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Home / Articles / Identifying Abuse / What Is Sexual Coercion?

What Is Sexual Coercion?

Just because it’s not rape, doesn’t mean it’s not abuse

What Is Sexual Coercion?

Maybe your partner guilted you into it, or just kept asking until you relented. Or maybe he or she purposely plied you with alcohol to get you into bed.

No matter how it happened, you really didn’t want to have sex. You know it wasn’t rape since you consented—albeit reluctantly—but you still feel violated. And you were. It’s called sexual coercion, and it’s a form of abuse. 

“Sexual coercion is when someone manipulates you into unwanted sexual activity through non-physical means,” says Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D.,professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and sexual violence prevention expert. “Legally, it would not necessarily be sexual assault, but at the same time, it’s not really wanted sexual activity either, and you might not feel good about it afterwards.” And it should signal to you that your partner is exhibiting an abusive behavior. 

How to Know If It’s Sexual Coercion

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Some types of abuse can be difficult to identify, and sexual coercion can be particularly tough to pinpoint. That’s because it isn’t always as blatant as, say, physical abuse like shoving or belittling insults. Some examples of sexual coercion include:

  • Asking for sex repeatedly
  • Saying things like, “You got me this far. Don’t you want me to finish?” or “I thought you loved me and wanted to make me happy?”
  • Telling you it’s your obligation as a spouse or partner
  • Giving you alcohol or drugs in order to lower your inhibitions
  • Threatening to break up with you unless you engage in sexual activity
  • Refusing to use protection or not allowing a partner to use birth control
  • Threatening to go elsewhere for sex
  • Withholding money or other needs if you don’t have sex
  • Saying sex is owed because your partner paid for dinner, did you a favor, etc. 

When it comes to identifying sexual coercion, Jeglic says to listen to your gut.

“Sexual behavior should be enjoyable for both parties,” she says. “It should be something that you want to engage in and not something that you feel that you are being manipulated or forced to engage in. And you shouldn’t feel guilty or confused about it afterwards.” 

Avoiding Coercion

Sexual coercion can happen to women or men of all ages in opposite-sex or same-sex relationships, at any stage of the relationship. In best case scenario, it can be avoided or resolved with communication. In worst case scenarios, it can be traumatizing and/or a precursor to abuse. It indicates boundaries are not being respected. 

The quickest remedy for coercion is to show the person choosing this tactic the door and ask them not to come back. Individuals who don’t respect boundaries will only continue this type of behavior, likely cross other boundaries and possibly escalate tactics of power and control. 

Consent should be given at all stages of intimacy, says Mike Domitrz, founder of the Date Safe Project

“It’s arrogant to assume you can do something to someone’s body and if they don’t want you to, they can stop you. That means you’re going to sexually touch them until they stop you. Think about what that sounds like,” Domirtz told us in “Can I Kiss You?” Learn how to draw safe boundaries in all areas of your life in “Where Are Your Boundaries?

Girl Up! is an engaging book about drawing and respecting boundaries for all ages and sexes, but especially pre-teens and teenagers. See our interview with the author in “Let’s Get Real About Sex-Ed.

When Sexual Coercion Crosses the Line

There is a thin line between sexual coercion and sexual assault (the legal term for rape). If your partner crosses any of these lines, it’s sexual assault, which is a crime.

  • Not stopping when you say no
  • Using physical force to make you have sex
  • Threatening violence to get you to have sex
  • Threatening to expose your immigration status to make you have sex
  • Threatening to turn you in for illegal behavior to make you have sex
  • Causing you to ingest alcohol or drugs without your knowledge and then having sex with you

If it’s safe to do so, leave, and call 911 or contact police to file a report. And, yes, marital rape is real. Read “Can He Rape Me If We’re Married?