Double Standards Continue to Put Young Women at Risk of Unwanted Sex

Sexual harassment and assault are topics that have rightfully received a lot of attention in the media as of late. An integral question underlying these issues is “What constitutes sexual consent?” The answer to this question is far more complicated than phrases such as “no means no” or even “yes means yes,” as evidenced by the findings of a qualitative study reported in the December 2017 issue of Perspectives. Researchers interviewed students at a southern U.S. university about their perceptions of normative sexual behaviors among their classmates, as well as their own sexual and consent behaviors, and found a troubling situation. Female students reported often feeling that they cannot seek out or clearly agree to have sex (for fear that they will look “slutty”), or overtly decline a man’s sexual advances (for fear that they may hurt his feelings); thus, they are left trying to express their sexual interest or disinterest subtly. However, male students reported that if a woman’s refusals of sexual advances are subtle, they may ignore them or consider them to be “token,” and continue to try to convince or pressure her to have sex. In addition, both male and female students expressed the idea that men “put in work” by spending time with a woman and buying her drinks, and then are “owed” sex. Taken together, these findings suggest that young people continue to endorse traditional gender norms that commonly expose women to the risks of sexual coercion and violence.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine