Sexual Assault Awareness month may be over, but it's never too late to talk about sex and healthy relationships, especially when sexual harassment and assault may be involved. But do you know the one type of sexual assault that I never hear people talk about? Sexual coercion.
Many people may not think this exists because the majority of sexual coercion takes place in relationships (and you're supposed to want and say yes to having sexual experiences with your partner, right?), but the prevalence of sexual coercion is staggering. Researchers found that approximately 70% of college students surveyed reported having been sexually coerced and that 33% admitted to having used coercive tactics against their partners. And this is just in college!
So what exactly is sexual coercion? It lies on the continuum of sexually aggressive behavior, but it is different than others on the continuum because of its subtleties. Experts are still having a hard time trying to find the best definition because it includes so many behaviors and situations, and it encompasses a perceived unwillingness to participate in the sexual acts by the victim. The current definition of sexual coercion is "the act of using subtle pressure, drugs, alcohol, or force to have sexual contact with someone against their will."
Personally, I've had a hard time with this definition. To me, to say a sexual act is "against their will," means a form of rape. I've endlessly researched that exact question, and everything I've found has said that where sexual coercion is present there is a "lack of consent," but it never comes out and says rape. And this confuses me because isn't the definition of rape forcing someone to do something sexual without their consent? Are people just too afraid to say the word "rape"? When looking up sexual coercion on Wikipedia, it's disclaimer was "This article is about sexual coercion among non-human animals. For sexual coercion among humans, see Rape." This was the closest I could get to an answer.
I also thought that maybe I was focusing too much on how to completely define the experience of sexual coercion instead of wondering what all it entails and figuring out what constitutes as sexual coercion. How do you know that you are being or have been sexually coerced?
Everywhere I found showed a list of possible scenarios, like:
- Making you feel like you owe them—for example, because you are in a relationship, because you've had sex before or because they spent money on you.
- Badgering you, yelling at you or holding you down.
- Giving you compliments that sound extreme, as if they are trying to get something out of you.
- Giving you drugs or alcohol to loosen your inhibitions.
- Reacting negatively (with anger, sadness or resentment) when you say no to something.
- Continuing to pressure you after you say no.
- Making you feel threatened or afraid of what might happen if you say no.
In addition to these points, I think there are plenty of non-verbal, non-physical behaviors that can constitute as sexual coercion, like knowing what your partner is like when they don't get their way on basic things or if they've gotten mad or controlling over some of your behaviors before. These things can influence your decision to just give in when they want sex or other sexual favors because you know what could happen if you don't. Sexual coercion can be a part of a controlling and manipulative relationship, but it isn't always treated as such. Sexual coercion itself is an act of dominance and power.
Not all of sexually coerced (or sexual assaulted) peoples' experiences are violent, but it can be just as traumatic. Many survivors don't know they've been sexually coerced until long after the assault happened, especially when it isn't violent, and coming to terms with the fact that it's happened to you can be an agonizing experience.
Many people still blame the victims of sexual coercion. They say, "Well, you did say yes or give your consent right? And it wasn't violent so it must be your fault. That isn't assault." But what they are failing to realize is that this "consent" is pressured out of them and the person did not inherently want the sexual act to happen. "Convincing" someone to have sex with you is not treated as sexual misconduct, but it is one of the most prevalent forms of sexual misconduct. Just because you say yes, doesn't mean you actually mean yes. No one should be persuading someone to participate in sexual activities that they initially refused.
You always have the right to say no. If it happens to you, you have the right to be upset and angry about it. If it happens to you, you have the right to deal with it in whatever way suits you best. There is no such thing as the "perfect victim," and there is no such thing as the "perfect sexual assault." Sexual assault is sexual assault and survivors are survivors no matter what or how violent their assault was or how they choose to react and deal with it.
Let's educate people about sexual assault. Let's educate people about sexual coercion. Let's educate people because 1 in 4 college women and 1 in 16 college men will survive sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault. Let's get people talking about it. Let's get our schools talking about it. Let's get our parents talking about it. Let's get our children talking about it.
Maybe that way we'll be able to fix it.