Recently, a hashtag campaign created over 10 years ago by Black activist Tarana Burke has resurfaced all over social media.
#MeToo was initially a grassroots movement intended to provide “empowerment through empathy” to survivors of sexual abuse, assault, exploitation, and harassment in underprivileged communities that might not have access to crisis centers or other resources. In the past few days, survivors from all walks of life have used it as a powerful tool to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault in a manner that allowed their social media networks to see names and faces, especially familiar ones, rather than simply statistics about sexual harassment.
As we shed more light on how sexual assault affects so many of us, it's also a time to remember that not all cases look the same.
Dating abuse and sexual violence manifest themselves in countless ways, and there are often gray areas surrounding what constitutes abuse, rape, or sexual assault. The baseline for all kinds of sexual abuse is a lack of consent — voluntary, sober, enthusiastic, non-coerced, continual, active, honest, verbal consent.
For right now, let's focus on one piece of that definition: “non-coerced.”
Sexual coercion is a form of dating abuse characterized by forcing a partner to give in to requests for sex even if they initially refused. It can be a one-time occurrence or ongoing in a relationship, and it isn’t discussed as it should be despite being alarmingly common; 13% of women and 6% of men report experiencing sexual coercion at some point in their lives -- and that doesn't even include those survivors, especially males, who feel too ashamed, afraid, or uncomfortable to report it.
It's not just that we aren't adequately educating about it. On one level, we’re actually taught that some coercion is normal: a study found that a quarter of girls ages 12 to 20 agreed with the statement, “It is normal for guys to put some pressure on girls to do sexual things.” One in five of the women in that study also said they’d personally been pressured into sex.
Sure, it's normal... but it shouldn't be.
Normalizing coercion is so common that I didn't even realize it had happened to me until years later.
What is sexual coercion?
More specifically, sexual coercion is defined as "persistent attempts to have sexual contact with someone who has already refused, especially using drugs and alcohol, threats of violence, threats of sharing illicit photos online, exploiting a relationship of trust, and manipulating insecurities."
It’s about control, not consent, and it involves manipulation, threats, or “guilt-tripping” someone into engaging in sexual activity of any kind. The person may say yes or say nothing at all, but it’s not because they don’t want to say no — it’s because they feel like they can’t.
What does sexual coercion look like?
There are many ways that someone can be coerced into sex. Some of them might not even seem malicious or "wrong" at the time.
1. Pressuring: Usually, this means persisting until a partner is worn down and finally relents. It can also include giving a partner alcohol or drugs in an attempt to reduce their inhibitions and make them more likely to give in.
2. Threatening or intimidating: Emotional threats can include things like “I’ll break up with you if you don’t have sex with me." Breaking or smashing things, yelling, or otherwise intimidating someone who has refused to have sex also counts as coercion — agreeing to sex to stop or prevent a partner’s anger isn’t giving consent.
3. Blackmailing: Threatening to out someone for their sexuality or share photos meant to be private counts as blackmailing. Other examples include violating a partner’s trust by swearing to tell any of their other secrets or saying things like, “I’ll tell everyone you’re a slut/prude.”
4. Guilt-tripping: This could be anything from “If you really loved me, you’d have sex with me” to "we're dating, it's your job to have sex with me." It can even be just as simple as being noticeably upset instead of respectful and understanding when someone says no. Often, victims of sexual coercion report having sex with someone because they were made to feel as if it were their duty or responsibility.
Overall, sex shouldn't be a chore, and it's not a right, either.
For more on what behaviors can be considered sexual coercion, click here.
How can it be considered sexual abuse if you didn’t say no?
In general, sexual abuse refers to any action that pressures or forces someone to do something sexually that they don’t want to do. Coercion, like other forms of abuse, can lead to negative psychological effects such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety afterward.
Often, perpetrators claim that a partner’s silence meant yes because they didn’t say no. It’s shameful that we still have to remind anyone in 2017 that when it comes to sex, this is false.
Silence is not, never has been, and never will be, consent.
And when it comes to fault, no matter what someone was wearing, what they agreed to in the past, whether or not they flirted with their perpetrator, or how much they had to drink, 100% of the culpability for assault or abuse lies with the person who felt so entitled to sex that they robbed someone of their right to bodily autonomy.
Nobody deserves to feel as though it was their fault, and it's time we start talking about it.
Here are some resources for anyone seeking more information:
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My name is Emily Rose, I'm from Athens, Georgia, and I'm excited to be the Mogul President here at Mercer University. I'm a writer, musician, and pre-law student hoping to double major in Journalism and Law & Public Policy and minor in Women's & Gender Studies.