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Why It’s Not Always Easy to Turn Away an Unwanted Sexual Advance

2. Feeling physically trapped.

Key points

  • People may be reluctant to reject unwanted advances when they are concerned for their safety or feel trapped.
  • When one person holds a position of power, the other may fear the repercussions of non-compliance.
  • Low self-esteem can make people more vulnerable to social pressure or to feeling a sense of obligation.
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Despite efforts to educate people about the importance of saying “no” to unwanted overtures, doing so in reality is not always as straightforward as it should be. Research suggests that unwanted sexual experiences are common, and that even those that don’t meet definitions of sexual assault can cause harm.

The following are six situations where it might be difficult for someone to express how they actually feel.

1. When initial attempts to say “no” are met with anger.

Even if violence is not directly threatened, responding to someone’s refusal or hesitation with anger can imply that violence is possible. Researchers have found that this behavior can represent a form of verbal or situational coercion, which can make people feel like it’s safer to comply than risk the potential negative consequences of saying no.

2. When a person feels physically trapped.

Ethicists have argued that supporting people’s ability to give genuine consent requires creating an environment where exiting a situation at will is safe and easy. Being in a secluded location or dependent on someone else for a ride, for example, might heighten the sense of having no escape, especially if the other person doesn’t make it clear that leaving the interaction at any time is both possible and okay.

3. When there is an imbalance of power.

When one person has greater power or authority, the other may fear that not complying with their wishes could lead to negative professional or social outcomes. Because power can impair perspective-taking, people in power may fail to recognize when they put others in uncomfortable positions—or, in some cases, they might intentionally take advantage of the power imbalance to get their way.

4. When the situation is ambiguous or confusing.

Guidance for how to respond to unwanted advances often assumes that one partner will explicitly ask for consent to move forward, giving the other a chance to consider the request and respond. In reality, advances may happen unexpectedly or in ways that are difficult to initially interpret. Researchers argue that politeness norms can make people cautious about insinuating that someone is making a move if it’s not yet totally clear—or things might change so quickly that they simply don’t have a chance to intervene before the unwanted behavior has already occurred.

5. When a person is frequently exposed to disparaging comments.

Research finds that belittling treatment can diminish a person’s self-esteem, which can, in turn, make them feel more pressure to please others, even if that involves doing something they’re not comfortable with. It may also create a vicious cycle in which they feel that they are less deserving of respectful treatment. Relationships in which one partner uses frequent insults—especially those that devalue their partner’s self-worth or accuse them of promiscuity—have been shown to come with higher levels of sexual coercion.

6. When a person feels a sense of obligation.

In addition to being more susceptible to poor treatment, research suggests that people with less secure self-esteem may be more likely to feel a sense of obligation to comply with unwanted requests. They may feel a responsibility to follow what they perceive to be the expectations of a romantic relationship rather than risk creating tension or letting their partner down. This situation can be exacerbated by a partner who uses manipulative tactics to make the other person feel guilty or indebted to them.

These and other factors can complicate people’s ability to freely choose to engage in intimate acts, leading to distressing and sometimes traumatic interactions. To promote healthy relationships, we should strive to create conditions in which people can authentically express their choices without fear of reprisal, even—and especially—if that choice is “no.”


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Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102–1110.

Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1068–1074.

Kern, S. G., & Peterson, Z. D. (2020). From freewill to force: Examining types of coercion and psychological outcomes in unwanted sex. Journal of Sex Research, 57(5), 570–584.