How to Recognize Sexual Coercion in a Committed Relationship
Many people believe they're in good, healthy relationships without recognizing they are victims of sexual coercion. This is especially true in committed relationships where societal rules indicate that sex is expected and should occur frequently.
What is sexual coercion?
Sexual coercion is defined as any behavior intended to compel a partner to engage in unwanted sexual activity.
"If a partner feels like they are getting any kind of guilt, pressure, pushback, forcefulness, intimidation, threat or anything other than an acceptance of their 'no' in an effort to compel a 'yes,' then that's coercion," said Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., a psychologist, certified sex therapist and founder of her practice, Modern Intimacy, with offices in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois and New York.
A common form of sexual coercion is based on the belief that it is a wife's responsibility to take care of her husband's sexual needs. The concept of "wifely duty" dates to 17th-century England and the Hale doctrine, which stated that a man cannot be guilty of raping his wife because she gave herself to him by marrying him.
This belief was incorporated into American law and culture. Marital rape has only been illegal in all 50 states for the past 30 years, and there are still loopholes in 12 states.
Sexual coercion can be hard to recognize because it has been a part of our culture for hundreds of years.
What does covert sexual coercion look like?
Sometimes sexual coercion can be so subtle and insidious that neither partner recognizes it. Even once it is suspected, it's easy to discount, explain or justify. After all, sex is what separates a romantic relationship from a platonic one.
Here are some examples of subtle sexual coercion that you may have heard from friends, family or your partner:
- Men need sex to feel loved.
- Is it my fault I desire my wife?
- You should just be happy he's still attracted to you.
- But my love language is physical touch.
- It's been two weeks. We may as well be roommates.
- If you don't, he'll get it somewhere else.
- Just put it on a calendar.
- A little alcohol may get you in the mood.
- At least he doesn't hit you.
- We all fake it sometimes.
- You used to want it a lot more.
- I'll do it so I don't have to deal with him pouting.
- Do it for the health of the relationship.
It's not consent if you're pressured to say "yes."
And it's not consent if you're afraid to say "no."
If you count the days between sexual encounters, knowing how long you can go before your partner complains or lashes out, that isn't intimacy—it's sexual coercion.
"Saying no is an inevitable part of a healthy relationship," Balestrieri said. "We cannot trust our partner's yes if they can't say no without repercussions."
The difference between responsive desire and sexual coercion
Responsive desire is when your sexual interest is a response to stimulation of the body.
"Initially, you think you're not in the mood, but as your body is stimulated in some way, your mind registers an enthusiastic 'yes,'" Balestrieri said.
Spontaneous desire is when you are sexually interested mentally before any physical contact is made.
"Many people want to believe all arousal is spontaneous, but that's just not realistic, especially in a long-term relationship," Balestrieri said.
Initiating sex is not sexual coercion. But each sexual encounter requires a keen awareness of and communication with your romantic partner—even if you have had sex together 1,000 times before.
"If your partner says, 'I don't really know if I'm in the mood but keep doing what you're doing and let's see,' it's OK to proceed," Balestrieri said. "But if they say they aren't feeling it, any continuation to stimulate their body or to create a scenario where they might change their mind violates consent."
Arousal non-concordance can complicate the situation
Arousal non-concordance is when the body responds to stimulation with an erection, vaginal lubrication or another sign of arousal, but the person doesn't want the sexual interaction.
"When folks are engaging in sexually coercive behavior, they will often use the argument that their partner liked it, evidenced by lubrication, an erection or an orgasm," Balestrieri said. "It's important to remember our bodies are designed to respond to stimulation, but that does not mean we want or are consenting to sex."
In the same way a lack of an erection, lubrication or orgasm doesn't necessarily mean someone is not feeling sexual or enjoying the experience, these involuntary physical responses are not equivalent to consent.
The consequences of sexual coercion
"Sexual coercion can cause the same kinds of symptoms that come with being sexually assaulted or raped," Balestrieri said. "The victim might dissociate during sex. They may have mood changes or exhibit a fawn—'tend and befriend'—response with their partner. It can also result in a decrease or loss of desire in general or toward the coercive partner."
Any intimate relationship among any genders and of any length can include sexual coercion, but Balestrieri said it is more common in relationships that adhere to traditional gender roles.
Research indicates men who control their female partners—limiting where they are going and who they are seeing—are more likely to be sexually coercive.
Further, coercive partners are more likely to become physically violent.
What to do if coercion is a part of your relationship
The first step is to realize your relationship involves sexual coercion.
As long as you feel it is safe, it's important to explain your experience to your partner. If safety is an issue, work with a therapist to develop a strategy before talking with your partner.
Once you've let your partner know how you feel, it can be helpful to speak with a therapist to understand your dynamic and how to improve your relationship.
Balestrieri recommended seeing a sex therapist to work through this dynamic.
"This is especially important to help restabilize a sense of safety for the victim," she said.
If your partner can't acknowledge your experience, it is still important to speak to professionals to help you assess your situation, find safety and process the feelings you have. Victims of sexual coercion can have a wide range of physical and emotional concerns.