Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, guilted, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way.1 Coercion can make you think you owe sex to someone. It might be from someone who has power over you or a romantic partner. Sexual coercion is never okay and help is available for victims.
Sexual Coercion Definition
Sexual coercion comes in many forms. Sometimes, it may be difficult to identify because it may not be as obvious as other forms of sexual trauma and assault. Although there may not be physical aggression, those being coerced are giving in to sexual contact against their will, and therefore unable to give their consent. This lack of consent is where the violation occurs, and in many cases is against the law.
Is Coercion Sexual Assault?
Yes, sexual coercion is sexual assault. Coercion does not include consent, therefore assault is the appropriate term for any sexual coercion. If there is any penetration involved with the coerced sexual contact, that would fall into the category of rape, which is also a crime.
Who Commits Sexual Coercion?
Sexual coercion can be committed by anyone, but is most likely to occur with someone you already have some type of relationship with.1 It can feel like pressure from another person to engage in some kind of physical or sexual contact. Many people feel like it’s easier to go along with it even if they don’t want to because the other person isn’t giving in. This can also happen between friends, friends-of-friends, relatives, and colleagues.
Common Coercion Tactics
Sexual coercion tactics might include:
- Making frequent and persistent attempts at sexual contact
- Using alcohol or drugs to loosen your inhibitions
- Making you feel as if it is too late to say “no”
- Threatening your job, home, family, or reputation
- Using emotional abuse methods like guilt tripping and name calling
- Frequent touching of shoulders, back, arms, etc.
Coercion vs. Consent
To understand the difference between consensual and coercive sex, let us first understand what consensual sex involves. Consent is freely and voluntarily given and can be withdrawn at any time. Consent can only be given when a person is able to understand the fact, nature, and extent of the sexual act.2
Under the Influence of Alcohol
If a person is mentally or physically incapacitated or impaired, such as under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the person may not understand and therefore is unable to consent.
Giving consent to some form of sexual activity does not automatically mean that consent for other forms of sexual activities are given. Further, consent for past sexual activities does not imply continued consent for future activities. You never have to have sexual contact when you do not want to. Sexual contact without your consent is assault.
Sexual Coercion Examples
Sexual coercion may occur in many ways other than those mentioned below. In these examples, consent may be given, but not freely, because of pressure, guilt, or threat. It is not truly consent if you are afraid or unable to say “no.”3
Here are some examples of sexual coercion:
In this scenario, sexual coercion results from repetitive asking and questioning until you are so worn down that you give in. This can happen any time, from a first date to those in long term relationships and marriages. The person is persistent and it can feel easier to just go with it than continue defending your answer.
Taking Away Agency
Someone may take away your chances to say no and use the gray area to pursue and act on sexual advances. Even if you didn’t audibly say “no,” there is no “yes,” so therefore it is still coercion. In some instances, saying no can be dangerous so it feels safer to say nothing instead, which is interpreted as a yes. In any relationship, the absence of “no” does not automatically mean “yes.”
Someone may tell you that you’re feeling a certain way in order to convince you to engage in sexual behaviors even if you don’t want to. They may also say they are okay without the physical contact, but their actions and behaviors say otherwise. All of these tactics are emotionally manipulative. It becomes emotionally abusive if they begin to withhold any kind of communication, contact, or safety in the relationship until they get what they want.
Saying It Is Your Duty
In this scenario, sexual coercion results from being made to feel obligated to engage in a sexual act. It may be because your date has just paid for the meal, activities, etc. and expects you to repay them sexually. Maybe your partner or spouse feels that this is your duty in the relationship, and that you are not allowed to refuse.
Although freely engaging in sexual acts in either situation is no reason for concern, no one should feel required to do so. A healthy relationship is built from trust and mutual respect. Making sexual demands not only violates this, but it shows little respect for your personal boundaries.
Sexual coercion through guilt occurs when you are given the option to refuse, but are made to feel bad for doing so, and you give in to the advances. Your partner may express that they “have needs” and threaten to cheat or end the relationship to get those needs met. Or maybe they say things like “But you’ve already got me all worked up,” suggesting you are somehow at fault, or “If you really loved me, you’d do it” to pressure you to prove your love for them.
Anyone has the right to revoke consent at any time, for any reason. If your partner loves and respects you, they should respect your right to choose and say “no” even if that is not what they want.
Many students, especially those who are coming of age and are navigating the world through a new lens, may be more susceptible to sexual coercion because of peer pressure. Often, they consent to sex without thinking they have a choice, often due to inexperience or lack of preventative education.4
Coercion may include teasing, frequent requests, the use of drugs or alcohol, or even anger as means to convince a partner or peer to consent to sexual behavior. The coerced individual often consents to the activity because they do not feel that their decision not to engage will be respected, or they may be belittled if they say “no.”
At Work or School
Sexual coercion at work or school is typically used in exchange of some incentive. An abusive boss or supervisor may promise a promotion or raise or a professor my promise a passing grade in exchange for you engaging in sexual acts. A co-worker or classmate may suggest a sexual favor in exchange for their help on a project or assignment you are having difficulty completing. Sexual coercion also occurs when someone attempts to wear you down by repeatedly making sexual advances towards you.
This form of sexual coercion also falls under the category of sexual harassment, which is against the law. Academic and professional advancement should be based on your qualifications and performance, not sexual favors. Further, these acts can create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment, which violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments.2,5
Sexual coercion in housing includes demands for sex or sexual acts in order to buy, rent, or continue renting a home. Coercion can come from the landlord, property manager, maintenance worker, or a member of the housing authority. Sexual coercion occurs, for example, when a tenant is pressured or tricked into performing sexual favors in order to gain housing, in place of rent, to avoid eviction, or in order to have their home properly serviced.
Sexual coercion in housing, a form of sexual harassment, is illegal and is a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Tenants who have experienced this are encouraged to contact the Department of Justice through the Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative to report the act, no matter how long ago it occurred.
How to Respond to Sexual Coercion in the Moment
Responding to sexual coercion can be uncomfortable or even intimidating. The type of scenario will determine how someone can or will react. It is important to be clear and direct in your response.
Here are some possible examples of responses:
- “I like you. I’d like to continue developing a relationship. I don’t have sex with someone until I know if we want to take the relationship further.”
- “I don’t want to have sex with you.”
- “If I gave you the impression I wanted to have sex, I apologize. If so, tell me what I need to do to not give a false impression.”
- “Thank you for respecting my choice to not have sex. If we continue developing a relationship, we can decide together when we will have sex.”
In all cases, if the person is not listening to you, the best choice to manage a coercive environment is to leave the situation. Once you are safely away from the coercive acts, you will be able to seek the needed support in addressing your concerns.
How to Get Help After Being Sexually Coerced
Many forms of sexual coercion are illegal. You have the right to report this to the police as it is considered a crime. To add, it’s important to speak with your healthcare providers and get tested for any communicable diseases and treatment moving forward. Speaking with a therapist is another good step to take, as it is common to experience sexual assault post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being sexually coerced and they can get you started on the path of healing sexual trauma. Speaking to friends and family who you trust is also important as it can feel lonely days and weeks afterward, and having community around you can be healing.
Resources for Sexual Coercion
Hotlines such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline or Love Is Respect have trained professionals available to provide support in navigating your situation and locating help for you. Both hotlines provide 24/7 access via phone and online. Depending on the circumstances, they can also aid in reporting this person to the proper authorities.
If It Happens at Work
If this occurs in the workplace, it is also sexual harassment that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and should be reported. Reporting coercive behaviors can not only stop the harassment but may also help prevent repeated harassment of others. If you are experiencing this form of coercion, refer to your company’s handbook for the sexual harassment policy for the procedure to follow.6 If you believe you have a Title VII claim, you have the right to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).
If It Happens at School
Sexual harassment and coercion at school are forms of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.2 Students would follow similar steps as the workplace to address these concerns. Their student handbook should have a sexual harassment policy that can be followed to report sexual coercion, even if it occurred outside of school grounds. Reaching out to a parent or trusted staff member for support will help to navigate through this and decide the best course of action, especially if the student is under the age of 18. Reports may also be made to a deputy Title IX coordinator, police, and the school’s security personnel.
The Clery Act is a federal law that imposes basic requirements for handling incidents of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. If a student feels the school did not provide a proper investigation, a complaint may be filed with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) or the U.S. Department of Justice asking the agency to investigate the school for violations.2
How Therapy Can Help After Sexual Coercion
Sexual coercion can result in feelings of guilt, regret, or traumatization. In some cases, people seek support from a therapist to address this as well as to address any triggers that have developed as a result. Sexual coercion is never your fault and therapy can help gain that understanding
Talking to a therapist gives you a safe space to process the experience, including challenging the negative and unhelpful thoughts that have developed around guilt and regret. Therapy can also provide you with helpful tools and skills that can be used to empower against similar situations in the future, including any emotional triggers that may exist.
How to Get Help for Someone Who Has Been Sexually Coerced
If you know someone who has been sexually coerced, you may be unsure what to do or say to them to support them. First, make sure you are on the same page in terms of identifying the acts as sexual coercion. In addition to this article, the National Sexual Assault Hotline as well as Love Is Respect have resources available to help distinguish between sexual coercion or other forms of sexual misconduct.
Additionally, your loved one may need moral support around confronting the coercive behaviors, both directly and indirectly. Be mindful not to apply pressure or guilt to encourage them to respond; that would create an additional coercive environment for them instead of a safe one. Instead, help them weigh their options to determine who should be contacted. If you are under the age of 18, identify an adult that they trust to talk to about the sexual coercion.
For Further Reading
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission
- National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673)
- Love Is Respect – Call or Text: LOVEIS to 866-331-9474
- Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative Line 844-380-6178