What Everyone Needs to Understand About Sexual Coercion

What is sexual coercion and how can it be prevented?

Posted Mar 08, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Key Points:

  • Sexual coercion refers to unwanted sexual activity that occurs after being pressured in non-physical ways.
  • Sexually coerced women are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress, self-blame, depression, and other negative feelings.  
  • Such coercion is often seen in the context of abusive relationships.
  • Agreeing to sexual activity after coercion is abusive behavior, but is not likely considered a crime.

Since the #meToo movement, the term sexual coercion is increasingly referenced in the media to refer to unwanted sexual behavior.  However, for many, the term remains unclear.

What is sexual coercion?

Sexual coercion refers to any unwanted sexual activity that occurs after being pressured in non-physical ways. It is estimated that one in three women and one in ten men have experienced sexual coercion, although the rates may be much higher as sexual coercion is still not well understood. Sexual coercion can occur in the context of marital and dating relationships and is most likely to happen with someone with whom you already have a relationship.  

Sexual coercion can involve verbal pressure or manipulation and can include:

  • Repeated requests or feeling badgered into having sex.
  • Using guilt or shame to pressure someone—you would do it if you loved me.
  • Threatening the loss of the relationship or infidelity if one does not engage in sex.
  • Other forms of emotional blackmail.
  • Threats to your children, home, or job.
  • Threats to lie about or spread rumors about you.
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay. Pixabay license no attribution required
Source: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay. Pixabay license no attribution required

However, not all verbal coercion looks negative. Some women report that their partners use positively framed statements such as compliments, promises, and sweet talk to coerce sex. While sweet-talking or pressuring your partner into sex may feel to some like a normal part of a relationship, anytime that one engages in sexual activity because they feel pressured or forced, it is sexual coercion.

The consequences of sexual coercion

Research has found that women who experience sexual coercion are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress, self-blame and criticism, depression, anger, and lower sexual desire and satisfaction.

Feeling pressured to engage in sexual activity when you do not want to, is sexual coercion.  Like many things, there is a continuum.  Milder forms of sexual coercion can feel uncomfortable or lead you to feel bad about the experience, whereas more severe forms can be traumatizing and lead to lasting consequences.  Sexual coercion is often seen in the context of abusive relationships and the perpetrator often engages in multiple forms of coercive control.

Even if the sexual behavior is unwanted, women are less likely to identify behavior as coercive if they have previously engaged in sexual relations with the individual.

Is sexual coercion a crime?

There is a fine line between coerced sex and sexual assault.  Any sexual activity that occurs without consent or using physical force is sexual assault and is a crime.  However, if you agree to sexual activity after being badgered, guilted, or manipulated by someone, this is abusive behavior, but it would likely not be considered a crime.

If you are feeling pressured to engage in unwanted sexual behavior, it is important to clearly state to the individual that you do not want to engage in the behavior and then leave the situation.  If the person is in a position of power and control, leave the situation and report them to authorities, or human resources.  If the person continues the behavior despite your statement that they should stop, or they threaten you or your family, leave, and call 911.

Depending on the duration and your experience of sexual coercion or sexual assault you may also want to reach out to a crisis line for support and referral for treatment.

How can we prevent sexual coercion?

Sexual coercion must be addressed on multiple levels.  First, we need to change societal norms regarding what consensual relationships look like.  Some of this work was started with the #MeToo movement and we have seen changes in attitudes and behaviors.  Sexual coercion may not always be obvious and thus education about what it looks and feels like and the harm it can cause are vital.  Next, we must continue to enforce egalitarian gender norms so that women and men are viewed as equal partners in a relationship and foster open communication and dialogue around issues related to sex within the relationship.  Finally, we must teach children and teens about consent and how to behave in egalitarian partnerships. 

Facebook image: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

References

For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.