Gendering Sex and Sexual Violence

I never teach my courses on gender and sexuality without this table:

The table comes from Ed Laumann and colleague’s book, The Social Organization of Sexuality (1994).  There’s a variety of fascinating information throughout the text which aims to explore one of the first nationally representative surveys dealing with sexual identities, behaviors, and more.  This table in particular comes from the portion of the text where they describe their findings relative to coercive sex.

When I show this table in classes, I ask the students to tell me what they see.  The first thing students typically mention is the relatively high proportion of men who state that they have never been forced to do something sexual (96.1%).  Others point out the lower proportion of women (77.4%) who say that they have never been sexually forced.  Someone usually says something about this coming close to the “1-in-4” estimate that has become so popular.

The numbers I like to discuss are highlighted on this table (though I don’t highlight them when I present this table to students).  I use it to highlight an important gendered dimension of heterosexual sexual relations.  When surveyed, 1.5% of women stated that they had sexual forced a man.  This number is extremely close to the slightly lower proportion of men (1.3%) who state that they have been sexually forced by a woman.  If everyone’s being honest, and everyone understands how the other feels, this is what we’d expect.  Sometimes students say that the men might be under-reporting here because they are embarrassed.  But a very different explanation is used to make sense of discrepancies in the opposite direction.

This relationship does not hold, however, when we look at the reverse.  About 2.8% of men stated that they have sexually forced a woman, but a whopping 21.6% of women state that they have been forced by a man.  I ask students to reconcile this discrepancy.

Occasionally, someone will say that women might be over-reporting, but a much more popular initial response is that the men are lying, which I tell them is not possible to know from the data.  People can always lie, and it’s certainly scary to think that this many men are sexually assaulting women and lying about it.  We also know that men who sexually assault women are likely to do so to multiple women.  So, that might account for some of this discrepancy–the notion that a small number of men is sexually assaulting a large number of women.  But there’s a more important question glossed over in the discussion of whether or not men are being truthful here or focusing on repeat offenders: How does this data make sense if the men aren’t lying?  This would mean that many men are not aware that they have sexually forced women with whom they have sexually interacted.

It’s an awful bit of data, but it allows the students to see sexual relations as gendered and the inequality inherent therein.  Safe consensual sexual intimacy isn’t necessarily experienced as “sexy” to all men.  This says nothing of men’s inherent inability to engage in consensual sexual practices and to enjoy them just as much.  Rather, this is the result of gender inequality shaping the ways in which we experience desire in addition to the ways we fulfill those desires.

I show them a separate graph from the chapter (below) to illustrate the relative prevalence of different types of sexual violence and assault.  To debunk the “stranger in a dark alley” characterization of sexual assault, this pie chart (from the same chapter in Laumann, et al., 1994) illustrates that the vast majority of people were assaulted by someone with whom they were in love, knew well, or to whom they were married.

It’s difficult information to process, but it helps ensure that student’s thinking and activism surrounding sexual violence and assault considers some of the more complex and culturally embedded issues.  By and large, we don’t need to scare men into thinking that they’ll be caught and prosecuted if they sexually assault women (which they should be).  We need to get them to realize what sexual coercion actually is and we need to find more ways of sexualizing consent.

Certainly this isn’t the most recent data on this topic, but it’s illustrated well and the questions were asked in ways that I think highlight this issue extremely well.

6 thoughts on “Gendering Sex and Sexual Violence

  1. Great analysis! This reminds me about Paula England’s study of hooking up. The data suggests that way more females faked orgasm in hook-ups than males believed women do. And I have asked the students about why men think women had more pleasure than they really did. Why women fake it anyway? Lots of female students explained women fake it to please men, even in hook-ups.

    • Thanks Fan. Yes, we actually were recently reading some of England’s work in my family course on “hook ups.” I should have asked you to guest lecture – but I’m sure you’re busy as it is. Thanks for responding!

  2. It’s also possible that a small number of men are committing a large number of rapes. I read a study somewhere recently that found that something like 10% of men admitted to rape, and that those men had all raped multiple times. Can’t find the link though. meh.

    • Andy is right, but the thought process has to go both ways. So, it may be true that a small number of men are committing a large number of crimes. But, this is also assuming that the women answering were only sexually assaulted once, and by one man. So, the numbers still read low to me. I think there’s more to the inadequate understanding of what actually constitutes sexual assault that’s leading to the discrepancy.

  3. I think that a lot more of the discrepancy that you’re talking about can be accounted for with the “minority of men are responsible for majority of rape,” but your multiple-victims point is well taken. I have also read research suggesting that some predators can perceive previous victimhood and use that information to pick new victims. So these numbers could actually be minimizing some some aspects of the problem.

    I have to say, though I hate to be contrarian: this seems pretty hopeful to me. When I was young I was essentially taught that all men are rapists, and had to fight that constant evil within themselves. I take you to be saying that most rape can be explained by evil of a small minority of men and good, (or at least not-evil) men acting in ignorance, which sure feels more right to me.

  4. Pingback: On Violence | Lynley Stace

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