Gendered a (symmetries): probing experiences of sexual coercion among female students at a Zimbabwean university.
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Overtones of ‘docility’, ‘passivity’ and ‘vulnerability’ characterise representations of female university students’ sexuality. Working within a gendered and feminist framework, I draw on the lived experiences of sexual coercion among female university students to understand the extent to which female students enact or challenge these assertions. Experiences of sexual coercion among female university students offered a potent context to explore matrices of power and subsequent exercise of sexual power, agency and subjectivity by the victims. I also examine how female university students perceive and interpret their experiences of sexual coercion. I further sought to understand the extent to which these interpretations and experiences were culturally and socially conscripted. The theoretical, methodological and analytical underpinnings of this study were informed by social constructionist epistemology. I adopted a sequential explanatory mixed-method design which gives pre-eminence to qualitative and interpretive methods. I utilised a survey questionnaire in the initial phases of research followed by interpretive methods including in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and observation. Analysis and interpretation of data was done using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences, thematic and content analysis. The study findings are presented in the form of tables, graphs and themes which emerged from the inquiry. The narratives of female university students presented a sexually volatile context. Their experiences and interpretations of sexual coercion were an interplay of social, cultural and individual factors. Though sexual coercion was endemic at the university, it was highly marginalised and underreported. The findings of this study present a dissent from notions of sexual passivity and docility held in extant literature. Overt and subtle reactions to sexual coercion in the form of negotiations, antagonistic reactions and (re)construction of dominant sexual practices and norms by female university students demonstrated significant levels of agency, subjectivity and power. Constructions of femininity among some female students were framed around sexual control, autonomy, independence and assertiveness illustrated by an emerging group of “sexually empowered” female university students. The study findings inform interventions which consider female university students as active and agentic beings.