There was nothing outwardly headline-grabbing about Bryana H. French’s latest study, published in the august and largely unread pages of Psychology of Men and Masculinity, an academic journal that typically reaches an audience of dozens. While her findings were depressing, they were depressingly banal: according to French and her team of researchers at the University of Missouri, “sexual victimization continues to be a pervasive problem in the United States.” Well, we know that.
So why the media scrum? Because the authors concluded that “43 percent of high school boys and young college men”—yes, boys and young men—“reported they had an unwanted sexual experience and of those, 95 percent said a female acquaintance was the aggressor.”
In a press release, French pointed out that “the victimization of men is rarely explored” and concluded hopefully that her team’s findings could “help lead to better prevention by identifying the various types of coercion that men face and by acknowledging women as perpetrators against men.”
The idea that boys (those sex-obsessed little monsters) could be victims of “sexual coercion,” while young girls (so often on the receiving end of clumsy and aggressive sexual advances of the sex-obsessed little monsters) could be perpetrators is, to many, both counterintuitive and unlikely.
“This is such an under-discussed topic,” clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg told The Daily Beast. “We’ve been grossly negligent when it comes to talking to teenage boys about sex because society makes the assumption that young adult men are sex-crazed maniacs. But men and teenage boys have tender feelings too, and we often neglect them when it comes to sexuality.”
That females can be sexually aggressive—and young men and teenage boys can sheepishly submit to sexual aggression—is considered peculiar because “coerced sex” is narrowly imagined as violent or forced sex. But according to French’s research, only “18 percent [of respondents] reported sexual coercion by physical force” while 31 percent said “they were verbally coerced [and] 26 percent described unwanted seduction by sexual behaviors.”
According to French, “unwanted seduction” of young men by women is largely overlooked in existing academic research but “was a particularly pervasive form of sexual coercion in this study, as well as peer pressure and a victim’s own sense of an obligation.”
Indeed, 95 percent of those surveyed said they were sexually coerced by girls or women. French told The Daily Beast that a “broadening of the definition” partially explains the rise in sexual victimization amongst young men and boys. “I think that’s a large reason why we’re seeing numbers come up more [and] I think we need to have more conversations about what consent looks like across both genders.”
But it’s not a redefining of terms alone that explains the increase, says Dr. Greenberg. “I really do believe that girls are more aggressive sexually today than they were ten years ago, and I haven’t seen the same trend in boys. I think it has a lot to do with the hook-up culture where there’s this permission to get involved physically without getting involved emotionally. Boys were always expected to be the sexual initiators, and now girls are doing the initiating.”
One familiar trope in the news cycle is the female high school and middle school teacher preying on a male student. These sexual relationships are consensual—and rarely deemed “rape”—but the large age differential is a type of coercion.
“I was a 15 year old who lost his virginity to a woman twice his age, who rather abruptly decided that consistent sexual activity with a local sophomore was probably ill-advised,” says Martin, 40, who declined to give his second name.
The relationship, a year-long affair with a family acquaintance, was “consensual,” he says, but with the benefit of maturity and hindsight Martin acknowledges that it was coercive. “Had this been known—and some people indeed knew—it would have been (and sometimes was) met with incredulity or the more common ‘attaboy!’ But at 15, one doesn’t make a ‘decision’ to embark on a ‘relationship’ with a 30-year-old woman.”
Statutory limits on age of consent aren’t uniform in the United States, but they exist (without gender specificity) for good reason. “The psychological complexity of sex with an adult is almost by its nature coercive, considering that a 15-year-old boy is rarely, if ever, equipped to deal with the complicated fallout of such a relationship.”
“It’s usually a girl that’s a little bit older and the boys feel embarrassed to say no because they feel their friends will make fun of them,” says Dr. Greenberg. “And they have a lot of shame about it because they weren’t ready for it and they feel cultural pressure that they should have been ready for it.”
The University of Missouri researchers were vague on the long-term effects of female “sexual coercion,” though French was careful to suggest that “it may be the case that sexual coercion by women doesn’t affect males’ self-perceptions in the same way that it does when women are coerced.”
While there are wildly divergent perceptions as to what constitutes “coerced sex” when genders are reversed, if one were to substitute genders in this study, it wouldn’t have captured a minute of media attention, likely consigned to the pile of “but of course” sociological studies regularly produced by academic researchers.
“This study should be a wake-up call to parents and educators everywhere,” says Greenberg. “We attend much more to the feelings of our daughters. But we also need to attend to the feelings of our boys and their sexuality.”