Sexual coercion is when a person pressures, tricks, threatens, or manipulates someone into having sex. It is a type of sexual assault because even if someone says yes, they are not giving their consent freely.
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People who experience sexual coercion may feel they have no option but to have sex. The perpetrator may use guilt or the threat of negative consequences to get what they want. Alternatively, they may promise rewards that may or may not be real.
Sexual coercion is most likely to happen in existing relationships, but anyone can behave this way, particularly if there is an imbalance of power. Although it does not involve physical force, it is still damaging.
Keep reading to understand what sexual coercion is, examples of this behavior, and when to seek help.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
Sexual coercion is when someone pressures a person in a
Sex can be coercive even if someone says “yes.” In sexual coercion, a person has sex because they feel they should or must, rather than because they want to.
The nature of sexual coercion can vary significantly, from persistently asking for sex until someone gives in to threats of violence or revenge. As some types of coercion are not obviously intimidating, some people may not realize they are experiencing or engaging in it.
Non-coercive sex involves affirmative consent. This means that all sexual partners explicitly and enthusiastically give their verbal consent to sexual activities without the influence of any external pressures. They also agree that people can withdraw consent at any time, for any reason, with no negative consequences.
Other hallmarks of consensual sex include:
- mutual respect
- equal power dynamics
- autonomy, meaning all partners are free to make their own decisions
- no sense of entitlement, meaning that partners do not expect sex from their partner
- physical and emotional safety
Involuntary physical responses, such as an erection or vaginal lubrication, are not equivalent to consent. True consent is also not possible if a person feels pressured or intimidated into saying “yes”, or they simply do not say “no”. Sexual contact in these situations can be sexual assault.
A person may try to sexually coerce someone through:
- 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.
There is less research on sexual coercion than other types of nonconsensual sex, but what exists suggests that it is common and more likely to affect some people than others.
For example, a 2018 study of Spanish adolescents found that although males and females reported being victims of coercion, males were more likely to engage in coercive behavior. The researchers found that certain attitudes correlate with a higher risk of coercive behavior, including:
- a belief that sexually coercive behaviors are normal
- a desire for power and control
- hostile sexism, which promotes the idea that men should have dominance over women
Another 2018 study also notes a link between sexual coercion and sexism, particularly in heterosexual relationships, where traditional gender roles can influence power dynamics.
Learn more about gender inequity and how it affects mental health.
If it is part of a pattern, sexual coercion is abuse. According to the domestic violence support organization REACH, in the context of relationships, the term “abuse” describes any pattern of behavior that a person uses to gain control or power over someone else.
Sometimes, coercive sex happens just once. It may result from a misunderstanding or someone believing in myths about what is normal in sexual relationships. However, if a person does not care that the behavior is harmful or continues to do it regardless, this signals an abusive relationship.
A person may use sexual coercion alongside other types of abuse, such as coercive control. This involves demanding control over many aspects of their partner’s life, such as:
- what they wear
- where they go
- who they socialize with
Demeaning or insulting comments, humiliation, and gaslighting may also wear down someone’s self-esteem.
Although coercive sex is a type of abuse, its legal status varies.
In the United States, coercive sex may be sexual assault if the perpetrator:
- knows the person finds the act offensive
- initiates sex for the purposes of abusing, harassing, humiliating, or degrading the person
- knows the individual has a health condition that means they cannot give informed consent
- knows the person is unaware the sex is taking place
- has impaired the individual’s judgment by giving them substances to intoxicate them
- is in a position of authority and has sex with someone in custody, such as in prison or the hospital
The age of the people involved is also an important factor. Sexual contact is illegal if it involves:
- someone below the age of 21 and their guardian
- someone below the age of 16 and a person who is 4 or more years older than them
- anyone below the age of 10
Individual state laws may add additional circumstances under which coercive sex becomes illegal. Schools, workplaces, and other institutions
Recovering from sexual coercion can begin with a realization that previous sexual experiences were not healthy or that a current relationship involves elements of coercion. This can be difficult for people to come to terms with. It may bring up intense emotions, such as sadness, anger, or guilt.
However, it is important to remember that, even if someone said “yes” to coercive sex, it is not their fault.
To process what happened, a person may consider:
- confiding in an understanding, trustworthy friend
- speaking with a free, confidential helpline for advice, such as RAINN
- talking with a therapist who specializes in coercive sex or sexual assault recovery
- joining an online or in-person support group
- learning more about affirmative consent
For people who are currently in a relationship where coercion has taken place, they may wish to consider:
- setting a time to talk about sex and consent in a safe space
- setting boundaries around what is and is not OK
- discussing the consequences of what happens when someone crosses those boundaries
- seeking help and mediation from a relationship counselor
A person should only do this if the coercion is not part of a wider pattern of abuse. If it is, they should not attempt to address or change the perpetrator’s behavior.
If a person has experienced something they believe to be sexual abuse, there are several options for seeking help. For assaults that have just happened, a person should consider:
- dialing 911 or their country’s emergency number to report it to the police
- visiting a hospital, rape center, or doctor’s office for medical care
- seeking help from trusted friends or family
For less recent assaults, a person may still be able to report it to the police or receive medical care to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. It is best to do this as soon as possible.
If a person is unsure if they have experienced sexual coercion, assault, or abuse, they may wish to speak with a helpline, support worker, or lawyer specializing in this area. It is especially important to do this if:
- the partner makes them feel unsafe
- the partner controls their daily life
- they worry about what would happen if they tried to leave
- the partner has threatened or carried out violence toward a person, their children, or pets
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- phone, at 800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for People of Color, here:
Sexual coercion is when someone pressures or threatens someone into having sex with them.
The person may persistently ask for sex to wear someone down, use guilt or a sense of obligation to get what they want, or trick someone by making them intoxicated or lying. More extreme tactics include threats of violence and blackmail.
Sexual coercion can be part of a pattern of abuse. For sex to be healthy, all partners must understand consent and clearly communicate and respect boundaries. If any partners repeatedly cross boundaries, they are engaging in abusive behavior.
People who believe they have experienced coercive sex can speak with a confidential support service for advice.