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Coercion: Learning to Live with No

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In the perfect world, everyone wants the same pizza topping on their shared order, all friends want to watch the same movie and are available at the same time, and you and your romantic partner are completely in sync with what sexual activities occur and when. But what happens when one individual has more frequent or different sexual desires than their partner?

Unfortunately, some individuals may choose coercion as a method to obtain the sexual gratification they seek. Sexual coercion is “using pressure or influence to get someone to agree to sex” (Planned Parenthood). Sexual coercion is a form of sexual assault, but studies indicate that over one in four men have sexually coerced someone, with perpetration numbers only slightly differing for women. 

Because coercion is so common, individuals might not recognize that they are engaging in coercive behaviors. In 2018, scientists found that individuals were more likely to perpetrate and be victims of coercion if they believed that sexually coercive behaviors were normal. Understanding what coercion is and how to recognize coercive behaviors can protect both would-be perpetrators and potential victims. Coercive behaviors include, but are not limited to, the following (as reported by Medical News Today):

  • Harassment: Repeatedly asking someone for sex when they have expressed disinterest is coercive behavior, especially if it intends to wear someone down until they give in.

  • Guilt: A person may try to make someone feel guilty for saying no to sex. For example, they may emphasize how long it has been since they last had sex, say that the person owes them sex, or that it is their obligation as their partner.

  • Lies: A person may use misinformation to coax someone to have sex with them. They may use myths about consent to convince someone they have no right to say no, make false promises, or tell them their demands or coercive behaviors are normal.

  • Threats to the relationship: A person may threaten to leave a relationship if someone does not consent to sex. Alternatively, they may play on their partner’s insecurities, such as by suggesting they are boring or unattractive if they say no, or that they will start being unfaithful.

  • Blackmail: This is when someone weaponizes secret information about a person to force them into having sex. For example, the perpetrator might threaten to release nude photographs online if someone does not consent to sex.

  • Fear and intimidation: A person may behave in a scary or intimidating manner when they do not get their way to pressure someone into sex.

  • Power imbalance: A person may use the power they get from their job, status, or wealth to coerce someone. They may threaten someone with job loss, lower grades, a tarnished reputation, or other negative consequences if they do not agree. Alternatively, they may promise rewards and opportunities.

  • Using substances: A person may encourage someone to use drugs or alcohol to make them more compliant and therefore easier to coerce into sex. If a person has sex with someone while inebriated or unconscious, this is rape.

Generally, people understand that sexual assault is illegal and that it is necessary to obtain consent before engaging in sexual activities with another person. It’s important to also remember that consent must be affirmative, meaning it is enthusiastically, voluntarily, knowingly, and mutually given by both parties. Coercion destroys the ability for consent because it robs any opportunity for the consent to be affirmative.

Although all forms of sexual assault can happen within committed romantic relationships, coercion may be an especially common form of assault within relationships because so many of coercive behaviors are widely depicted in popular media. The trope of the boyfriend or husband who doesn’t stop asking for sex within a heterosexual relationship is unfortunately common, and victims of coercion may feel uncomfortable with the sexual situations they find themselves in, but not be able to recognize why. 

By learning about coercion and its effects, potential perpetrators of coercion can avoid using coercive tactics and gracefully accept situations in which they do not obtain affirmative consent. Additionally, potential victims of coercion can recognize when they are being subjected to coercive behavior and protect themselves from individuals who are not sensitive to their wants and desires.

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