A new study from researchers at the University of Missouri is making waves after finding that nearly half of teenage boys and college men have been forced into sex, usually by a female acquaintance.
Of the 284 boys and men between 14 and 26 surveyed by Bryana French and her team of Mizzou researchers, 43 percent said they'd had an unwanted sexual experience, and 95 percent said a girl or woman initiated that sexual experience, according to the data published in Psychology of Men and Masculinity.
"There is this assumption that men can't be assaulted, and that if they are assaulted, it's not that problematic," French tells Daily RFT. But French's study shows that while the psychological impacts of forced sex are different for boys and girls, men don't emerge unscathed from an unwanted sexual experience.
Boys who experienced unwanted sex were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors and increased drinking, according to the study. Students who were drugged or drunk when sexually coerced showed significant distress.
"It's still having a negative effect on their psychological wellness," French says.
There is one major difference, however, in how boys and girls react to forced sex, French says. Sexual assault has a significant impact on girls' self-esteem, but French's findings showed a neutral effect on self-esteem for boys, meaning their sense of identity wasn't affected by their unwanted sexual experience.
"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," French says. "Instead, it may inadvertently be consistent with expectations of masculinity and sexual desire, though more research is needed to better understand this relationship."
In other words, in a world where men are expected to "sow their seeds" and bed lots of ladies, having sex -- even if it's unwanted -- may be consistent with boys' views of themselves. Scientists say that's not the case for girls, who are often socially instructed to feel shame or guilt after sex, wanted or not.
Twenty-six percent of boys in the study say they were forced into sex by unwanted seduction. Get more of the numbers behind the study on page 2. French admits the numbers she found -- 43 percent of boys and men report an unwanted sexual encounter -- seem high, but she attributes that to a broadening of the definitions she and her team operated under.
For example, French says, people often think of forcing sex as a violent, physical act, but researchers also asked about verbal coercion ("My partner threatened to spread rumors about me if I didn't have sex with her") manipulation by substance ("My partner encouraged me to drink alcohol and then took advantage") and seduction ("My partner tried to interest me by sexual touching, but I was not interested").
Eighteen percent of the boys and college-age men in the study reported sexual coercion by physical force; 31 percent said they were verbally coerced; 26 percent said they were victim to unwanted seduction; and 7 percent said the unwanted sex came after being given alcohol and drugs.
For half of the boys in the study, the unwanted advances resulted in sexual intercourse. Ten percent reported attempting to have intercourse, and the remaining 40 percent say they were forced into unwanted kissing or fondling.
French says she hesitates to infer from her study that young girls and women are more sexually aggressive now than before, especially because she didn't specifically study female behavior in the survey.