Sexual Coercion: When 'Yes' Means 'No'

Healthy Sexual Choices
Part 3 of 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at the many components of sexual readiness, reasons why young people choose to and not to engage in sex and how those reasons fit into healthy decision-making. In Part 3 below, you’ll find information about sexual coercion – how to identify it and some ways of responding to it.

Developing your values concerning sex gives you a solid foundation on which to make healthy sexual choices. Because it’s always possible to lose your resolve in the moment and make a choice you’re not completely comfortable with, it is much better to think through ahead of time how you will respond in certain circumstances. Almost everyone will experience sexual pressure at some time or another, so it is to your benefit to learn how to recognize manipulative techniques and to have an idea of how to respond to them.

When someone is manipulated into sexual activity – be it intercourse or other forms of physical contact such as kissing or genital touching – he or she is experiencing sexual coercion. Coercion is a form of pressure that can take place on the emotional and psychological level, and sometimes it can involve physical force. Psychological and emotional coercion are meant to convince a person to change his or her “no” or “maybe” into a “yes” through the use of mind games. While the use of physical force is easy to recognize, psychological and emotional coercion are much more subtle, making them harder to identify and react to in a way that upholds your values.

The organization Band Back Together reports that about 70% of college students say they have experienced sexual coercion, and 33% admit to having practiced it. It’s hard to get an accurate estimate of how often coercion occurs (especially within the high school population) as many people may have experienced coercion, but did not actually identify it as such and/or report it. What we do know is that it’s very common. Being aware of what sexual coercion looks like – and feels like – before you encounter it will prepare you to respond in a way consistent with your personal values.

The remainder of this article is devoted to three areas that will help you recognize and deal with sexual coercion. The next section below concerns identifying different ways in which a person may attempt to coerce another. Then, we address acknowledging that sexual coercion is wrong. Finally, we provide some suggestions for developing your skills to respond to such manipulation. By identifying coercion, acknowledging that it is wrong and developing your ability to respond, you will be equipping yourself to make healthy choices and live according to the personal values that you have established.

Identifying Sexual Coercion Tactics

The following are some common ways in which a person may attempt to coerce another:

  • Taking Advantage of Low Self-Esteem

Some people coerce others into sexual activity by taking advantage of low self-esteem. If you don’t have a healthy sense of self-worth, it’s easy to feel like the best thing for you to do is whatever will make someone else happy, because you assume that others are more worthy of happiness, comfort, respect, etc. than you.

If someone tries to convince you to have sex by saying, “Don’t you want me to be happy?” that person is probably trying to take advantage of low self-esteem, because he or she is insinuating that his or her happiness is more important than your own. If you agree, you may give into this form of pressure.

  • Acting like he/she is “owed” sex

Some individuals treat sex like something they are owed in exchange for something else. For example, some people buy others gifts, dinners, etc. and expect sex in return. They may try to guilt a person into sex by pointing out how much they’ve done for him or her.

  • Social Pressure

Social pressure occurs when someone says you should base your sexual decision on what others are doing or how they might judge your decision to abstain. A manipulative partner may call you a “prude,” suggesting that you’re socially inferior for not having sex. He or she may say that everyone’s doing it, so something is wrong with you for not.

  • Threats

A partner may threaten another in a variety of ways. He or she may threaten to end the relationship if sex is not a component of it, or may threaten to cheat on the partner. In more extreme cases, a person may threaten physical violence. In the worst case, a person may actually perform such violence.

  • Emotional Appeal

A partner may say that, if you loved him or her, you’d have sex. The idea here is that you’re making someone feel unloved if you don’t give the person what he or she wants.

  • Alcohol/Drugs

Alcohol and drugs interfere with a person’s judgment. Some people purposely try to get others drunk or high in order to make sexual coercion easier.

Know that It’s Wrong

The first step is identifying coercive techniques; the second is seeing them as a problem. It’s important to be aware of these types of sexual coercion not just to avoid becoming their victim, but to avoid practicing them oneself. Many of the above manipulation tactics have been normalized in our culture – movies and TV shows constantly portray young men as being “on the prowl,” doing whatever they can to obtain sex from young women. This can lead young women to expect and accept the behavior, and young men not to realize that they, too, can fall prey to sexual coercion. It can also lead people to think that it’s okay to employ such techniques themselves. It’s not.

Studies into youth attitudes about sexually coercive practices reveal a trend toward accepting them. One survey of young people aged 11 to 14, conducted by the Campus Advocacy Network in Chicago, provided the following results:

  • 51% of boys and 41% of girls said that forced sex is acceptable if a male spends lots of money on a female
  • 31% of boys and 32% of girls said that rape is acceptable when a woman has past sexual experience
  • 65% of boys and 47% of girls said that rape is acceptable if the couple has been dating for more than half a year
  • 87% of boys and 79% of girls said that sexual assault is acceptable if a man and woman are married

These survey questions concerned forced sexual activity; we can imagine that the percentages of young people who considered certain behaviors acceptable would be higher if the questions were expanded to emotional and psychological coercion, which can be mistaken for harmless convincing.

