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  • Michigan Journal of Gender & Law Online

Consenting to Unwanted Sex: A Sociolegal Perspective

This writing is adapted from a comprehensive empirical research study entitled “Power, agency, and emotion work: American college women’s reflections on their heterosexual lives,” as part of a PhD program at the University of Edinburgh Law School.


By Chiara Cooper | Chiara.Cooper@ed.ac.uk


“What if I say no to him and he gets really mad? What if I say no to him now and he… does something awful?”


“It is a combination of looking at the clock and wondering when it’s going to come to a close, so you don’t have to say no, and wanting to wait to say no so that you don’t like look like a bitch.”


“I wait a couple minutes, like ‘let me just act like, this is fine, you know, just don’t make things awkward and this will just never happen again.’”


“We worry about our reputations after saying no. On top of already being worried about your own boundaries and what you have agreed to, you are also worrying about their [men’s] perception of you.”[i]


These quotes are from heterosexual women alluding to experiences in which they endured unwanted sexual encounters.[ii] These dialogues have been pulled from a larger body of my PhD research into young college women’s reflections of their heterosexual lives, wherein, among many other themes, women reflected upon very clear experiences of sexual violations, e.g., non-consensual condom removal. Young women also identified sexual encounters that were more nebulous and normalized. These encounters were recognized to have the propensity to turn violent but nevertheless, women felt pressure to endure them. It is precisely these experiences which this blog post will illuminate.


The women I spoke with were concerned that acting assertively to refuse men’s sexual advances would make “men mad.” Some were acutely aware that their reputation could be tarnished through sexual shaming if they refused sex. One woman, for instance, explained that refusing sex could result in men labelling her as someone who is “not gonna put out.” Another woman rationalized that during unwanted encounters she would “act like this is fine…I can deal with this for five minutes.” Across my research, women had knowledge and experience of tolerating certain sexual behaviors. They explained that they were “always one step ahead” of men and usually could not relax because they would calculate, internally, when it was the right time to end the sexual encounter. They disclosed concerns with “leading men on too far” by consenting to some unwanted acts; nevertheless, they felt bound to acquiesce in fear of anger should they refuse.


There is a legal element to consider here, in that enduring sexual acts in the way women described may fall under, if not very close to, definitions of criminal misconduct and harm. Crucially though, not once did the women I spoke to reflect on these experiences as criminal violations.[iii] Contextualising these behaviours through a criminal lens becomes somewhat confining as the criminal law can not fully address why these unwanted sexual behaviours are so problematic. As Brenda Cossman rightly posits, criminal law need not occupy the field when it comes to the definition of sexual harms.[iv] Concentrating on the potential criminality of the behavior limits its significance in a way, by portraying women as the victim, and potentially setting a punitive precedent. I wonder, too, whether a reliance on the criminal aspect really affords women the power to change things.[v] After all, carceral and governance feminist approaches to sexual violence have long been criticized for giving rise to more narrow definitions of sexual harms (and consent), in turn strengthening the criminal justice system to become more severe and more likely to inflict harm on those most marginalized.[vi] My point here is not to advocate for an expanding of the definitions of sexual misconduct and harm in criminal law; but rather, to acknowledge these specific legal confines and look instead to other avenues for change. As such, we might consider the language of desire and respect alongside the ethicality of sexual encounters when reflecting upon consent to unwanted experiences, as opposed to understanding this specific type of sexual harm in relation to the illegality of the behavior.[vii]


What is interesting here is that the normalization of this non-consensuality seemed to be manifested through a negotiation, albeit with only one person present—the woman. In this process, the women seemed to be engaging in self-work by asking themselves, internally, “what is it that I will put up with,” and “what am I willing to tolerate sexually?”[viii] Once these lines between enjoyable, endurable, and abhorrent behavior—lines recognized by all the women I spoke to—were drawn, women would vow to themselves this act would “never happen again,” thus there would be no need for similar internal negotiations. In this micro-dynamic of power, the women seemed to be caught in a balancing act of experiencing, anticipating, and avoiding risk, as well as experiencing and offering pleasure.[ix]In these sexual negotiations, it is the women who feel responsible that their partners not feel any negative consequences. And often, the women shared that the cost of this was to engage in sex that they did not want, subjugating their own feelings to those of men. Arguably, the self-work of refusing sex has become burdensome. For the women involved in this research, consenting to, tolerating, and enduring unwanted sex (or sexual acts) was considered a trade-off, chosen as an act of emotional altruism. This is so much so that at times the women presented themselves as part of a sexual encounter whereby sex was being performed on them (e.g., describing sex with a man after a party, one woman explained in my research that she “let him do it”).


