Unwanted Sexual Activity among Married Women in Urban China

Article excerpt

This article examines one of the few population-based surveys of unwanted sexual activity anywhere. Plausibly, unwanted sexual activities within marriage could be common in places such as China. Long dominated by a patriarchal sexual regime, Chinese women and men were taught that women have few sexual desires of their own, that male's interests should predominate, and that marital sex is synonymous with reproduction (Pan, 1993; Ruan, 1991). Despite greater equality for women in the public sphere over the last half-century, repression of many forms of sexual expression remained common (Renaud, Byers, & Pan, 1997). More recently, with economic reform, foreign contact, and a more open media, sexual norms have liberalized and there is more emphasis on sexual satisfaction for women (Bullough & Ruan, 1994; Evans 1995; Higgins, Zheng, Liu, & Sun, 2002; Zhang, 1999). Thus, precisely what one should expect in China is unclear. With data from a survey that is representative of the urban adult population aged 2064, this study provides the first national estimates of unwanted sexual activity and its correlates.

Our analysis is of unwanted sexual activity--specifically sex that does not necessarily involve use of physical force (Basile, 1999; Sprecher et al., 1994). One way to characterize the phenomenon is that of "... situations in which a person freely consents to sexual activity with a partner without experiencing a concomitant desire for the initiated sexual activity. In a sense, they feign sexual desire or interest (O'Sullivan & Allgeier, 1998, p. 234)." The reasons women "go along" vary. Wives often report that unwanted intercourse is related not so much to force or threats of force as to a sense of wifely duty (what Finkelhor & Yllo (1985) label "social coercion") and to the fear that their husband will seek other partners if he is not satisfied sexually at home (Im-em, Archvanitkul, & KIanchanachitra, 2004; Knodel et. al., 1999). In one U.S. national study, 34% of women reported unwanted sex with a husband or partner in their lifetime, and 20% of women reported unwanted marital sex with their current husband ever (Basile, 2002). Reasons for consenting included: it was her "duty", he begged and pleaded, he spent money on her, he back rubbed or kissed her, he bullied and humiliated her, he threatened to hurt her, he used physical force on her. While 4-9% of women were threatened or forced by the current husband, other reasons were common. In a random sample of San Francisco women, 26% reported ever having unwanted sex with her husband--14% reported spousal rape (Russell, 1982). In a largely urban study of women aged 25-49 in Thailand, 16% reported unwanted sex, including by force (2-4%) or out of fear (15%), last year (Im-em et al., 2004).

Methodological issues abound. Most research has been for dating relationships, which may or may not be generalizable to marital relationships (Blythe et al., 2006; Impett & Peplau, 2002; O'Sullivan & Allgeier, 1998; Sprecher, Hatfield, Cortese, Potapova, & Levitskaya, 1994). The negative consequences of forced sex have been documented (Basile, 2002; Blythe, Fortenberry, Temkit, Tu, & Orr, 2006). Sexual coercion victims experience anxiety, depression, relationship and sexual difficulties, and poor health (Becker, Skinner, Abel, & Cichon, 1986; Feldman-Summers, Gordon, & Megher, 1979; Gidycz & Koss, 1991; Mandoki & Burkhart, 1991; though also see Oswald & Russell 2006). Whether similar consequences appear in more general experiences of unwanted sex is uncertain. Our study extends the existing literature by assessing whether unwanted sexual activity in marriage, typically without force, is subject to the same risk factors and has consequences similar to other forms of unwanted sex.

Risk Factors

Previous research on women's sexual relationships suggests multiple risk factors for women's submission to unwanted sexual activity. …