Kylee Joosten

Sociology Student Finds Significant Gender Differences in Sexual Coercion Tactics

Most women who have used a public, workplace or school restroom likely will affirm that pamphlets on sexual and domestic violence, like sinks and paper towel dispensers, are familiar wall fixtures.

St. Thomas senior Kylee Joosten, 21, noticed, and subsequently she felt compelled to explore the subject by adding male victims to the equation. A sociology major, she took her observation one step further in a summer research project, "Analyzing the Use of Heterosexual Perpetration Tactics in Sexually Coercive Undergraduates."

"Last year I asked my male friends if they had information on sexual assault in men’s restrooms on campus, and they said they did not (though now they do)," she said. "We have a social perception that women are always the victims and men are always the perpetrators in sexual assaults. So I wanted to look at sexual coercion perpetration among both men and women."

She also spent one month gathering background information and discovered that most research focused on male or female sexual coercion, but rarely did she find comparative studies of tactics employed by both genders in coercing unwilling partners to have sex.

Dr. Lisa Waldner

Joosten analyzed a data set provided by her project adviser, Dr. Lisa Waldner, Sociology and Criminal Justice Department, who conducted a survey on "intimate relationship issues" at an urban, southwestern U.S. university. Waldner's sample size consisted of 411 heterosexual undergraduates (265 females, 146 males) with an average age of 26.35 years.

"Very little sexual coercion research has examined the attitudes and experiences of those who actually pressure their partners," Waldner said. Finding a link between those who see themselves as controlling and their own self-report of initiating unwanted sexual contact is interesting and deserves more investigation."

In Joosten's study, which was funded by a Young Scholars Grant from St. Thomas' Grants and Research Office, she defined sexual coercion as "the use of either physical or verbal tactics to force or persuade an unwilling person into performing sexual acts to which they would not have otherwise consented."

She defined a perpetrator of sexual coercion as "any respondent who reported using one of the 14 listed tactics (intoxication, threats to stop seeing, making date feel guilty, persistent begging, threatening to tell lies, telling lies, threatening to blackmail, detaining one's date, attempting to spark interest by touching, making false promises, physical restraint, using or threatening to use a weapon, threatening to use force and using physical force) to coerce a partner into an unwanted sexual act."

Here are some of the highlights of Joosten's study of Waldner's survey:

  • The majority of instances did not result in sexual intercourse; rather, the most common perpetration tactics used were milder tactics, such as verbal pressure, and not physical force.
  • There were significant gender differences in five of the 14 sexual coercion tactics: telling lies (males: 12.6 percent vs. females: 5.2 percent), making false promises (males 7.8 percent vs. females: 2.6 percent), attempting to interest a partner through touching (males: 39.9 percent vs. females: 22.7), persistent begging (males: 23 percent vs. females: 10 percent) and the intoxication of the partner (males: 12.6 percent vs. females: 4.3 percent).
  • Women scored higher, albeit marginally, than men in one just of the 14 tactics: "threatening to use force" (3.5 percent vs. 3.2 percent).
  • Nearly 40 percent of the study subjects reported using at least one of the 14 tactics; the outcomes ranged from kissing to fondling to intercourse.

In her analysis, Joosten focused on four items, scored from mild to severe:

  • Gender Ideology, which measures participants' agreement or disagreement with statements relating to traditional gender roles (i.e., "A true man knows how to command others.) This item was shown to have an insignificant effect on whether respondents reported perpetrating sexual coercion.
  • The Interpersonal Control Scale, which assesses participants' perceived control over a romantic partner. Respondents with higher (more severe) scores were found to be significantly more likely to report perpetrating sexual coercion and were statistically more likely to report intoxicating a partner with alcohol or drugs, making false promises and telling lies.
  • The Alcohol Expectancy scale, which assesses participants' perception of how alcohol affects their behavior. This item also was shown to have an insignificant effect on whether respondents reported perpetrating sexual coercion.
  • The Sexual Coercion Inventory, in which participants are asked to indicate the most extreme sexual behavior they had with an intimate partner after they coerced that partner into sexual activity – consisting of kissing, fondling and intercourse. Participants who responded "yes" to at least one of the 14 coercion tactics were categorized as a perpetrator.

Editor's note: Kylee Joosten's research was funded in part by a Young Scholars grant.