TRIGGER WARNING: sexual abuse
Many people are uninformed on sexual coercion: it’s rarely spoken about and often isn't treated with as much severity as other sexual assault cases. By definition, sexual coercion is "the act of using pressure, alcohol or drugs, or force to have sexual contact with someone against his or her will” and includes “persistent attempts to have sexual contact with someone who has already refused.” This essentially means continuing to pressure someone for sexual contact until they agree, therefore isn't full consent.
This sexual manipulation can take form in a number of different ways, which is why it can be so hard to define exactly what sexual coercion is and also is why victims may not realise they’ve experienced it, or might only understand afterwards. Some examples of sexual coercion are;
Sexual coercion is surprisingly common for such a taboo topic; a US study found that 70% of college students report being sexually coerced. This is likely because, though the victim doesn't want to engage in sex, 'consent' is taken. Therefore, the guilty party may not believe that they committed sexual assault and excuse their actions. However, this doesn’t make the manipulation okay, and if you are a victim remove yourself from the abuser and seek help.
Another issue with identifying sexual coercion is that often the victim blames themselves, instead of blaming the perpetrator for exploiting them. When I was in this situation with my ex-boyfriend, I thought it was my fault for 'giving in' and being a 'push-over'. I didn't tell anyone what was going on as I felt that I was overreacting or betraying my ex if I spoke out. It wasn't until after the relationship ended that I was finally able to tell my friends. Saying it out loud helped me to realise that what he did to me was wrong and that it wasn't my fault- no one can claim they had consent if the other person was manipulated.
During my relationship, my ex continued to pressure me into sexual situations by continually asking me after I said no and then guilt tripping me by crying or becoming cold if I refused. Looking back, the manipulation was so obvious, however at the time I tried to ignore my worries. It was my first relationship and I managed to convince myself that it was normal. If you’re in the same position as I was, I want to tell you that it isn’t normal and you shouldn’t put up with it.
Sexual coercion has a mental and physical effect on survivors. It can leave you feeling as if you’re ‘dirty’ and has an enormous toll on mental health. Not only does this abuse have immediate consequences, but it also has long-term effects on the victim. If someone is continuously manipulated, they can form damaging assocations between having sex and feeling distressed, possibly scarring them from sex altogether in the future. Furthermore, the survivor may become desensitised to their abuse and think that they deserve that treatment; this is more likely if sexual coercion takes place in younger life, or if they’ve been with their abuser for an extended time as it becomes normal. This could lead to a harmful cycle of toxic and abusive relationships as they may not think they deserve any better.
If you are experiencing, or have experienced sexual coercion, I cannot stress enough the importance of speaking to someone, whether that be a friend, family, a therapist, or a helpline. Don't let worries about being ‘overly sensitive’ hold you back from speaking to someone because you will only be making it harder for yourself to break the cycle. If you're still being sexually coerced by someone, talking about it will help you to realise that it's wrong and you will get emotional support to leave the abuser. Equally, speaking about sexual abuse after it has happened (even weeks, months or years after) can help with healing from the situation as you no longer need to bottle up your trauma.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to speak to someone straight away, it can help to say how you’re feeling out loud, or to write it down. Often in abusive situations it's easy to detach yourself from what’s happening, so this can be useful in making it real- however be aware that you must take further steps after this.
Finally, remove yourself from the abuser. If you’re in a relationship, dump them!! Don’t be worried about how the breakup will affect them, instead concentrate on how it will help you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together, or how 'good' you are together: you come first. If you’re in a relationship where it isn’t possible to leave immediately, (e.g. marriage or cohabitation) seek help through organisations and stay at a relative or friend's house if possible. There is always a way out, and there will always be a day when things are better.
Now you know what sexual coercion is, don’t forget it. Teach others about it, speak to your friends and continue the conversation. The only way we can try and end abuse for good and help others is to educate ourselves and those around us on difficult topics. If you have been through this abuse, please know that it will get better. You may need time to come to terms with what happened, but you will heal eventually. Never blame yourself for someone else taking advantage of you and know that it wasn’t your fault.
Teenagers With Experience is an organisation created to provide teenagers with a platform to share and help others from their own experiences while also educating others on different topics. We aim to provide a safe space to all teenagers around the world and support others. You can contact us via email, social media or our contact form found on our home page.