From Deviance to Normalcy: Women as Sexual Aggressors
Peter B. Anderson, Ph.D.
Dyan T. Melson, M.Ed.
University of New Orleans
Peter B. Anderson, Ph.D.
Professor and Graduate Coordinator, Dept. of Human Performance & Health Promotion
University of New Orleans-Lakefront Campus, HPC Room #109
New Orleans, LA 70148
(504) 280-7061, FAX 280-6018
From Deviance to Normalcy: Women as Sexual Initiators and Sexual Aggressors
Abstract The traditional gender roles of young women in the United States are changing. According to research reports of the past few decades, women have taken a more commanding role in sexual relationships with men. These new roles have, at times, included behavior identified as sexual aggression. Women’s sexual aggression is the focus of this research review. The shift from a deviance label to a normative label is supported by prevalence data combined with what we know about the connection between women’s beliefs in male sexual stereotypes and their sexually aggressive behaviors. Discrepancies between men’s and women’s reports of women’s heterosexually aggressive behaviors provide additional confirmation of the prevalence of women’s heterosexual aggression and the influence of beliefs in stereotypes. The advent of our realization of women’s sexual aggression raises many questions that we can not currently answer, but can lead to new research questions and theories about human sexual aggression.
Key Words: Sexual Aggression, Deviance, Normal, Women
From Deviance to Normalcy:
Women as Sexual Initiators and Sexual Aggressors
Changing social norms and the redefinition of behaviors from a deviant classification to a normative one does not necessarily represent an increase in that behavior, nor an approval, just an increase in our awareness of the behavior. Deviance is defined as: “…deviating from a norm or the accepted standard of society…”, “…a sexual pervert” (The American Heritage Dictionary, p361). Despite the fact that one of the definitions of normal still found in the Oxford English Dictionary is heterosexual (http://www.dictionary.oed.com, 8/13/02), same gender sexual contact is an excellent example of a similar recent shift. Whether we, as individuals or scientists, have become more tolerant and accepting of same gender sexual contact or just the opposite, the behavior has become recognized in U.S. social culture as normal (i.e., “… constituting a usual or typical pattern...” The American Heritage Dictionary, p. 894).
Sexual aggression has been traditionally linked with male sexual behavior. Characterizations of perpetrators and rationale for their actions have soundly established this behavior in male sexuality (Christopher, Burch, & Kisler, 2001; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisnieski, 1987; Lottes, 1991; Poppen and Segal, 1988; Waldner-Haugrud & Magruder, 1995). Documentation pertaining to women aggressors has been limited (Anderson & Aymami, 1993; Anderson & Sorensen, 1999; Higgs, Canavan, & Meyer, 1992). The gender based discrepancies in accumulated evidence can be explained to some extent by the societal embrace of male and female gender role stereotypes. Traditional gender scripts have portrayed men as being aggressive initiators and women as passive recipients of sexual activity (Malamuth, 1981). Recent research has emerged describing changes within these prescribed gender roles (Byers, 1996). Some sexologists now agree that women have taken a more commanding role in sexual relationships and have exhibited behaviors classified as sexual aggression (Anderson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998; O’Sullivan & Byers, 1996).
The classic review of case studies by Sarrel and Masters (1982) was the first modern study to document women as sexual aggressors in heterosexual encounters (see Table 1 for summaries of all the articles reviewed). This report was based on clinical reports of women sexually victimizing men. The authors analyzed files from two sex therapy institutes. Eleven case studies were selected and classified as forced assault, baby-sitter abuse, incest, or dominant women abuse. The cases documented that the majority of men (10 of 11 in the sample) experienced negative emotions due to their sexual abuse. Additionally, this negative response resulted in various forms of sexual dysfunction for the subjects. The authors reported that male sexual abuse had never been properly studied by social scientists. Subsequently, investigations of women's sexual aggression expanded, to include documentation of prevalence rates, the relationship between acceptance of sexual stereotypes and women’s sexual aggression, and conflicting reports of women’s aggression offered by men and women (Anderson, 1986, 1989, 1998; Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, & Turner, 1999; Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1992, 1994).
Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1994) examined the prevalence of men pressured and forced into unwanted sexual activity. The authors reported that about one third of their sample of college men had experienced pressured or forced sex since the age of 16. In evaluating the most used tactics for the pressured or forced episodes, 88% of the pressured or forced subjects reported experiencing verbal persuasion, intoxication, emotional manipulation, and bribery, and 12% reported experiencing the use of physical restraint, physical intimidation, harm, or threat of harm.
Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, and Turner (1999), reported that rates for their measures of receiving (men = 21%, women = 28%) or instigating (men = 10%, women = 5%) sexual coercion were not statistically different for college men and women, but that women were less likely to use physical force as a tactic to obtain sexual contact (men = 5%, women = 1%). They also stated that none of the women in their sample reported giving alcohol or drugs to a male as an attempt to gain sexual contact. This conclusion is inconsistent with research by Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson (1994) and others (Anderson, 1998, 1996; Clements-Schreiber, Rempel, & Desmarais, 1998).
Anderson (1998, 1996), presented self-reported prevalence rates for women’s sexual coercion of between 25% and 40% and for physically forced sexual contact between 1.6% and 7.1%. Of perhaps greater significance was the women’s self-reports of engaging in a classic date-rape scenario – taking advantage of someone who was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When asked about initiating sexual contact with a man when his judgment was impaired by drugs or alcohol, between 32% and 51% of the women said that they had. Further, between 5% and 15% of women reported giving a man alcohol or drugs in an attempt to have sexual contact with him.
Acceptance of Sexual Stereotypes
Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1992) reported that approximately 18% of women and 22% of men believed that it is impossible to rape a man - regardless of perpetrator sex. The authors also reported that some subjects believed that men did not experience trauma due to a sexual assault by a woman (35% of men and 22% of women). The authors concluded that male rape myths were more likely to be accepted if the perpetrator was a woman. Thus, the use of pressure tactics or force by a woman could be seen as a method of foreplay and not aggression.
Margolin (1990) supported the idea that women have more permission than men to violate a partner’s sexual consent (kissing was the only behavior measured in this study). Men also received less endorsement to withhold sexual consent. The author noted that men were more tolerant of a woman’s violation of a man’s consent than that of a man’s violation of a women’s consent. Also, men were more tolerant of consent violations than women’s tolerance for violations by either gender.
Craig Shea (1998) concluded, based on the results of two separate studies, that coercers could be distinguished from other college women in that they were more likely; 1) to view traditional women’s roles as being constricting, 2) to believe that forcing sex at times is acceptable, 3) to acknowledge that it is acceptable for women to have and act on sexual thoughts and desires, and 4) to admit their lust and desire for power in sexual encounters.
Clements-Schreiber, Rempel, and Desmarais (1998) attributed women’s likely use of both overt (e.g., undress him, touch him, kiss him) and covert (e.g., get him drunk, make him jealous) pressure tactics to obtain sex from a reluctant man to beliefs in the stereotype of a male dependent sex drive for married women and to the belief that women’s sex drive is at least as strong as a man’s for single women. The authors concluded that the acceptance of sexual stereotypes differentially effected married women and single women in their likely use of pressure tactics.
Discrepancies in Male and Female Reports
Struckman-Johnson (1988), reported that sixteen percent of male participants admitted being forced into unwanted heterosexual activity by a partner, but only 2% of female respondents reported forcing males into sexual activity in their lifetime. In a follow-up survey, the majority of males who had experienced forced sex (52% of 124), reported being forced into unwanted sex based upon psychological strategies (e.g., lying, guilty for not wanting to engage in sex, and blackmail). Furthermore, 25% of 124 males reported experiencing a combination of physical force and psychological tactics. The authors suggested that males and females both express behaviors that are sexually exploitative and range from verbal pressure to use of physical restraint and force.
Anderson and Aymani (1993) stated that males reported being recipients of female aggression more than females admitted to being aggressors. The largest difference between male and female reports (41.1%) was recorded on a question measuring female adults’ initiation of sex with male minors. The next largest difference was observed on the question asking each gender their account of a woman initiating sex with a man when his judgment was impaired by alcohol or drugs (30.2%). Discrepancies were concluded to be the result of sexual socialization of women and sexual stereotypes of men. Women were believed to have answered the survey partially focusing on socially desirable responses and partially on the myth that men will never turn down a sexual opportunity.
In a follow-up study, Anderson and Sorensen (1999) concluded that men reported significantly more events of adult women initiating sexual contact with them while they were minors (OR=10.9), by getting them drunk or high (OR=3.7), and by threatening to end their relationship (OR=6.3) than women reported. All questions, except the one assessing mutually consenting sexual activity, showed some difference in the expected direction (i.e., men reported that women were more likely to initiate or be aggressive than women self-reported). The authors concluded that women may interpret their sexual aggression as more normal than do men.
In addition to gender difference, discrepancies have also been highlighted in reports of sexual aggression between groups of women themselves. Women from different regions have been documented to report different rates in the use of sexual coercion, abuse, and physical force. Anderson (1998) reported that women from the South reported less overall aggression (34.1% vs. 46.2%), sexual abuse (7.3% vs. 21.1%), and physically forced sex (1.6% vs. 7.1%) but not less sexual coercion (all differences were significant at p < .001). Regional differences were interpreted as variations in global dating messages and gender scripts for each area. Despite the similarity of the samples, other factors (i.e. ethnicity, religion, peer group) in addition to region were discussed as being contributing factors.