Women seem to perform this self-work not only to maintain a couple relationship itself, but to also preserve their safety and to avoid being disparaged and shamed (e.g. “what if he doesn’t talk to me again” or “what if he spreads rumours about me?”). The women seemed to be understanding men through the emotions they attributed to them: anger, nastiness, and embarrassment—traits which were considered by some women to simply be part of the “nature of men.” Even if the young women had not experienced violence, they still were almost hypervigilant to it as it seemed to be a constant possibility; one wrong move and it could happen. In order to ensure their safety in these unwanted sexual encounters—reportedly unable to “just say no”—women were forced to act calmly and reflexively, moving themselves through sexual positions, advances, touches, and gestures, enduring these acts for some time, meanwhile plotting to bring the encounter to a close naturally.

[i] All quotes herein that are not otherwise cited are extracted from a comprehensive empirical PhD study. These quotes are from focus group conversations with college-age women at a large public university in the southern United States. [ii] See Lucia O’Sullivan & Elizabeth Rice Allgeier, Feigning Sexual Desire: Consenting to Unwanted Sexual Activity in Heterosexual Dating Relationships, 35 J. Sex Rsch. 234 (1998); Sarah Walker, When “No” Becomes “Yes”: Why Girls and Women Consent to Unwanted Sex, 6 Applied & Preventative Psych. 157 (1997); Emily Impett & Letitia Peplau, Sexual Compliance: Gender, Motivational, and Relationship Perspectives, 40 J. Sex Rsch. 87 (2003); Charlene Muehlenhard & Zoë Peterson, Wanting and Not Wanting Sex: The Missing Discourse of Ambivalence, 15 Feminism & Psych. 15 (2005). [iii] See Sapana Donde et al., If It Wasn’t Rape Was It Sexual Assault? Comparing Rape and Sexual Assault Acknowledgement in College Women Who Have Experienced Rape, 24 Violence Against Women 1718 (2018); see also Liz Kelly & Jill Radford, “Nothing Really Happened”: The Invalidation of Women’s Experiences of Sexual Violence, 10 Critical Soc. Pol’y 39 (1990). [iv] Brenda Cossman, #MeToo, Sex Wars 2.0 and the Power of Law, Asian Y.B. Hum. Rts. & Humanitarian L. (forthcoming 2017). [v]Daniel Del Gobbo & Vathsala Illesinghe, Restorative Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence: The #MeToo Movement Has Exposed Inequalities in the Legal System that Disadvantage Women. Restorative Justice Could Help in Certain Sexual Violence Cases, Pol’y Options Politiques (Apr. 23, 2018), https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/april-2018/restorative-justice-survivors-sexual-violence/. [vi] Ummni Khan, Take My Breath Away: Competing Contexts Between Domestic Violence, Kink and the Criminal Justice System, 6 Oñati Socio-Legal Series 1405 (2016). [vii] Brenda Cossman, #MeToo, Sex Wars 2.0 and the Power of Law, Asian Y.B. Hum. Rts. & Humanitarian L. (Forthcoming); see also Moira Carmody, Sex Ethics and Violence Prevention, 12 Soc. & Legal Stud. 199 (2003) (on promoting the ethicality of sexual desires and pleasures as a tool for sexual violence prevention); Heidi Matthew’s 2018 and 2019 critique of sexual consent and use of liminal trust also provide insights on this topic. [viii] See Arlie Hochschild, Work, Feeling Rules and Social Structure, 85 Am. J. Socio. 551 (1979); Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling (3d ed. 1983) (discussing emotional labor and self-work). [ix] See Carol Vance, More Danger, More Pleasure: A Decade After the Barnard Sexuality Conference, 38 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 298, 298-318 (1993) (discussing pleasure-danger dichotomy).