In April 2019, the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy published a study discussing what caused people to feel fear during sex. The study, titled “Feeling Scared During Sex: Findings from a U.S. Probability Sample of Women and Men Ages 14 to 60,” came to some interesting conclusions. At one point, the authors of the study even pointed out a potential connection between pornography and certain violent actions that scared women during sex. Sadly, many of the findings weren’t all that surprising given the prevalence of rape culture in society today.
Prevalence of Scary Sex
Out of the 2,533 participants in the study, 474 indicated that something scary had happened to them during sex. Of those 474 people, 347 responded to the open-ended prompt to share an example of a scary sexual experience they had experienced. The descriptions of “scary sex” varied from person to person, but included rape, sexual assault, anal sexual behavior, risk of STI and/or pregnancy, choking, aggression, threats, being held down, BDSM, and more. As is consistent with previous research and observations, women were significantly more likely than men to indicate having experienced scary sex (70.9% of female respondents vs 46.9% of male respondents [Herbenick, et al., 2019]). Indeed, of the 58 respondents that described rape/forced sex/sexual assault as having been their example of scary sex, 50 were women (which is approximately 86% of the respondents).
What Was Considered “Scary” by Respondents?
A particularly striking, though not altogether surprising, observation that was made in this study was the stark differences men and women had in the sources of their fear during sex. When asked about what made them feel scared during sex, women were more likely to respond based on physical safety. For instance, women were scared by their partners not stopping when they said no, unexpectedly choking them during sex, or being overly rough/aggressive. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to report being afraid of “the female period cycle,” the number of prior sexual partners a woman had, or a condom breaking. These gendered differences in sources of fear during sex might be a good topic of exploration for future research.
While noting that many of the men did have different answers than most of the women, there were also men who reported experiences that caused them to fear aggression, forced penetration, etc. Quite of few of these men alluded to the other person in the scary sexual encounter as being male. The researchers involved in this study noted that this finding was “consistent with literature demonstrating that gay and bisexual men are at disproportionately greater risk of sexual violence” (Hebernick, et al., 2019). It is also consistent with the overarching motive of sexual exploitation to cater to the fulfillment of male sexual desires, as our VP of Policy and Research, Lisa Thompson, pointed out in “The Global Supply Chain of Sexual Exploitation and the Necessity of Combating the Demand for Commercial Sex.”
An interesting point that sticks out in the study is the prevalence of choking and other aggressive behaviors among the responses given by participants when asked what scared them during sex. The researchers noted that “Like anal sex, choking appears to have become more commonly portrayed in sexually explicit media and sexual choking behaviors (and interest in choking) are associated with pornography use” (Hebernick, et al., 2019). Given that strangulation is a particularly common form of intimate partner violence (IPV), it is unsurprising that so many women reported feeling scared when their partners tried choking them without prior consent. While the researchers hesitated to put the full blame for these behaviors on pornography without doing more nuanced research, there is already much research regarding the effects pornography has on sexual aggression/violence.
Communication is Key to Avoiding Scary Sex
Another important point that was made during this study was that “unwanted, unpleasurable, and even frightening things can happen during sex that is otherwise wanted and pleasurable” (Hebernick, et al., 2019). In other words, while sexual intercourse itself, or even a particular sex act, may be consensual and pleasurable in the beginning, that can change in the midst of the sexual encounter. This reinforces the need for ongoing communication between partners, in order that the non-consensual and/or unpleasurable acts may be terminated and subsequently avoided. Communication includes listening to the verbal and/or physical cues given by one’s partner, taking care to remember that not all partners feel empowered to verbalize their displeasure.
Why Does Research About Being Scared During Sex Matter?
The idea that anyone is scared during sex is part of what motivates the National Center on Sexual Exploitation to so passionately work towards a world free from sexual exploitation. We believe that every individual, regardless of gender, religion, economic status, sexuality, etc., has inherent dignity. As this study showed, that dignity is too often stolen away from people in more ways than the average person tends to think about. That is why we make it part of our mission to educate the public on the numerous aspects of sexual exploitation and the ways those harms are interconnected. The fact that, as this study briefly pointed out, pornography use is connected with sexually violent behaviors against women is just one example of those interconnected harms.
It is important to note that feeling scared during sex is not normal. If you feel that you are being sexually abused, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673. You can also speak with someone online at this link, and find more information at rainn.org.
If you or a loved one is a victim in a domestically abusive relationship, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233 and there is also information on their website at https://www.thehotline.org/.
If you have other questions or need more information about how to help yourself or a loved one, you can always visit our Resources page. Please know that there is hope, that you are not alone, and that there are people who want to help you!