encounters.
Just like “Grace” struggled to tell Ansari a definitive “No,” Murray’s research indicates that men often fear that if they reject sex with their partner, “she would take it personally. And even if she didn’t take it personally, some men indicated that saying no would still feel like doing something ‘wrong.’”
Author and therapist Jed Diamond says that, beside pleasure, sex offers men a way to feel safe and nurtured:
“Always wanting sex” is part of the male persona we wear to show we’re manly. What we really want is a safe harbor where we can take refuge, relax, and be cared for. In other words, we want the feeling of being nurtured that most of us didn’t get enough of when we were children. But admitting these needs makes us feel like little boys, not big strong men.
How did we get so screwed up?
Many of us see men as being more likely than women to prefer recreational sex, to value sex over relationships, to be “players” wanting no-strings sex and to seek multiple partners — and to a certain extent and in some instances, that may be true. But it’s harmful to lump all men into that narrow sexual script. In fact, researchers found that many young men today “seemed to desire or to enact very different scripts than those they cited as cultural norms.”
Let’s offer men different scripts, too, so they can be freed from the narrow definitions of what it means to “be a man.” And, as a matter of fact, let’s stop worrying about what “real men” and “real women” are, and let’s talk about what it is to be a kind, loving and respectful human — to ourselves and each other.