While the phenomenon of sexual coercion in intimate relationships has been acknowledged for several decades, for the most part the research that has addressed it has focused almost exclusively upon males as perpetrators and females as victims. Sexual perpetration committed by women, especially against men, is often not taken seriously in contemporary American culture. Indeed, rape laws in the United States were based upon English laws that defined rape in terms of the sexual knowledge of a woman against her will and by force. Specifically, until fairly recently, for a behavior to be considered rape, it had to be perpetrated by a male against a female; it had to be extramarital; it had to involve the penetration of the vagina by the penis; and it had to involve force (Dixon 1991). Thus, the concept of female-perpetrated rape or sexual aggression was foreign in the legal community. The recognition of female-perpetrated sexual aggression by the research community was almost entirely confined to the study of that which occurred in lesbian relationships. More than that, however, women’s sexual coercion of men has often been treated as a topic of humor in contemporary culture. Few people are willing to acknowledge that men can be victims of sexual aggression perpetrated at the hands of women. Likewise, the topic has been neglected even among researchers who did not take the victimization experiences of men seriously or did not consider the phenomenon to be common enough to warrant empirical investigation.
This pattern began to change more recently with a handful of studies that have portrayed men as victims of unwanted sexual coercion by women. Nevertheless, many people remain skeptical that women are capable of physical aggression unless it is in the context of self-protection, let alone that they are capable of sexual coercion of male partners (Struckman-Johnson and Anderson 1998). However, a substantial number of research projects have emerged challenging the notion that women are not physically aggressive. Specifically, since the mid-1990s, a number of researchers have begun to demonstrate that women can and do coerce male partners sexually as well (Fiebert and Osborn 2001; Waldner-Haugrud and Magruder 1995).
Because it is important to recognize that women can assume the role of perpetrator in sexually coercive encounters and because this role has been ignored by many researchers, Stuckman-Johnson and Anderson (1998) argue that it is important that women and men be studied as both potential perpetrators as well as victims. To not explore the phenomenon of women as perpetrators and men as victims of sexual coercion ignores the potentially harmful effects of such experiences and implies that the experiences of the victim are not valid (Muehlenhard 1998). Consequently, the purpose of this research paper is to examine the phenomenon of female-perpetrated sexual coercion, especially against men, and to identify factors associated with such perpetration.
The Myth That a Woman Cannot Be a Perpetrator
For some time, research on sexual coercion has perpetuated the myth that women are victims and men are perpetrators in sexually coercive encounters. This myth is perpetuated by a number of other myths and misconceptions. These include the idea that women have low sex drives, are less likely to be sexually deviant, are primarily responsible for controlling sexual activity, and do not have the size, strength, or ability to force a man to have sexual relations (cf. Finkelhor 1979). Furthermore, many believe that it would be impossible for a woman to force a man to have unwanted sexual contact with her because he would not be able to develop an erection. However, men can be sexually aroused by physical stimulation or even fear (Sarrel and Masters 1982). Moreover, unwanted sexual contact may include activities other than intercourse (Struckman-Johnson and Anderson 1998).
While some may believe that women cannot be perpetrators and men cannot be victims, there may be other explanations for the reluctance of individuals and groups to acknowledge women as perpetrators. The politics surrounding the decision to study sexual aggression and perpetration by gender are indeed interesting. First, it is important to emphasize that ignoring the experiences of men as victims of sexual perpetration committed by women delegitimizes their experiences. Sexual perpetration against men, like that against women, is grounded in power differentials. While society at large may be patriarchal, not only do men who have been victimized in this manner have few places to which they can turn for assistance, but the neglect of the topic through systematic sampling bias by selecting only women to study symbolically sends the message that their experiences are insignificant. Second, there seems to be a double standard regarding what is acceptable behavior as well as how sexual aggression is conceptualized methodologically by researchers. For example, females may be allowed to be more assertive than males without being considered deviant if the encounter is motivated by intimacy and romance. At the same time, the same behaviors committed by males may be perceived as coercive or aggressive and motivated by power and control. It is plausible that the lack of concern about the sexually assertive behaviors of women is the result of society viewing women as less threatening than men (Struckman- Johnson and Anderson 1998), which in turn continues to symbolically subordinate women. Third, researchers may operationalize sexual assault by asking if one has ever been forced to have sexual relations when one did not want to by being given drugs or alcohol. In some cases, this may be defined through the instruments that are used. For instance, use of the Sexual Experiences Survey (Koss and Oros 1982) is common in the study of sexual coercion. Research relying upon this measure asks women to answer questions about their victimization experiences, while men are asked to answer questions about their perpetration experiences. Thus, the assumption is that women are victims and men are perpetrators, but not vice versa. Still other researchers may ask men about their victimization experiences but emphasize the incidence of female victimization. By extension, there is a tendency to consider only penile-vaginal intercourse as real sex and therefore only penile-vaginal sexual aggression as real sexual aggression (Chalker 1994). Finally, when research on sexual aggression is limited solely to the experiences of men as perpetrators and women as victims, researchers are symbolically perpetuating traditional gender roles (Muehlenhard 1998).
Prevalence and Incidence
Existing literature reveals that women are more fearful of becoming victims of sexual aggression than are men and that those fears cause them to restrict their behaviors (Gordon and Riger 1989). The fears of women are based upon reality. Many empirical studies have demonstrated that women are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault and coercion as adolescents and adults. Similarly, individuals, both male and female, who were sexually victimized as children are more likely to be sexually victimized again as adolescents or adults and to report victimizing others (Brenner 1994).
One of the earliest studies of sexual coercion by women was conducted by Story (1986), who studied college women at a university in Iowa. While rates of sexual coercion perpetrated by women were lower than those typically found for coercion by men, she showed that 10 percent of the females in her college sample reported that they had forced some form of sexual intimacy. Nearly 4 percent reported that they had forced a partner to engage in sexual intercourse.
Similarly, Anderson (1998), in a study of nearly 500 college females, discovered that more than 40 percent had experienced some form of sexual victimization in the past, that between 26 percent and 43 percent had engaged in behaviors in order to obtain sex that would be defined as coercive if applied to male respondents, and that 26 percent to 36 percent of them had engaged in behaviors defined as abusive. According to Anderson, approximately 20 percent of the women in the sample reported using physical force, while more than 25 percent used the threat of physical force. Surprisingly, nearly 10 percent reported using a weapon to force their partner to engage in sex. Clearly, while the numbers of empirical research studies addressing the sexual aggression perpetration by women are not great, the results of these point to the need for increased attention.
In a study of 881 college students in 2001, Jasinski and Dietz found similar results using the Revised Conflict Tactics Scales to measure sexual coercion and assault. While males in the sample reported a statistically significant higher rate of perpetrating both minor and severe forms of sexual coercion against their partners than did females, 20 percent of females in the sample reported that they had committed at least one type of minor sexual coercion and 4 percent of females reported that they had committed at least one act of severe sexual coercion or assault in the year preceding the survey. Interestingly, those females who reported that they had engaged in sexually coercive behaviors were also likely to report perpetration of other types of physical and psychological aggression as well. In addition, they were more likely than their nonsexually coercive counterparts to report being victims of sexual coercion or assault as well as psychological or physical aggression. They also reported being less committed to the relationship within which the coercion had occurred. Finally, in a study of 248 women, Krahe, Moller, and Waizenhofer (2003) reported that nearly 10 percent of their sample reported using aggressive strategies to coerce a man to engage in sexual activities. They discovered that many of the women who reported that they used these strategies exploited men’s incapacitated state or used verbal pressure, although a small group reported using physical force. Sexual aggression within this sample of women was associated with sexual victimization in childhood, higher levels of sexual activity, and peer pressure to engage in sexual activity.
Gender Differences in the Meanings and Consequences
While it is important to acknowledge the existence of sexual aggression perpetrated by women against men as a type of partner violence, it is nevertheless important to recognize that it is not the same as sexual coercion or aggression perpetrated against women by men. First, women have historically not had control over their own reproductive rights in the United States. Second, while laws may be made to treat the phenomenon in a gender-neutral way, there may be a disjunction between theory and reality. For instance, in applying the concept of force or threat of force for sex to both men and women equally, it remains true that for the average woman and man, it requires a much greater degree of exertion on the part of the woman to force a man to comply than it might for a man to force a woman to comply, unless a lethal weapon is being used. The same may not be said for some forms of threats. Moreover, women in America typically earn less money than men and have historically been more dependent upon men for their economic well-being. Thus, women may have been and continue to be more compelled to comply with the wishes of their male partners to engage in sexual relations.
Aside from those issues, it deserves noting that gender differences have emerged in empirical studies of the meanings associated with and reactions to sexual aggression experiences. However, the results of these studies are not conclusive. While many indicate that women report more negative reactions and emotions to the experience than men, Satterfield (1995) reported that some men reported being more distressed by the experience than did some women.
Potential Backlash and Cautions
It is acknowledged that researchers are compelled to share what the data reveal; but at the same time, this research paper was written with some trepidation because there is some potential for the information to be used against those who have worked so diligently to end violence against women. Although it is important to reveal the truth about sexual aggression perpetrated by women, it remains clear that more women than men are sexually victimized (Brenner 1994; Koss 1993). When a woman is sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is almost always a man. When a man is sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is another man about one-third of the time (Michael et al. 1994). Consequently, men are by far much more likely to be the aggressors in cases of sexual assault. That women can be sexually aggressive should not be used to justify a reduction in efforts to prevent and treat violence against women or to support a viewpoint that sexual coercion should be viewed as a gender-neutral problem. Thus, it is with great caution that this research paper is presented; it is in no way intended to be used as a justification for a decrease in attention given to the problem of violence against women, but rather to bring attention to the problem of violence against both men and women in contemporary society.
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