Present Research and Future Implications
The research exploring women’s sexual aggression has supported the existence of and some estimates for prevalence of this behavior. However, the studies reviewed contain several limiting factors in the study of this component in human sexuality. Specifically, the majority of study subjects have identical demographic profiles, in that middle to upper middle class college students in their early 20’s serve as the main source for participants, which restricts the application of conclusions to persons outside the study population. Dating dynamics is another limiting factor for the investigations reviewed. All the studies reviewed developed conclusions from individuals who were not likely dating persons within the samples. Additionally, most study participants were single. Relationship dynamics and marital status were suggested to be responsible for some of the between gender discrepancies in reports of experiences involving sexual aggression by women (Anderson & Sorensen, 1999). Future studies need to incorporate and recruit couples while also exploring relationship dynamics to determine its influence on promoting and/or predicting episodes of aggressive behavior.
Unanswered questions raised by this line of inquiry include:
are research scientists and others willing to define sexually aggressive women as date rapists; if not,
will definitions of men who behave exactly as women report behaving change;
how do context, gender, and power intersect in the examination and interpretation of sexual behavior; and,
should gender be a or the critical variable that determines the definition of and our reaction to sexually aggressive behavior?
In answer to the first two questions, it may be that we live in a gendered world and this line of scientific research is unlikely to change our gendered definition of sexual aggression. For the third and forth questions, few studies have considered context and or power in relation to women’s sexual aggression and much more research is needed in this area. In one study that did, Craig Shea (1998) concluded that women who admitted their desire for power in relationships and believed that forcing sex was, at times, acceptable, were more likely to use coercive strategies than other women. New research should, as a beginning, make comparisons between groups of women from different positions of power within society, different regions of the county or world, and different cultures or ethnicities.
There is also a philosophical aspect to these questions. We live in a socially constructed world. No analysis of gendered relationships, in this case, heterosexual sexual contact, would be complete without considering a myriad of perspectives about those relationships. Much legitimate critique of heterosexual relationships has focused on power differentials between women and men. One form of power is social normative legitimacy, something women have lacked, in general, for centuries. If we answer the previous questions by codifying behaviors in a gender neutral way, that does not create equal experiences, nor does it ensure equality. If legitimate differences exist between groups, in this case women and men, perhaps those differences, rather than gender designation, should determine our definitions and reactions.
There is also the concern that the study of women’s sexual aggression runs counter to work necessary to reduce and eliminate violence against women. Clements-Schreiber, Rempel, and Desmarais (1998) counter this argument in two important ways. First, they argued that accepting sexual stereotypes is a concern for women because it may legitimate male lack of self control and excuse their behavior and it implies that women are only passive recipients of male sexual attention without their own sexual agency. Second, if women accept their own nonviolent sexual coercion as essentially normal, men will accept their own nonviolent sexual coercion as normal too, and more women will be victimized. Clearly, much more research and discussion is needed to resolve this complex argument.
Studies have revealed that young girls have become socially assertive in calling young boys on the telephone and even asking for dates at a very early age (Anderson, Arceneaux, Carter, Miller, & King, 1995). Also, women are now expected to take an active role in sex (O’Sullivan & Byers, 1996), and are expressing themselves sexually in aggressive behavior patterns (Anderson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998). Rates of sexually aggressive behaviors among women vary from one segment of the United States to another, but the evidence presented here shows that as many as 7% of women self-report the use of physical force to obtain sex, 40% self-report sexual coercion, and over 50% self-report initiating sexual contact with a man while his judgment was impaired by drugs or alcohol (Anderson, 1998). Given these numbers, it is appropriate to conclude that women’s sexual aggression now represents a usual or typical pattern (i.e., has become normal), within the limits of the data reviewed in this paper.
Summaries and Additional Data from Study Results on Women’s Heterosexual Aggression
Authors N Population Outcomes
Sarrel & Masters, 1982
Men seeking sex therapy
Reported negative emotional response to sexual abuse
Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson 1994
X age = 22
33% experienced pressured or forced sex since age 16
Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, and Turner 1999
College Students in Greek orgs.
X age = 19
20.7% of men and 27.5% (ns) of women experienced unwanted sexual contact; .6% of men and 4.6% of women experienced physically forced sexual contact (p < .05)
X age = 22, 78% single
32% to 51% reported initiating sexual contact with a man who was “under the influence” of alcohol or drugs
X age = 22, 78% single
Women who held adversarial beliefs about relationships and/or experienced past sexual abuse were more likely to be sexually aggressive toward men
Summaries and Additional Data from Study Results on Women’s Heterosexual Aggression
Of those coerced, more men than women (52% vs. 16%) experienced psychological force, more women than men (55% vs. 10%) physical force, and equal percents (10%) no consent due to intoxication
Anderson & Aymami, 1993
X age = 24
15 of 26 items showed significantly higher support by men than women
Anderson & Sorensen, 1999
X age = 22
12 of 17 items showed significantly higher support by men than women
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