Like rape, sexual coercion is never okay (some consider coercion to be a subset of rape). Your body is your own, and nobody has a right to it. You don’t owe anybody sex, no matter how they feel, what they want, what they’ve done for you in the past or if you’ve had sex with them before. This can be a hard thing for young people to feel, particularly if they don’t have a healthy sense of self-esteem. Along with developing your values concerning sex beforehand, self-esteem is key to resisting sexual coercion. You are the only person with a right over your body and over your decisions concerning whom (if anyone) to share it with. No other person is inherently more worthy than you.

If you don’t feel this way, it’s a good idea to work on your self-esteem. Low self-esteem is a state of mind that can be changed, not a chronic disease or an accurate reflection of reality. You can take steps to raise your sense of self-worth. For resources on boosting self-esteem, see our article on this topic elsewhere in this section.

How to Respond to Coercion

If your partner tries to take advantage of low self-esteem, putting his or her desires above your own, a healthy way to respond is to remind him or her that you’re a person, too, and that his or her desires and needs don’t outweigh yours. If a partner says, “Don’t you want me to be happy?” you can respond with something like, “Don’t you respect me?” or, “Yes, but I also value my own happiness/comfort/needs.”

If someone acts as though he or she is owed sexual favors in exchange for gifts, dinners or other such things, you can point out that the decision to buy a gift and the decision to have sex are fundamentally different; your body is not an object, but a part of you. The exchange is not equal or fair and, therefore, his or her expectation was unreasonable.

The manipulation tactic of social coercion – of using cultural expectations and social judgments to manipulate people into sex – can be responded to in many ways. If you’re called a prude for not having sex, you can point out that responsibility and prudishness are not the same thing, that your maturity shouldn’t be mistaken for a personality flaw. If you’re told that everyone else is doing it and, therefore, you should, you can draw from the information in Part 2 of this series and, first, explain to your partner that not everyone is doing it, then say that what others do has no bearing on your personal readiness anyway. You’re no follower, and you make your own choices.   

Threats of abandonment and cheating can be particularly difficult to respond to in a healthy manner. If you care for the person, the thought of him or her not being with you or being intimate with another person can be extraordinarily frightening and painful. But the fact is that a person who uses this tactic does not respect or care for you as you care for him or her. This is not a good relationship and, though it will certainly hurt in the short-term, ending the relationship rather than compromising your values is the healthy decision here. You want different things, and that’s not your fault.

If your partner threatens physical violence, then you are not safe. Do whatever you can to remove yourself from his or her presence. If you feel safe and comfortable enough, report the person’s behavior to someone you trust.

If your partner makes an emotional appeal for sex, claiming that you would do it if you loved him or her, one way to respond is to point out that this simply isn’t true. Your partner might not purposely be manipulating you here; he or she might actually think this is true. Being in love does not necessarily mean a person is ready for sex, though. Perhaps having sex right now would conflict with your values in some way; maybe you’re not comfortable with your body yet. These are things you can, if you so choose, explain to your partner. Introduce him or her to the many components of sexual readiness discussed in Part 1 of this series to help explain how love is not the sole component of sexual readiness.

If you notice that someone is particularly eager to supply you with alcohol or drugs, they may be trying to take advantage of you. There are many reasons why people should be cautious when using certain substances – getting sick, overdosing and making bad decisions all around, for example. Just be aware that, if you choose to use alcohol or other substances, someone else might see this as an opportunity. Being aware can help you avoid these people and these situations, or to take steps to make the situation safer, such as having a sober friend nearby and being moderate with your intake.

If you have considered using drugs or alcohol as a way of “loosening up” a potential partner, remember that an intoxicated individual cannot give consent. Along with being highly immoral, this tactic is also illegal. Only a sober individual can give proper consent.

Recap: Readiness, Reasons and Coercion

The information and views contained in this 3-part series (Healthy Sexual Choices) are intended to equip young people with an understanding of the many components of sexual readiness, familiarize them with reasons people choose to and not to have sex, gain an understanding of how these reasons fit in with healthy decision-making and, finally, gain skills with which to combat sexual coercion. The key points are:

  • Decide whether you’re ready for sex in general before the opportunity presents itself;
  • Decide what you require in particular instances in order to have sex;
  • Analyze the reasons behind your sexual choices;
  • Consider whether your reasons are healthy or unhealthy;
  • Identify signs of sexual coercion; and
  • Respond to coercion in a way that upholds your values.

And remember this: Sex is a new choice every time, and only you have the right to decide when and whether to do it.  Make good sexual choices when you are young and you are much more likely to have a full and satisfying sexual life when you get older.

Written by Amée LaTour


Part 1:
The Quick Guide to Deciding if You're Ready to Have Sex
Healthy Sexual Choices

Part 2:
Top Reasons Why Young People Have Sex (or Don't)
Healthy Sexual Choices

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Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle