Remember back in 2017 when a woman referred to as “Grace” accused Aziz Ansari of violating her sexually after a date? He said that “everything seemed okay to him” while she left the experience “feeling violated.” The public reaction has been incredibly mixed, but the difference in their telling of the evening is due to the lack of discussion and awareness about sexual coercion. We hear about rape and violent sexual assault and the monsters who commit them endlessly, and while these are absolutely worth media time, we need to take a minute–preferably several–to educate ourselves on sexual coercion.
What is sexual coercion? As defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health, “Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way.” If you say you aren’t in the mood and your partner begs or pleads until you “consent,” that is sexual coercion. O, maybe instead you say you aren’t in the mood, and your partner makes you feel guilty until you “give in.” That is also sexual coercion. I put consent in quotations because if anyone ever has to convince, guilt, or pressure someone into having sex with them, that is not consent.
No one is ever owed sex. If you invite a guy to your place to hang out, he might come expecting to score, but you are not obligated to reciprocate. An invitation inside is not an invitation for sex. And the minute you decide you no longer want to have sex, anything that happens afterward is not consented to. If he tries to hit you with a “but we’ve already gone this far” or “you can’t leave me like this,” he’s trying to guilt you. That’s sexual coercion. End of story.
“Maybe” doesn’t mean yes. If you find yourself alone with a partner who is eager to bone, but you aren’t sure, stand strong. There is nothing wrong with doubt. If that partner’s response is to engage in sexual actions to see if that’s what you want or tries to negotiate with you as to why you should have sex, they aren’t listening. Sex is a conversation in which all parties must be respectful and aware of each other’s desires and limitations. Yes means yes, no means no, and maybe means I’m not sure, which means no until further notice, and until that notice is given willingly, there has not been consent.
We need to respect the word no. There are playful instances where the word “no” is taken lightly. In a playful tickle or wrestling spat in bed, maybe the outcries of “no” are all in fun. But once a sexual activity is involved, that word is law, and should only need to be said once. If you say no, and your partner keeps asking, eventually you’re probably going to feel mean for rejecting him so many times, which isn’t fair to you. If someone ever makes you feel bad for saying no, the following “yes” is not consent. A reluctant “yes” is actually a “no.”
Sex is never a payment. If a landlord tells you that you can have money knocked off your rent in exchange for a blowjob, agreeing to it is not consent. You are a victim of sexual coercion. Someone giving you a ride somewhere, buying you a drink, or helping you change a tire does not require sex as payment. They are using your vulnerability against you.
Men in power need to understand coercion. Women in powerful positions are often accused of screwing their way to the top by people who don’t understand what sexual coercion entails. If you apply for a position and are told by your boss that it’s yours if you’ll sleep with him, he’s using his power to control you sexually. Because he holds all the cards, you have very few options. He could just as easily have threatened to fire you if you didn’t have sex with him, and there is little to nothing you could do about it.
It’s often sexual blackmail. Say someone found out your dirty little secret. Or maybe someone found out something about your family that you don’t want getting around. If that someone threatens to share that information unless you have sex with them, there’s no possible way to consent. You’re not agreeing to sex, you’re being emotionally forced into having sex.
Coercion takes away your choices. The underlying feature of all of these scenarios is the false pretense of choice. You agreed to the sex, so you consented, right? What other choices did you have? If a boyfriend guilts you into having sex, he’s laying out two options: sex with him or be a bad girlfriend. If a boss threatens you for sex, he’s saying either bang him or lose your job. If a landlord offers your rent, the choice between sex and homelessness is daunting. But there are always more choices. You never have to have sex unless you don’t want to. Remember: any “yes” that isn’t willing and enthusiastic isn’t consent.
The coercer won’t know he did anything wrong. The worst part about all this is how the one coercing you will truly believe he or she is innocent. Because sexual coercion isn’t discussed enough, these behaviors aren’t recognized enough by the people who use them. And those people coercing you will do their best to convince you that they’ve done nothing wrong. Don’t let them invalidate your feelings. Be aware of how people are treating your sexuality; only you are the one who can control it.
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