From idioms about paying for cows versus getting free milk, to baseball metaphors (did you score? get to third base?), and songs like Sean Paul’s catchy “Give It Up to Me,” the message is clear: Sex is either a triumphant male conquest, or it’s a game to be won by men and a prize to be awarded them by women.
The result is that what may seem like harmless creativity with language, or a benign dating ritual, is actually a tool that reinforces a seemingly interminable system of sexual double standards – and inauthentic experiences, based on our dependence on stale gender expectations.
Indeed, generations of American men have learned that they just need to be persistent about pursuing sex, and generations of American women have learned that they’re more valuable if they refuse sex – at least initially – regardless of how they truly feel.
The real world consequences of such views can be scary.
For example, a study published in Communication Research looked at the effects of portrayals of the persistent pursuit of a female character in romantic comedies. The researchers found that if a viewer thought that what they were seeing seemed realistic, they were more likely to agree with myths such as “Many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard-to-get and changed their minds afterwards!”
But it’s not just the acceptance of myths about sex that are the problem.
Here are five more reasons why the idea that guys just need to be relentless in their attempts to get women to sleep with them is BS.
1. It Makes Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality
The idea that cishetero men need to pursue cishetero women for sex, and that these women need to deflect those pursuits, is yet another way that we reinforce the dominant narrative of sex as a gendered competition with clear winners and losers.
But this competition harms people of all a/genders and sexual orientations in a number of ways.
One is that it serves to reinforce a limited and socially constructed understanding of gender. Another is that when we have one dominant model for sex, it can bleed into a range of arenas. Indeed, it can even recreate itself in queer relationships when people fall into unequal power dynamics and roles.
Additionally, this narrative simply makes it hard for anyone to develop close relationships, both platonic or sexual (since friends and acquaintances are often seen as rivals in competition for a partner), and potential and actual partners are locked in a battle over sex where there is no way for all parties to win.
2. It Forces People into Deceptive Gender-Based Behaviors
The idea that men should expect to work at getting women to agree to sex is one of the best ways that cishetero expectations of behavior teach people that men and women are inherently different and can never be honest with each other.
In this worldview, women and girls must follow a script where if they say yes to sex too soon (whatever “too soon” means at any given time, in any given place), then they’re derided as easy and slutty.
Men and boys, on the other hand, must constantly defend their “masculinity” by aggressively chasing sex with women, lest they be perceived as gay.
The idea that men must actively work to convince hesitant women to have sex with them is positioned as an elaborate dance that has to happen prior to sex.
But the rules of this dance limit everyone – since not only may they change at any given point, but they also require women who want to have sex to pretend differently, and men who don’t to act as if they do.
Anyone who breaks the rules (and if you think there aren’t rules, consider the reason people refer to the “bro code” or use phrases like “chicks before dicks,” a cissexist phrase) is then seen as transgressive and treated almost as a gender-traitor.
Indeed, in a world where, for a lot of hetero men, being perceived of as gay is still considered one of the most insulting things around, and where boys are taught from day one that they need to assert their male dominance, any deviation from the script can find them saddled with a label (gay, sissy) that they feel will brand and exclude them from mainstream male culture – regardless of their actual gender identity or sexual orientation.
So to avoid this fate, many will adopt the behaviors of sexual dominance they think offer protection from social stigma.
3. It Reinforces the Idea That You Don’t Need Consent for Sex
Much of what drives the idea that men just need to be more persistent about getting sex is based on the idea that women say no when they really mean yes.
And while we are well past the simple “no means no” understanding of consent for sex, that sure doesn’t mean that no means anything else!
But we live in a world where from an early age, kids are taught that their consent just doesn’t matter. We see this when we force kids to hug and kiss relatives, deny their feelings (“You’re not really upset about that, are you?”), or dismiss bad behavior with the tired excuse that “boys will be boys.”
And as they get older, we reinforce this through a rape culture that shames girls and women for their clothes and sexual choices, casually blames victims, and teaches that it’s a woman’s job to prevent sexual assault, since men are simply raging sex fiends that can’t be expected to control themselves.
But when we tell men to ignore what women are saying and tell women to lie about how they really feel, what else are we doing but blatantly saying that consent simply isn’t necessary?
4. It Teaches Boys and Men That Sex Is a Competition
So much of the way we talk about sex positions it as something to be won. Sex is typically seen as a male conquest that, if it’s really worthwhile, is assumed to have been hard-earned.
And remember that thing about baseball tropes? Well, those analogies are actually pretty powerful ones. So powerful, in fact, that sexuality educator Al Vernacchio has called them out specifically as one of the ways we reinforce the idea of sex as a battle for dominance.
As he explains in a TEDxTalk:
“There are the bases, which refer to specific sexual activities that happen in a very specific order, ultimately resulting in scoring a run or hitting a home run, which is usually having vaginal intercourse to the point of orgasm – at least for the guy. […] This baseball model is incredibly problematic. It’s sexist. It’s heterosexist. It’s competitive. It’s goal-directed. And it can’t result in healthy sexuality developing in young people or in adults. So we need a new model.”
The new model that Vernacchio suggests is talking about sexual experiences in pizza terms. Pizza, he explains, is not bound by the same rules as a game, and the experience of enjoying pizza is one that can be shared equally with another person. Most importantly, even if your tastes differ – say, you like pepperoni and your partner goes for plain cheese – no one is trying to win at pizza.
Sex isn’t a contest. It shouldn’t have a winner or a loser.
And while you might have heard people talk about the thrill of the chase, positioning sex in this way turns humans into predators and prey – and is just creepy all around.
5. It Teaches Men and Boys That They’re Entitled to Sex
It probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise to you that studies have found that men are more likely to feel entitled to everything from job promotions to sex than are women.
Spurned on by things like men’s rights groups and so-called pick-up artists, such attitudes are far from harmless. Indeed, in extreme and terrifying cases, male sexual entitlement has lead to some gruesome situations where men who feel women rejected their sexual advances turn violent.
But even when physical violence is not the outcome of this attitude, misogyny, sexism and trans- and homophobia sure can be. That’s because when we adopt the view that a sexist cishetero script is the one to follow, we open the door to excuse particularly hostile responses to people who flat out reject such a vision.
No one is entitled to sex. Sadly, some men just don’t seem to get that.
Really, everywhere we turn, the message is clear: Guys are told that they need to pursue women who, they’re told, are only really worthwhile partners if they make them wait or work for sex, and then change their minds. And once they do, men are expected to bask in their triumph.
But we need to challenge the idea that men are naturally sexual aggressors and that women need to be “romanced” and pursued before “agreeing” to have sex.
Doing so won’t throw off centuries of dating culture. Rather, it will allow for more honest, safer, and egalitarian experiences. And that’s something that will benefit people of all a/genders.
Ellen Friedrichs is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometimes writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen runs a middle and high school health education program and teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.