Although the literature is replete with studies and discussions of sexual coercion, there is little consistency when it comes to defining, measuring, and differentiating sexual coercion from other forms of sexually aggressive behaviors such as rape, attempted rape, or unwanted sexual contact. Generally, sexual coercion refers to persistent attempts to engage someone in sexual activity after that person has resisted an initial advance. Although most researchers agree that sexual coercion includes verbal or psychological pressure (e.g., begging, pressuring, manipulating) to elicit sexual acts, others have extended this definition to include mild physical tactics. Physical sexual coercion occurs when the perpetrator uses or threatens to use physical force to obtain sexual activity. Victims often report “giving in” to unwanted or coerced sexual engagement to avoid negative consequences (e.g., disapproval by the partner) and further harassment and/or to promote the relationship.
Several researchers have suggested that sexual coercion can be conceptualized on a continuum anchored by unwanted sexual contact (least severe) and rape (most severe). However, there is some evidence that sexual coercion is qualitatively different from more severe acts of sexual aggression in etiology, motivation, and context. For example, compared to rape, sexual coercion is more likely to occur in an established relationship, more strongly associated with low self-esteem and assertiveness in the victim, and less related to substance use. Whereas severe forms of sexual assault have been linked to general antisociality in the perpetrator, sexual coercion may more likely be the result of the perpetrator’s misguided attempt to obtain consent for sexual engagement.
Although the lack of consistency in defining sexual coercion makes it difficult to synthesize the existing literature, it is apparent that sexual coercion occurs at a high rate. Depending on the study and methods used, between 35% and 75% of college women report a lifetime prevalence of sexual coercion. Similarly, between 37% and 69% of college men report perpetrating a sexually coercive act. A majority of what is known about sexual coercion is limited to male-to-female perpetration; however, a growing body of research has examined female-to-male perpetration. In fact, across several studies, at least 25% of men report a lifetime prevalence of being coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity.
Consequences of sexual coercion range from a negative impact on the relationship to depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress symptoms and are associated with the severity of the coercive tactics that were employed. Relative to victims of verbal sexual coercion, physically coerced victims experience more negative affects and are more likely to label the incident as rape. There is some evidence that male victims of sexual coercion feel less threatened and have fewer negative consequences than female victims. Most of this research has been conducted with college student samples; when community samples are used, the rate of sexual coercion, while still high, is generally not as elevated as their college student counterparts. Unlike more severe forms of sexual assault, sexual coercion may, in part, result from the perpetrator’s lack of awareness. Thus, prevention efforts should focus on educating individuals regarding what constitutes sexual coercion and its potential negative consequences.
- Abbey, A., BeShears, R., Clinton-Sherrod, A. M., & McAuslan, P. (2004). Similarities and differences in women’s sexual assault experiences based on tactics used by the perpetrator. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 323–332.
- DeGue, S., & DiLillo, D. (2005). “You would if you loved me”: Toward an improved conceptual and etiological understanding of nonphysical male sexual coercion. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10, 513–532.
- Struckman-Johnson, C., Struckkman-Johnson, D., & Anderson, P. B. (2003). Tactics of sexual coercion: When men and women won’t take no for an answer. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 76–86.
- Testa, M., & Dermen, K. H. (1999). The differential correlates of sexual coercion and rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 548–561.
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