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Rape is a type of outright violence that’s often easy to define—it’s sexual contact without consent. But within the context of sexual assault is a more misunderstood but just as sinister tactic of power and control: Sexual coercion and its counterpart, reproductive coercion. These are two ways in which perpetrators and abusive partners alike force a victim to have sex or become pregnant without consent, but with manipulation instead of direct force.
What Is Sexual Coercion?
Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual contact through nonviolent means. This might look like pressure, threats, manipulation, lies or love bombing. In the end, the victim is often left feeling confused and violated.
Examples of sexual coercion include:
- An abusive partner tells you that if you really loved them, you would have sex with them whenever they want.
- An abusive partner says they are owed sex from you since you’re married. (This is not true.)
- You feel like you need to have sex with your partner to keep them from getting mad at you.
- Even after you say no to sex, your partner asks for sex repeatedly until you change your mind.
- Your partner doesn’t ask for consent and you don’t explicitly say no, but your partner continues to have sex with you anyhow, sometimes called “grey rape.”
- Your partner threatens to find someone else to have sex with if you won’t.
- You’re given drugs or alcohol and are then coerced into having sex.
- Your partner says you can say no at any time, then doesn’t listen when you ask to stop.
- You’re afraid that money or basic living necessities will be withheld if you don’t have sex.
- You have an online relationship with someone who pressures you to do things sexually over the internet.
Read more about the tactics of sexual coercion within relationships in “Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relationships: Eight Tactics.”
Escaping Sexual Coercion Can Be Difficult
For many, first identifying sexual coercion as an abusive tactic can be tricky.
Kiersten Stewart is the director of policy and advocacy at Futures Without Violence. She says sexual coercion is more prevalent than many might think, but the problem is, survivors have a hard time identifying it as abuse.
“We definitely find that some survivors don’t know how to name it, but they know something’s not right,” says Stewart. “We see it in every way possible—a partner who is demanding sex. No is a complete sentence. If you don’t want to do something, you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it.”
She says sexual coercion can overlap with rape. Anything that involves forceful coercion is rape. This could look like a survivor who is afraid for their safety if they don’t comply or an abuser who prevents a survivor from escaping.
“Many people, when it’s their partner, don’t see it as rape,” says Stewart. And yet, statistics show the majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.
This is why escape can be especially tricky. A victim of sexual coercion could share a home or children with the abuser. They could be financially dependent on them. They could be enduring other types of abuse as well, and the abuser may have threatened them before that if they disclosed the abuse or tried to leave, they would be killed or their children would be harmed.
“Survivors should do what they think is the best thing to do to be safe,” says Stewart. While the knee-jerk reaction is to want to tell a survivor to leave, only the survivor knows when that time is in order for them to stay safe.
The best thing to do is to reach out to someone for support—a domestic shelter helpline, a counselor or therapist, or a trusted friend or family member. Hearing someone validate what you’re going through as being wrong, or helping you to identify it as abuse, can be affirming, especially if the abuser is using gaslighting or other brainwashing techniques.
If sexual coercion happens outside the context of a relationship, heed the red flag warning and strongly consider cutting that person out of your life. Learn how to set personal boundaries in “Where Are Your Boundaries?”
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What Is Reproductive Coercion?
Reproductive coercion is a tactic used by abusers to pressure or coerce their female partners into becoming pregnant or into continuing or ending a pregnancy against her will. Tactics of reproductive coercion can include manipulation, intimidation, threats and violence. Abusers may use this along with sexual coercion. It’s another way abusers maintain power and control over a victim—bringing a child into a relationship can be a way to both trap a survivor and also control her.
Examples of reproductive coercion include:
- Refusing to use condoms or removing the condom during sex (sometimes called “stealthing”)
- Removing an IUD from a partner without her consent
- Hiding or destroying birth control
- Using intimidation, threats, coercion or financial control to prevent someone from getting birth control
- Threatening to hurt a partner if they refuse to become pregnant
- Accusing a partner of infidelity if they want to use contraception
- Telling a partner that if she really loved them, she would get or remain pregnant even though it’s not something she wants
- Using violence or threats of violence to convince a partner to either continue or end a pregnancy
- Forcing a partner to have multiple pregnancies within a short time frame (often so that the partner is unable to work outside the home and is financially dependent on the abuser, lessening the chance she can leave)
- Physically assaulting a pregnant partner in order to induce a miscarriage
Stewart says she’s even heard from clients who say a partner has forced them to become pregnant and then forced them to have an abortion.
“That is just someone who is saying in the most violent, despicable way possible, I have power over you.”
It’s important to note that reproductive and sexual coercion can also happen in same-sex and non-binary relationships.
Finding Help as a Victim of Reproductive Coercion
Stewart says first and foremost, a survivor should talk to their healthcare provider about what’s going on. Even if a survivor isn’t comfortable disclosing what they suspect is abuse, they can say something like, “I don’t want to get pregnant and I want to choose a birth control method my partner can’t interfere with.” That might look like a more permanent form of birth control or a method that a survivor can keep private. Keep in mind that some abusers track a survivor’s period.
The next step would be to consider reaching out for help from a domestic violence helpline that can help you create a safety plan. If someone is trying to trap you in a relationship by forcing a pregnancy, that’s a red flag that can mean more abusive tactics are imminent. It’s best to recognize that before a child enters the picture.
“Someone who’s incredibly quick and intense in relationships, who wants to have kids together very quickly, is definitely a red flag,” says Stewart, who urges individuals to be proactive about seeing these red flags in their loved one’s relationships. “If someone starts to see those red flags with a friend’s relationship, point it out to them. We always tell people, never pressure a friend. Say, ‘I see this behavior and it makes me concerned.’ Then listen and connect them with help.”
Pregnancy Can Trigger Escalation of Violence, Increased Risk of Homicide
Unfortunately, when intimate partner violence is present, an abuser is more likely to ramp up their abusive tactics when their partner is pregnant. This can lead to delayed prenatal care and an increased risk of anxiety and depression while pregnant, preterm birth, low birth rate and a higher instance of miscarriage. Abuse survivors have also been shown to have a harder time bonding with their babies and have lower rates of breastfeeding.
Additionally, pregnant victims of domestic violence are more likely to be killed. Homicide was found to be the second-leading cause of injury-related death for pregnant women, after car accidents, in a study by the National Institutes of Health. The NCADV found that between 1990 and 2004, 1,300 pregnant women in the U.S. were murdered, with 56 percent being shot to death (the rest were stabbed or strangled). More than two-thirds were killed during their first trimester.
At Futures Without Violence, the nonprofit routinely trains healthcare providers to screen for domestic violence, a feat that can sometimes prove difficult when the abuser attends every appointment.
“There should always be a time when she [the patient] should be alone with her provider. Someone may not present with bruises, but [the screening] should be a part of routine care.”
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