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Unwanted Sex on Campus: The Overlooked Role of Interactional Pressures and Gendered Sexual Scripts

Abstract

Past research on unwanted sex has often emphasized individual risk factors or institutional determinants. As a supplement to past research, this article bridges interactionist theory with a sexual scripting approach to explore how unwanted sex is also produced in situ during sexual encounters. This article examines 110 heterosexual and queer college students’ accounts of unwanted sex. Results show that as a sexual encounter unfolds, people do not just go along with it. Rather, people routinely feel a need to make sense of its progression. In existing literature, violence and incapacitation are the predominant ways that scholars, as well as the public, presume that unwanted sex happens. In my data, there were indeed instances of force, threat of force, and incapacitation. However, much more common, and more surprising, were the pressures from gendered sexual scripts and generic interactional smoothing that emerged. Across interviews, it was also common for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer students to report a lack of familiarity with queer sexual scripts. I argue that focusing on situational pressures and gendered sexual scripts for women, as well as men and queer students, sheds new light on understandings of how and why unwanted sex happens.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Of note, papers that use “individual characteristics” like mom’s education or family background may be coming not from a psychological tradition, but a sociological perspective that sees these variables as indicative of social position, e.g., mom’s education as indicative of class background, etc.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Paula England for her support in putting together this paper. I’d also like to thank Sarah Cowan, Colin Jerolmack, Jeff Manza, Iddo Tavory, and my PhD classmates for their support and feedback on the ideas I present here.

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Correspondence to Jessie V. Ford.

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Ford, J.V. Unwanted Sex on Campus: The Overlooked Role of Interactional Pressures and Gendered Sexual Scripts. Qual Sociol 44, 31–53 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-020-09469-6

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Keywords

  • College students
  • Unwanted sex
  • Sexual violence
  • Social interaction
  • Gendered sexual scripts