Sexual trauma can happen in many ways, and it doesn't always involve physical force. Sexual coercion, for example, happens when someone pressures or manipulates you into having sexual contact when you don't want to.
Sexual coercion can be confusing and deeply distressing. You know what happened wasn't right, but you might not fully understand how or why. You might even believe they couldn't have assaulted you since you said "yes" in the end.
Here's one important thing to know, though: True consent is given voluntarily.
If you only consent because you want the other person to stop pressuring or threatening you, you didn't really consent.
Coercion describes any attempt to control your behavior with threats or manipulation.
Sexual coercion, then, happens when someone won't accept "no" and continues to try to convince you to change your mind about engaging in sexual activity.
In this article, we're using "sex" as shorthand to describe any and all forms of sexual contact or activity. There is no one definition of sex, and what's considered to be sex varies from person to person.
For example, this might include:
- kissing, licking, or sucking
- touching, rubbing, or grinding
- fingering or stroking
- cunnilingus or fellatio
- vaginal or anal penetration
Once you turn down sex, the story should stop there. But this doesn't always happen.
Sometimes, coercion is pretty blatant. For example: "If you don't have sex with me, I'll tell everyone we've been having an affair."
Other times, it might take a more subtle form. For example: "Here, why don't you have a glass of wine and get out of those work clothes, and we'll just see what happens."
Common coercion tactics include:
Coercion typically remains in the realm of verbal and emotional pressure. That said, it
Sexual coercion often happens in romantic relationships, but it can also happen in other contexts - between acquaintances, co-workers, friends or family, at school, at a party, or anywhere else.
If you don't really want to have sex but agree because you feel obligated or don't want the other person to get mad, you aren't consenting voluntarily.
Coercion happens when someone wants you to consent when you've already said no or otherwise expressed disinterest. They might use threats, persuasion, and other tactics to get the outcome they want.
When alcohol is involved
Most people can still consent after moderate drinking, but you can't consent if drugs or alcohol have impaired your ability to make decisions.
Say you're on a date. You've had a couple of drinks, and the alcohol has given you a pleasant buzz, but you don't feel drunk. What you do feel is great chemistry with your date. From the way they're looking at you, they feel the same thing.
"Want to head back to my place?" They ask.
"Definitely," you reply.
As long as neither of you are incapacitated, you can still consent.
When someone keeps offering you drinks with the goal of getting you to agree to sex when drunk, that's coercion.
In a relationship
Being in a relationship does not mean you give ongoing consent.
Everyone has the right to decide when they do and don't want to have sex. Once you say no, your partner should respect that. Any threats, wheedles, guilt trips, or other persuasion intended to wear you down counts as coercion.
With that in mind, you might wonder if it's coercion when a partner tells you how sexy you look in that outfit or gives you a sensual massage to try and get you in the mood.
Typically, the difference comes down to a few key factors:
- their intent
- whether you've already said no
- how they respond to your refusal
Let's say you tell them, "I'm not feeling it tonight."
They reply, "That's OK. I'm happy just massaging you, unless you want me to stop."
This gives you the choice to continue the current level of intimacy with no pressure for more.
If, a little later on, you decide you actually do feel like sex, this isn't coercion - as long as the decision really does come from you.
It would, however, be coercive if they insist they want to help you relax, but then ask repeatedly, "Are you sure you aren't feeling a little sexier after all this massaging?"
Sexual coercion can take any number of forms. In short, someone who makes you feel pressured and uncomfortable after you've said no to sex may be trying to coerce you.
You'll find some common scenarios below:
Sometimes, the other person will say very clearly what they'll do if you don't agree to sex.
They might say they'll hurt someone else:
- "If you don't want to sleep with me, fine. Your friend is pretty drunk, though. I bet she won't say no."
A partner might threaten to dump you:
- "People in relationships have sex. If we aren't going to have sex, I think we should break up."
A co-worker or supervisor could threaten to jeopardize your career:
- "I can fire you, you know. I could make it look like you were stealing and no other company would hire you."
Someone might try to convince you to have sex by suggesting that saying "no" means there's something wrong with you.
- "We've gone on three dates! Don't you think it's time?"
- "What are you waiting for? It's just sex. You don't have to treat it like such a big deal. It'll be fun."
- "Don't be a prude. Everyone else is having sex. You're too old to still be a virgin."
Remember, it's your choice, and yours alone, to have sex or not. No one else gets to decide that for you.
What other people think doesn't matter. Neither does the number of dates you've had, your age, or anything else.
In a relationship, a partner might try to manipulate your emotions in order to get you to change your mind about having sex or doing anything else.
When people use their emotions deliberately to try and convince you to do what they want, that's coercion.
Perhaps they say, "Oh, I understand" or "That's fine" but their body language tells a different story. They stomp off, slam doors, and sigh heavily. Maybe they hang their head as they walk away, or even burst into tears.
Some abusive partners might refuse to talk to you until you give in or attempt to sway you by trying to get sympathy.
- "I'm sorry you're so tired, but I don't think your day can compare to the week I've had. If we could just have sex, I'm sure we'd both feel so much better."
Coercion is often as simple as repeated requests for sex.
This can happen with someone you've never slept with or even dated. They might text you constantly, begging for a chance, or show up at your work or school to convince you in person.
This relentless pestering can also happen in a relationship.
Perhaps you haven't felt like sex recently because of physical health concerns, stress, or anything else.
Instead of asking how they can offer support, your partner asks almost daily, "Do you think you'll feel up to sex tonight?"
Maybe they drop subtler hints instead:
- "Can't wait until you're feeling better."
- "I'll do the dishes if that means some sexy time later."
Guilt is another common coercion tactic.
Your feelings for someone can make you more vulnerable to guilt. You care for them, so you don't want to hurt them, but they might take advantage of that.
- "I've been feeling so lonely. I really need you right now."
- "We haven't had sex in over a week, and it's really difficult for me to go so long without."
- "I can't believe you don't want to have sex on our anniversary. You must not really love me as much as you say you do."
People can also make you feel guilty by spinning the situation to make it seem as if you've done something wrong:
- "You haven't wanted to have sex much lately. You must be cheating. If you aren't, then prove it by showing me you want me."
Even if you don't feel like having sex, you might still want to connect by kissing, cuddling, talking, or relaxing together.
But they could try to pressure you into changing your mind about sex by treating you badly until you agree.
- get up abruptly or push you away
- completely shut down
- make mocking or rude comments
If you try to kiss or touch them, they might pull away once it becomes clear you still don't want to take things any further.
Making you feel bad about yourself
Another common coercion tactic involves put-downs.
They might try to attack your self-esteem when you turn them down, or act as if they're doing you a favor by wanting to have sex with you.
- "Good luck finding someone else who wants to sleep with you."
- "You should feel grateful I'm here with you. I could sleep with anyone, and you'd never know."
- "You're probably no good in bed anyway. No wonder you're single."
Insisting you have to follow through
Consenting to sex once doesn't mean consenting every time. In the same vein, you can always withdraw consent after you've given it.
So if you say, "Hang on, I'm not feeling so good about this after all," or "Let's take a break," your partner needs to respect that and stop, immediately.
Any other response veers into coercion territory.
- "But you said we could have sex tonight."
- "I'm so turned on, I can't stand it. We have to keep going."
- "I'm so frustrated and stressed, I need this."
These responses reflect what they want, not any concern for how you feel.
Over-the-top affection and compliments
It's perfectly possible for someone to try manipulating you into having sex with positive pressure, including compliments, gifts and gestures, or other types of affection.
They might take you to dinner at a fancy restaurant, send you flowers at work, or give you expensive gifts, all with the expectation that you'll reward their generosity with physical intimacy.
Perhaps they say things like: "You look so good I just can't keep my hands off you," or "I get so turned on just thinking about you."
Compliments on their own don't always indicate coercion. Take note, though, if they respectfully dial it back when you say "no" or keep pressuring you instead.
Not giving you a chance to say no
Affirmative consent means "yes" is the only way to consent. Saying nothing does not mean you've given consent.
In some situations, you may not want to say yes but feel afraid to say no at the same time.
A respectful person will probably notice from your body language that you feel uncomfortable, and they'll take a moment to find out if everything's all right.
Someone who begins initiating sexual contact without first discussing boundaries or asking what you'd like to do may hope you'll just go along with what they want to do. Maybe they even wake you up for sex, disrupting your sleep and hoping you'll be too tired to protest.
When you realize a partner, or anyone else, is trying to coerce you into sex, a good first step is to call them out, as long as you feel safe doing so. Be direct and firm.
You might say:
- "I said I don't want to have sex. Trying to pressure me won't make me change my mind."
- "I'd like to hang out, but I'm not interested in having sex. Why don't we go for a walk?"
If they won't drop the issue, it's a good idea to leave or call a trusted friend or family member.
Even if you don't feel comfortable discussing what's going on, having someone to talk to (or better yet, come by for a visit) can help you feel safer and less alone.
It can feel terrifying to say no to a supervisor, co-worker, teacher, or anyone else who has some power over your job, living situation, or academic career.
In this situation, a good option might be saying "no" clearly and walking away - straight to the counseling center or human resources department to make a formal complaint.
Sexual coercion falls under the broad umbrella of sexual assault, as does rape.
According to the United States Department of Justice, rape refers to sexual penetration that you don't consent to.
Assault refers to any sexual contact that happens without your explicit, voluntary consent. Since consent given under coercion isn't freely given, it doesn't count as consent.
It follows, then, that coerced sex (when it involves penetration) would count as rape, even if the other person didn't use physical force or violence.
Still, it's absolutely fine to use whatever term feels most comfortable for you.
Learn more about recognizing other types of sexual assault here.
After someone pressures you into sex, your next steps are up to you.
Some things to consider: Coercion is assault, and you have every right to report this crime and press charges.
Your healthcare provider can give you an exam to test for sexually transmitted infections, offer emergency contraception, and collect evidence in case you choose to make a police report.
Taking charge of your recovery by seeking medical care can sometimes help you feel more in control of the situation while providing some peace of mind about your health.
Talking to your human resources department or school counseling services can be helpful when coercion happens at work or school.
If you're experiencing ongoing coercion from a partner you want to maintain a relationship with, start by having a talk with them. Explain how their attempts to pressure you make you feel and tell them they must respect your boundaries for the relationship to continue.
Opening up to a trusted loved one can also help you get the emotional support and validation you need.
You can also talk to a therapist for:
- compassionate guidance on next steps
- help creating a plan for safely leaving the relationship
- support for any emotional distress you might experience
Looking to learn more about different types of sexual assault? Need more information on what to do after experiencing coercion?
These resources can offer additional guidance:
- Call the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) Hotline at 800-656-4673 or visit online.
- Get in touch with Love Is Respect by texting LOVEIS to 866-331-9474 or calling 866-331-9474. You can also chat online. This organization, an offshoot of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, aims to support teens and young adults experiencing relationship abuse or toxic situations.
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or chat online.
No matter what steps you do or don't take after experiencing coercion, remember this: What happened was not your fault, and you deserve compassion and support.Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she's committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.