Sexual Coercion vs Consent: Spotting Signs & Getting Help

Is sexual coercion a form of abuse?
on August 02, 2023
Read time: 15 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Consent is everything. 

No matter if you’ve been in a relationship for years, or are just starting to date someone, no means no. If someone tries to manipulate you or pressure you into doing something — that’s sexual coercion and is not acceptable under any circumstances. 

However, since the lines around coercion are blurrier than other forms of abuse, it can be difficult to know how to react correctly. Remember love is respect, and no one who loves you should ever treat you this way. 

No matter the reasons behind it, there is no justification for sexual abuse — if you have been affected, please seek professional advice.*

Before we proceed, we would like to acknowledge that this article deals with sensitive subject matter. If this topic is triggering for you, we suggest that you don’t read on. 

We have provided resources at the end of this article in case you need additional support.

What is sexual coercion? 

Sexual coercion is whereby someone forces you to engage in sexual activities without your full consent, using various verbal tactics such as pressure or manipulation.

“Sexual coercion refers to any unwanted sexual activity that occurs after being pressured in non-physical ways,” says Jordan Dixon, a psychosexual psychotherapist, and sociologist from the Thoughthouse Partnership.

“There are substantial disputes as to what sorts of behavior constitute coercion and thereby undermine consent. It’s coercion if someone tries to convince us that we should have sex with them or we owe them.” 

While many people use the terms sexual coercion and sexual assault interchangeably, many studies have begun to focus on the idea that sexual coercion refers only to the use of verbally coercive tactics — which is any psychological pressure that results in coerced sex. 

In these cases, one person intentionally disregards the other person’s boundaries, leading to sexual acts or sexual contact that is non-consensual or involuntary. 

Studies show that dating violence of this type is on the rise, particularly among young adults and teenagers. These studies indicate that 21% of girls and 10% of boys had been victims of physical or sexual violence from a recent partner. 

Research also indicates a worrying rise in sexual coercion among college students, with one study showcasing the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact as a result of verbal coercion as high as 32%. Another study showed that during college, 20% of women reported unwanted sexual interactions through verbal or social coercion, compared to 7% as a result of verbal coercion. 

Even though sexual coercion can be harder to identify than other forms of domestic violence, especially if your inhibitions are lowered, it’s important to remember that any form of sexual activity without explicit consent is considered sexual assault. 

Examples of sexual coercion 

There are many different forms of sexual coercion to be aware of, as this type of sexual harassment can appear in various scenarios. 

Even though there is no physical force used, it’s important to recognize coercion as a form of sexual harassment — which should never be belittled. 

Emotional manipulation: Using emotional abuse methods, like guilt-tripping or name-calling is a common method used to pressure people into sexual activities. In these cases, they might whine, cry or give you the silent treatment until they get their way.
Verbal pressure: No matter if it’s your long-term partner or your first date, no always means no. However, if your partner responds to this clear boundary by repeatedly asking, begging, or insisting on sex until they eventually push you into it — this is a clear sign of sexual coercion.
Power dynamics: A common example of sexual coercion is whereby someone uses their position of authority or influence against their partner in order to coerce them into sexual acts. In these scenarios, people feel forced to acquiesce to the request as they fear what might happen if they don’t.
Lowered inhibitions: Alcohol or drugs can significantly lower our inhibitions and negate our ability to give consent. Taking advantage of someone’s impaired judgment to engage in sexual activities, sidesteps their consent and is often considered a type of sexual assault.

What’s the difference between coercion and consent? 

While consent is given voluntarily, coercion is about obtaining something through manipulation, pressure, or force — essentially disregarding the lack of consent to get what they want. 

“Consent means we give permission with no second thoughts. Consent is freely given with the understanding that it can be revoked at any given point,” says Dixon. 

“Coercion means a person is participating to placate a situation. Coercion comes after some sort of pressure being applied to do something they may not want to — spoken or unspoken.” 

Therefore, consent must be given freely, willingly, and with the ability to understand and communicate one’s own boundaries. Consent cannot be given if the person is underage, intoxicated, or coerced in any way. 

“Sexual coercion can sometimes end up with someone acquiescing to sex because they may feel guilty or they change their mind,” says Dixon. 

“Their consent may be withdrawn at any time, as ongoing enthusiastic consent is required throughout for consensual sex.” 

Any coerced or forced activity is therefore non-consensual sexual behavior, and should not be tolerated in any healthy relationship. 

Tactics of sexual coercion 

Sexual coercion involves various tactics, all of which are designed to undermine the other person’s boundaries and autonomy to achieve their end goal. 

“Sexual coercion comes in different forms and can be hard to identify depending on the relationship between the people involved,” says Dixon. 

Even though we have provided some examples, any scenario in which you feel your consent is undermined qualifies as sexual coercion. 

  • Using guilt or adding shame to pressure someone into having sex

  • Threatening to lie about or spread rumors about you 

  • Misuse of power and manipulating a person into thinking they may lose their home, job, or social status

  • Threatening to cheat or break up with us if their needs aren’t met 

  • Not giving the opportunity to say no 

  • Changing the environment so you’re isolated away from people and therefore more vulnerable to sexual advances 

  • Threatening physical harm if one doesn’t comply 

  • Manipulating the other person’s perceptions of reality to make them doubt their own feelings or judgments about the situation 

  • Co-workers or partners promising rewards or benefits in exchange for engaging in sexual activities, leading the other person to feel compelled to comply

  • Bringing down your self-esteem to make it look like they’re doing you a favor

Who perpetuates sexual coercion? 

There is no obvious candidate for sexual coercion, as these verbal violations of consent can be carried out by anyone. 

Studies of sexual coercion primarily focus on male and female dynamics, whereby the male is the perpetrator of sexual coercion. This doesn’t speak to every example but should be considered when evaluating the research. 

According to research, most of the time men stop once they have received a sexual refusal, however, some men continue even after this absence of consent. However, this study goes on to show that working for the yes is a perfectly acceptable way to obtain sex. For example, they might continue to push the boundaries because they believe the original refusal was only a token and really a means of encouragement. 

Or another common example is whereby if some sexual activity has occurred, men believe that all sexual acts are on the table — even though they weren’t consciously consented to. 

“Usually, it can be someone who severely lacks self-awareness and often someone who may have been abused themselves, but this is not always the case,” says Dixon. 

“There are many reasons, and they may have more or less self-awareness about these. It may be that their coercive behavior gives them something in terms of work, money, or status.”

If you do look at self-awareness, this form of sexual abuse could be down to severe miscommunication. However, research dictates that if a man hears a sexual refusal and chooses to ignore it, the label of miscommunication promotes a negative ideology and negates the seriousness of this situation. 

Even though it could be a misunderstanding, some people enjoy coercive tactics because it makes them feel validated and powerful. This form of coercion is dangerous, as it involves very calculated and manipulative tactics, which could escalate to physical abuse 

“For example, it might be a person who feels powerful when they exert their power over others, and that validates them,” says Dixon. 

“It could be that they just want to get off sexually and that they treat the people they have sex with as objects towards that end. It may be a combination of all of these things.” 

However, it’s also important to consider where these behaviors come from, and if the perpetrator may have been abused themselves. Even though it’s important to understand where this behavior comes from, it does not condone coercion. 

“I worked on the Vulnerable Victims unit before my training as a psychotherapist and it’s likely that someone who is sexually coercive has had their own boundaries badly violated at some point,” says Dixon. 

“This does not make it okay, understanding vs condoning is different. While it’s important to acknowledge that a small number of people who have been abused go on to abuse other people themselves, it certainly is the case that most people who abuse have been abused in some way.” 

How to respond to sexual coercion 

No matter the original intent, sexual coercion should never be tolerated in a relationship under any circumstances. If you feel that you’re being sexually coerced, it’s important to remove yourself from the situation so you can evaluate what has been happening. 

Please remember that you should only respond to sexual coercion if you feel safe and comfortable doing so. 

“All sexually coercive behavior is absolutely wrong,” says Dixon. 

“It all depends on the level of threat at the time and the person’s capacity to understand what is going on. I recommend doing a full risk assessment and using your judgment. We may need to call them out immediately to ward them off if we are in danger and at risk of harm.” 

Entering into a conversation on this subject may be very frustrating, as since it’s a verbal form of assault, it’s easier for the perpetrator to maneuver their way out of any accusations. 

“Very often a sexually coercive person can ask questions, they may play dumb or genuinely might not know why their behavior is unacceptable,” says Dixon. 

“I recommend taking time to really think carefully about what to say to them because it’s important they’re able to hear what we have to say.” 

If you feel that the person genuinely doesn’t understand that what they are doing is wrong, it’s important to open up a conversation on the subject — educating them on consent and how you would prefer to communicate in the future. 

“In other cases, we may want to call them in more so the person can understand what their doing is not okay,” says Dixon. 

“Whilst holding firmly at the same time that their behaviors are unacceptable and should never happen again. There’s something transformative if we can hold a compassionate acceptance of a person and also hold a clear boundary about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, so not allowing or enabling them to behave non-consensually.”

In an ideal situation, once they have been informed, they will never engage in these coercive behaviors again. However, if this is not the case, it’s important to step back from the relationship for the sake of your mental health and safety. 

How to avoid sexual coercion 

Victim-blaming is a very negative aspect of sexual assault, whereby people suggest that the victim could have led on the perpetrator in some way and therefore is also at fault. 

However, any sexual activities without clear and enthusiastic consent, with research showing that verbal sexual coercion intentionally makes it difficult for these decisions to be communicated. 

With these considerations in mind, it’s important to remember that sexual coercion isn’t entirely preventable but it helps to be wary of who you surround yourself with. 

“If you’re wary of someone, try to limit alcohol and substances around them so you have your wits about you,” says Dixon. 

“This can be a tactic for someone to get your guard down and can impair your decision-making.”

Trust your instincts in these situations and gauge the safety of your environment. Try not to allow yourself to become isolated from your friends, or be alone with someone you don’t trust. 

“Always try to be with other people you know and in a safe environment,” says Dixon. 

“If you feel they are removing you or suggesting a change of environment do not go with them.” 

How to get help after being sexually coerced 

Dealing with the aftermath of sexual coercion can be very traumatic and overwhelming, which is why it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. 

“Sexual coercion can be traumatic so you may need to turn to a specialized psychosexual therapist who is trauma-informed or other licensed professionals who can help you emotionally heal,” says Dixon. 

Before you do anything, make sure you’re in a safe space and feel capable of reporting the incident to friends or family without risk to your safety. By sharing your situation with a friend or family member, it can make you feel less alone and provide you with the emotional support you need. 

Remember that healing from sexual coercion or assault takes time and that there is no right way to heal.

How to get help for someone if they have been sexually coerced 

If your friend reports sexual coercion to you, it’s important to validate their feelings and to take them seriously. 

“Make space for them and listen to their experience,” says Dixon. 

“Ask them what they need first, if they’re vulnerable and at risk, offer to remove the person from the risk and get them to a safe place.” 

Listen to everything they have to say and let them know that you’re there to support them without judgment. Guide them towards professional resources but don’t pressure them to say or do anything they aren’t comfortable with. 

Even though professionals or therapists will be able to offer them advice, as their friend it’s important to be there for them — in whatever capacity they need as they heal. 

Remember that supporting a survivor of sexual coercion can be emotionally challenging, so don’t hesitate to seek support for yourself as well. 

*National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)

If you are in immediate danger, call 911 and ask for the police.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who is at risk of sexual coercion?

    There is no specific risk demographic for sexual coercion. However, certain factors may highlight a person’s vulnerability, making them more at risk of being targeted. These factors include age, power dynamics, intoxication, or lack of awareness — making the person more vulnerable to sexually coercive tactics. Despite this, it’s important to remember that no one deserves this kind of treatment, with the responsibility lying with those who exert these behaviors in the first place — never with the victim.
  • Is sexual coercion abuse?

    Sexual coercion may be verbal, but it’s defined as a form of abuse due to its violation of the individual's autonomy and boundaries. This form of abuse can have long-lasting consequences for the survivor, leading to feelings of shame and guilt which impacts their overall well-being. It’s crucial to recognize sexual coercion as a type of abuse in order to address and hopefully prevent such behavior in society.
  • Is sexual coercion illegal?

    Laws regarding sexual coercion, sexual assault, and consent may vary depending on the country, state, or region. However, in most cases, sexual coercion is considered illegal — with different jurisdictions offering penalties depending on the circumstances.
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