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What is Sexual Coercion?

Sexual coercion is a term being used more commonly in popular culture to refer to the tactics used to pressure an individual into unwanted sexual activity, however it remains relatively poorly understood. The confusion lies in part because sexual coercion can refer to a wide variety of behaviors or tactics, ranging from sweet-talking someone, to pouting or trying to elicit sympathy, to the use of threats of physical harm to get an unwilling partner to engage in sexual relations. In the research literature, sexual coercion has generally been defined as the use of nonphysical strategies and tactics to engage in sexual contact with a non-consenting individual. Such coercive tactics can include:

  • Use of pressure

  • Guilt

  • Shame

  • Badgering

  • Expressing dissatisfaction with the relationship

  • Eliciting sympathy (trying to get the person to feel sorry for them)

  • Pouting

  • Lying

  • Verbal threats

  • Emotional blackmail

  • Ignoring of requests to cease sexual activity

  • Use of alcohol and/or drugs to lower inhibitions

However, not all coercive strategies may come across as negative. Verbal coercion can also involve what is known as positive verbal coercion in which one individual pressures another into unwanted sexual activity using sweet-talk to entice them to have unwanted sexual relations. Examples of positive verbal coercion include:
Use of compliments (“you’re so beautiful”)
Indicating that it will be good for the relationship ("it will make us more committed to one another")
Professing love (“you know I love you and you love me”)
While the research on sexual coercion generally refers primarily to verbal tactics, others have included physical tactics as part of the definition of sexual coercion. In one study, many women reported that they also experienced physical sexual contact, such as kissing or sexual touching, in addition to the verbally coercive strategies, while almost 25 percent reported physical aggression such as being held down, which constitutes a sexual assault. Sexual coercion is not uncommon. It is estimated that between 25 to 33 percent of all college-aged men have used sexual coercion since age 14. One study of 304 college men found that almost one-third (31.9 percent) used sexual coercion to obtain sexual contact with a non-consenting partner. Of those:

  • 86.4 percent of men reported pretending to care more for the woman than they did

  • 24.7 percent reported using verbal threats

  • 18.5 percent used continual arguments

  • 2.5 percent threatened to end the relationship

One-third of the men reported using more than one sexually coercive behavior to obtain sexual contact. While most of the research focuses on coercive behavior employed by men on women, women can also engage in coercive behavior, and it is also seen in same-sex relationships. It can also be confusing, as people can experience sexual coercion even if they have previously engaged in consensual sexual contact with the individual or are in a committed relationship, or are married. The reason that we need to talk more about sexual coercion is that it can have negative consequences for those who experience it. In addition to potentially being a sexual crime, studies found that those who experience sexual coercive sexual experiences can have negative long-term psychological symptoms, including:
  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms

  • Trauma symptoms

  • Impact on social life

  • Feelings of self-blame

  • Psychosocial distress

  • Anxiety about sex

There can also be long-term physical consequences, including STIs and pregnancy—especially if someone has been coerced into sexual activity without adequate protection (also known as reproductive coercion). No one should feel pressure to engage in sexual relations that they do not want. Sexual relationships should be 100 percent consensual and something that is wanted by both parties equally. If you feel that you are being coerced into unwanted sexual relations and you feel safe, indicate that the behavior is unwanted and leave the situation. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you believe that you have experienced a nonconsensual sexual experience, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline to get help.
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