Sexual Coercion vs. Consent: Knowing the Difference Can Be Empowering

sexual-coercion-vs-consent: someone touching a woman's shoulder.
MTStock Studio/Getty Images

Along with words like “gaslighting” and “trigger,” “sexual coercion” is a term that gained traction out of the #MeToo movement, highlighting the importance of language to articulate the nuance of abuse in relationships (romantic or otherwise). And while the phrase has become much more common for the last few years, its meaning can still be a bit confusing—what’s the difference, exactly, between sexual coercion and consent? Here, we explain the difference and why knowing the differences can be empowering.  

First, what's sexual coercion?

The Office on Women’s Health defines sexual coercion as any “unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way” often making you feel as though owe someone sex. In other words, sexual coercion is a form of forced consent. Yep, “forced consent.” Even that term is tricky because there should be no such thing as consent that is forced—consent inherently can’t be forced (more on that later). Sexual coercion happens when a person feels—for one reason or another—that they must concede or else. They may recognize it at the moment, or they may not even realize what dynamic took place until after the event. 

For example, you and your BBF always laughed at the fact that she only hooked up with that one guy who always had a crush on her because he had planned a lavish date and she didn’t want to make him feel bad. While the story passes as banter at brunch (and so many people can relate for sure), when you look back at it, you realize the story she told maybe concealed that she partook for reasons outside of actually wanting to. The dynamic is stickier than straight-up consent.

Or, consider this story about an awkward date published in the New Yorker back in 2017. The gist: Twenty-year-old Margot went on a date with 34-year-old Robert and while things got off to a rocky start, he acted like a gentleman, enough for Margot to want to go to his place. Once there, things got hot and heavy but she, at some point recognized she really didn’t want to go forward. She still ended up having sex with him, however, because she a) felt guilty because she was the one who initiated and b) she was afraid he would get mad at her and it was unclear what might happen to her thereafter since she was at his place.

While it may be easier to spot in relationships where there is a clear power dynamic—boss/employee, landlord/tenant, teacher/student or age difference like Margot and Robert—coercion can also happen when two people are dating or even married. A 2004 study found that women are less likely to identify coercive behavior if they have a sexual history with the perpetrator. The same study also revealed that there was a difference in how men coerced: When there was a prior sexual relationship, men in that study used negative persuasion—threatening to end the relationship, for example—to get women to do their bidding. Where there was no prior relationship, men used positive persuasion—aka sweet talk—in order to get their way. 

OK, how does it differ from sexual consent?

The difference between sexual coercion and sexual consent is that coercion comes after some sort of baiting or pressuring—spoken or unspoken. Consent on the other hand, is voluntarily and freely given with the understanding that it can be revoked at any given point. “If someone makes a move, there has to be a clear agreement that they want to go through with it,” explained Irina Firstein, LCSW. “It has to be that ‘I choose to do this.’ If at any point there is a ‘No’ then it’s a no.”

To simplify: Consent means you’re giving permission with no hang-ups. Coercion means a person is participating to placate a situation.  

It’s possible for a situation to go from consented to coercive if one person decides they no longer want to go any further but then are guilted into continuing. “When we talk about consent, we need to talk about consent every step of the way,” urged Fierstein. “Consent to oral sex doesn’t mean consent to intercourse. When someone says ‘No,’ it doesn’t matter how far in the act, it’s still a no and when that happens, everything has to stop.”

What are some examples of sexual coercion?

Sexual coercion comes in different forms and can be hard to identify depending on the relationship between the parties involved. Below are some examples that count as sexual coercion: 

  • Badgering someone into having sex.
  • Using guilt or shame to pressure someone into having sex i.e. “You would do it if you loved me.”
  • Threatening to cheat or break up with you if their needs aren’t met.
  • Manipulating a person into thinking they may lose their home or job.
  • Threatening to lie about or spread rumors about you.
  • Not giving you the opportunity to say no.

5 Ways to Seek Help If You Believe You’ve Been in a Sexually Coerced Situation

  1. Report to the authorities. Some forms of sexual coercion can be classified as sexual assault, so if you find that your boundaries were violated and the other party didn’t heed your “No,” you’re well within your rights to report the situation to the police.
  2. Report to HR. If the coercive incident happens in the workplace, it can be classified as sexual harassment and should be reported to HR for further investigation.
  3. Turn to campus authorities. If you’re a student, your school should have a Title IX policy that allows you to report incidents of sexual coercion as they are a form of sexual harassment. A designated Title IX coordinator or student relations manager can help guide you through the process.
  4. Seek Counseling. As with other forms of violations, sexual coercion can be traumatic so it’s wise to turn to a therapist or other licensed professional who can help you emotionally heal.
  5. National resources. Organizations such as the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) Hotline, Love Is Respect, as well as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, are also available for further guidance.

What Does Gaslighting in Relationships Actually Look Like?

img 7241

Resident Hufflepuff, Beyonce historian, self-proclaimed tea sommelier

Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...