Dating abuse and sexual violence manifest themselves in countless ways, and there are often gray areas surrounding what constitutes abuse, rape, or sexual assault. The baseline for all kinds of sexual abuse is a lack of consent — voluntary, sober, enthusiastic, non-coerced, continual, active, honest, usually verbal consent. For right now, I want to focus on one specific part of that definition: “non-coerced.”
Sexual coercion is a form of dating abuse characterized by forcing a partner to give in to requests for sex even if they initially refused. A type of sexual abuse, it can be a one-time occurrence or ongoing in a relationship, and it really isn’t discussed as it should be despite being alarmingly common. In fact, 13% of women and 6% of men report experiencing sexual coercion at some point in their lives.
Not being taught about sexual coercion isn’t the only problem. We’re actually taught that it’s normal: a study found that a quarter of girls ages 12 to 20 agreed with the statement, “It is normal for guys to put some pressure on girls to do sexual things.” One in five of the women in that particular study also said they’d been pressured into sex.
How can we continue to brush over or even normalize a form of abuse?
The biggest barrier to moving past our preconceived notions of what’s “normal” in sexual relationships is that we haven’t been properly educated on this issue — so let’s break it all down.
What is sexual coercion?
It’s about control, not consent, and it involves manipulation, threats, or “guilt-tripping” someone into engaging in sexual activity of any kind. The person may say yes or say nothing at all, but it’s not because they don’t want to say no — it’s because they feel like they can’t.
What does sexual coercion look like?
Again, it comes in many forms.
- Pressuring: Usually, this means persisting until a partner is worn down and finally relents. It can also include giving a partner alcohol or drugs in an attempt to reduce their inhibitions and make them more likely to give in.
- Threatening or intimidating: Emotional threats can include things like “if you don’t have sex with me, I’ll have sex with someone else,” or “I’ll break up with you if you don’t have sex with me.” Breaking or smashing things, yelling, or otherwise intimidating someone who has refused to have sex also counts as coercion — agreeing to sex to stop or prevent a partner’s anger isn’t giving consent.
- Blackmailing: Threatening to out someone for their sexuality or share photos meant to be private counts as blackmailing. Other examples include violating a partner’s trust by swearing to tell any of their other secrets or saying things like, “I’ll tell everyone you’re a slut/prude.”
- Guilt-tripping: This could be anything from “If you really loved me, you’d have sex with me” to insinuating that sex is something someone owes their partner. It can even be just as simple as being noticeably sad or upset instead of respectful and understanding when someone says no. Often, victims of sexual coercion report having sex with someone because they were made to feel as if it were their duty or responsibility.
Overall, sex shouldn’t be a chore, and it’s not a right, either.
For more on what behaviors can be considered sexual coercion, click here.
How can it be considered sexual abuse if you didn’t say no?
In general, sexual abuse refers to any action that pressures or coerces someone to do something sexually they don’t want to do. Coercion also leads to negative psychological effects: like rape survivors, victims of sexual coercion can experience PTSD, depression, or anxiety afterward.
Often, perpetrators may claim that a partner’s silence meant yes because they didn’t say no. It’s shameful, inexcusable, and despicable that we still have to remind anyone in 2017 that when it comes to sex, this is false.
And to address the question of fault, victim-blaming never holds any merit. No matter what they were wearing, what they agreed to in the past, whether or not they flirted with their perpetrator, how much they had to drink — 100% of the culpability for assault or abuse lies with the person who felt so entitled to sex that they robbed someone of their right to autonomy over their body.
This myth [that sexual coercion is the victim’s fault] is hurtful because it makes it more difficult for the victim to speak out and more likely that they will blame themselves. Whether they were intoxicated or felt pressured, intimidated or obligated to act a certain way, sexual assault/abuse is never the victim’s fault.
Here are some resources for anyone seeking more information: