When a Consensual Relationship Becomes Sexually Coercive
How partner pressure creates forced intimacy.
Posted Nov 04, 2019
When is Sexual Coercion Sexual Assault?
As a prosecutor, I have spent decades prosecuting cases of sexual assault. Perpetrators and victims come from all walks of life and are both men and women. As I have written about previously, both men and women are perpetrators of sexual coercion, as well as victims. For my most recent article about women as sexual aggressors please read When Women Sexually Assault Men.
But when most people hear the term “sexual assault,” they normally do not envision an act performed within an established romantic relationship. Yet sometimes it happens exactly that way. In fact, for some victims in long-term relationships, both men and women, coercive sex has become the new normal. How does this happen?
Many sexually coercive relationships begin consensually but become coercive when perpetrators manipulate power dynamics to persuade victims, physically or psychologically, to submit to unwanted sexual activity or risk losing relational benefits, including the relationship itself. In some cases, coercion includes a component of physical force. In others, however, it can be verbal, emotional, or psychological, and can include persuasion and subtle threats to withhold resources or other things of value if sexual demands are not met.
How Consensual Turns Coercive
Judy M. Ross et al. (2019), in a study investigating sexting coercion, notes that the concept of sexual aggression has expanded to include coerced sexual activity within established relationships. They recognize that manipulation is more frequently the tactic of choice in sexually coercive situations as opposed to physical force, which is traditionally linked with sexual assault.
They note that coerced sexual behavior occurs more frequently than forcible sexual assault, and cite prior research regarding how it may “generally involve repeatedly begging or pressuring an individual who is resisting sexual activity until he or she consents, often to end the coercive behavior or preserve the relationship.”
Other researchers have also noted that sexually coercive relationships often do not include physical force. Susan Leahy (2014) in “'No Means No,’ But Where’s the Force?” explored the challenges of referring to nonconsensual sexual activity as sexual assault. She notes that although procuring sex through any type of threat vitiates consent, proving rape can be difficult when a victim has been threatened with retaliation other than physical injury.
Nicole K. Jeffrey and Paula C. Barata in a piece entitled “He Didn’t Necessarily Force Himself Upon Me, But . . . ” (2017) examined sexual coercion within intimate relationships, particularly when accompanied by non-physical methods of coercion. Interviewing 12 university women, they discovered that violence was not necessary for sexual coercion to produce harmful results such as sadness, anger, guilt, and self-blame. They noted that the women not only suffered negative emotional consequences but also engaged in justification and minimization of their experiences.
Sexual Coercion by Intimates v. Non-Intimates
Although sexual coercion is a tactic used by both men and women, it may impact victims differently, based not only on gender but on the level of intimacy between the victim and the perpetrator.
Maria Testa et al. (2007) examined differences in sexual victimization by intimate versus non-intimate male partners.They acknowledged that sexual victimization often results from initial consensual sexual activity, followed by sexual misperception. They also recognize the role of sexual refusal assertiveness, noting that women who find it difficult to refuse sexual advances are more vulnerable to sexual victimization—particularly when it is in the form of sexual coercion by intimate partners.
Testa et al. examined a community sample of women from 18-30 years of age. Of that sample, 17.9% reported having been sexually victimized over two years, the majority of them by an intimate partner. Intimate partner sexual victimization was predicted by low sexual refusal assertiveness, prior intimate partner victimization, and drug use.
Testa et al. found that victimization from non-intimates involved different predictors. Here, the predictors were heavy episodic drinking and the number of sexual partners. Regarding alcohol use, they found the association between alcohol and victimization is specific to victimization by nonintimate partners, who may use what the authors term “intoxication tactics,” rather than by intimates, who already have sexual access to the victim.
Coercion and Communication
Successful relationships involve mutual dignity and respect. Sexual coercion undermines both of these components. Healthy communication about relational intimacy is necessary to ensure both parties are on the same page, enhance relational quality, improve marriage and ensure long-term relational success.
Ross, Jody M., Michelle Drouin, and Amanda Coupe. 2019. “Sexting Coercion as a Component of Intimate Partner Polyvictimization.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 34 (11): 2269–91. doi:10.1177/0886260516660300.
Leahy, Susan. 2014. “’No Means No’, But Where’s the Force? Addressing the Challenges of Formally Recognizing Non-Violent Sexual Coercion as a Serious Criminal Offence.” Journal of Criminal Law 78, no. 4: 309–25. doi:10.1350/jcla.2014.78.4.930.
Jeffrey, Nicole K., and Paula C. Barata. 2017. ““He Didn’t Necessarily Force Himself Upon Me, But . . . ”: Women’s Lived Experiences of Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relationships With Men.” Violence Against Women 23, no. 8: 911–33. doi:10.1177/1077801216652507.
Testa, Maria, Carol Vanzile-Tamsen, and Jennifer A. Livingston. 2007. “Prospective Prediction of Women’s Sexual Victimization by Intimate and Nonintimate Male Perpetrators.” Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology 75, no. 1: 52–60. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.75.1.52.