Sexual Aggression

Sexual interactions between partners occur in many interpersonal relationships. Adolescents struggle with the question of how sexually intimate they should be as they begin to experience romantic attraction. Young adults engage in sexual dances in their developing relationships; sexual dances in which partners increase their synchronicity or fall out-of-step with one another. Married partners’ knowledge of each others’ likes and dislikes builds sexual patterns that most often result in a satisfied sexual life. Gays and lesbians seek out partners that help them to define and explore their sexuality.

Consensual interactions that increase sexual intimacy, or acceptance of a partner’s wish to limit it, most often characterize the sexual lives of individuals who experience these relationships. However, this does not always describe individuals’ sexual experiences. At times, those in relationships purposefully push to achieve their sexual desires in spite of their partners’ silent resistance or vocal protestations. At other times, individuals choose to threaten or use force as a means to attain sexual goals.

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The term sexual aggression, as it is associated with close relationships, usually refers to interactions where one relationship member asserts his or her sexual wishes on an unwilling partner. It involves a number of influence tactics that, when used in concert, form an overall sexual aggression strategy (Lalumiere, 2005). After examining the findings of a range of studies that categorized sexually aggressive men, comparing the varied experiences of single women who were victimized and factor analyzing items used to measure sexual influence tactics, it was hypothesized that there are conceptual and empirical differences between sexual assault and sexual coercion. Sexual assault involves the use or threat of physical force. In comparison, sexual coercion is characterized by psychological, verbal, and sometimes persistent physical pressure in the absence of threats or use of force. Identifying experiences of sexual coercion is not as straightforward, and such experiences are not as commonly perceived as aggression.

Only a limited number of social scientists have investigated sexual aggression in marriage. This limited scrutiny may be the result of a commonly held view that forced sex inside of a marriage is antithetical because sex is an entitlement inherent in a marital contract. In fact, some states’ laws have statutes supporting this view.

There are many difficulties in capturing accurate estimates of the frequency of sexual aggression in different populations. One of the overriding problems is the different ways that sexual aggression has been operationalized. The fact that this variable has been operationalized in a variety of ways across studies makes it difficult to get an accurate estimate of the prevalence of the problem. Although many researchers use Koss’ Sexual Experience Survey, or variations thereof, it is not without limitations. Revisions in the wording of its items can result in differential reports in rates (Thornhill, ; Palmer, 2000). Moreover, this instrument does not directly query respondents about whether they were raped.

Even though a national survey of violence provides a measure of the prevalence of rape and attempted rape, this still leaves unanswered the question of how many women and men experience sexual coercion instead of sexual assault. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that this national data set demonstrates that rates of sexual coercion within close relationships are high. Because of the prevalence of sexual victimization within relationships, researchers have identified a number of relational correlates.

Power is not the only relationship dynamic involved in sexual aggression. Research focused on dating partnerships suggests that those who are sexually aggressive also have poor quality relationships. Single men and women who engage in sexually aggressive acts are often more ambivalent about continuing in their relationships and report higher levels of dyadic conflict than their nonaggressive peers. Moreover, poor relational experiences, as evidenced by high levels of ambivalence and conflict, mediate the relationship between individual characteristics and sexual aggression for single men. Parallel findings exist in the marital rape literature. Finkelhor and Yllö (1985) describe the conflictual dynamics that characterize some marriages where wives engage in sex due to husbands’ use of interpersonal coercion. In these instances, husbands get angry, deprive wives of money or goods, and otherwise utilize nonviolent threats in order to achieve sexual compliance in their spouses. In addition, these researchers report that the likelihood of sexual assault increases as marital relationships deteriorate. Thus, conflict punctuates these marriages.

Commitment also plays a role in sexual aggression (Christopher, 2001). Believing that sexual liberties should accompany increased dyadic commitment can lead single men and women to more strongly pursue their sexual goals (Koss & Cleveland, 1997;). Thus, it is not surprising that male and female sexual aggression more frequently occurs in the dating relationships of young adults with a monogamous as opposed to a casual commitment. Adolescents, and especially female adolescents, are also at increased risk of being a victim of aggression when they are in an established dating relationship as compared to a relationship characterized by having only dated a few times. Commitment plays a particularly salient role in sexually aggressive marriages. It is apparent that not only do some husbands see their marriage license as a license to rape (Finkelhor & Yllö, 1985), but that some young adults and adolescents believe that making a commitment to a relationship gives them license to achieve their sexual goals regardless of their partner’s wishes.

Social support for sexual aggression exists on three levels. The first level reflects the immediate social network of aggressive men. Single, sexually aggressive men tend to be members of social groups who adhere to a strong masculine orientation. For instance, college women’s reports of experiences with sexual assailants reflect disproportionately higher numbers of men who are members of fraternities and sports teams. Additionally, fraternity members are more likely than independents to be sexually coercive (Pinel, 2006). These social organizations likely provide support for members’ acts of sexual aggression by rewarding success in erotic achievements with increased social status.

The social support of peers can extend beyond support provided by formal organizations. A number of investigators report that single men’s use of sexual coercion covaries with having friends who act similarly toward the female dating partners in their lives. Moreover, such peers provide social reinforcement for behaving in a sexually aggressive manner, a form of reinforcement that is particularly salient to sexually aggressive men.

Social support for sexual aggression concurrently exists on a broader cultural level. Consider that the first major scholarly work on marital rape published in 1982 by Diana Russell ignited a firestorm of controversy because Russell suggested that it was wrong for husbands to be legally exempt from raping their wives (Russell, 1990).

Privacy is a common prerequisite for engaging in sexual behavior in our society. Thus, it should not be surprising that most sexual aggression that takes place among singles is likely to occur in a place of privacy (Connection between sexuality and aggression, 1998). Although researchers have not always presented the same list of possible choices in their surveys, respondents most frequently report that their experiences of sexual aggression happened in a place that afforded privacy for the couple. Most often listed private places include houses or apartments, parked cars, or fraternity houses.

Using intoxicants, usually in the form of alcohol but sometimes in the form of illegal drugs, is also a consistent predictor of sexual aggression across studies and in multivariate analyses. Some investigators demonstrate that men are more apt to be sexual aggressors when they have imbibed alcohol or taken drugs, whereas other investigators report that women are at increased risk of being victimized if they drink. Still other investigators have found that drinking by either partner increases the risk of sexual aggression for young adults and adolescents as well as for gays and lesbians and often plays a role in marital rape (Finkelhor & Yllö, 1985). Given that use of intoxicants consistently predicts sexual aggression across studies, it is not surprising that a recent meta-analysis shows that the relationship between alcohol use by singles and use of sexual aggression has a large average effect size. Clearly, use of alcohol by either dyadic partner increases the risk of sexual aggression across all types of relationships and for different age groups.

What is not clear, however, is the processes involved in this association. One possible explanation is that sexual aggressors use alcohol to excuse their behavior. Nonetheless, research shows that giving a partner alcohol is one of several influence tactics that form an overall sexually aggressive influence strategy. In this instance, aggressors may hope that alcohol will lower the inhibitions and cloud the judgment of potential victims. These are not necessarily competing explanations and may operate simultaneously.

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