Coerced consent (or sexual coercion) is when you convince or persuade someone to engage in a sexual activity they are not comfortable with. This could be achieved by using alcohol or drugs to lower a partner’s ability to be assertive, but can also be through emotionally manipulating, pressuring or threatening a partner. It’s about doing everything you can to get that person to say ‘yes’ – or to say nothing at all. It’s incredibly common, and if it happens all the goddamn time it can really fuck you up.
My experience of coerced consent came from a perfectly nice, liberal, feminist gent. But over the course of our nearly three year relationship he would coerce me into sexual activity; not through violence or threats, but by continuing to ask until I said yes. My initial ‘no’ was always ignored, as would any subsequent no’s be until I eventually gave in. If I gave him reasons for why I didn’t want to, he’d respond with some variation of, ‘Come on, you’ll enjoy it once we start.’ It was easier to have sex with him than it was to argue with him, because he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
It’s difficult to talk about this kind of coerced consent, because on the spectrum of unwanted sexual contact this ranks fairly low. The perpetrator asked, the victim said ‘yes’ and then engaged sexually with the perpetrator. The victim may feel at ease with them, be completely sober and not feel like they’re in any danger. The weapon is just a question, asked over and over until the victim gives in. But the effects of coerced consent can have long-reaching effects that permeate many aspects of future relationships. For me, it hugely affected my sex life.
To be clear, I love sex. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, I love talking about it and would like to spend the majority of my time doing it. I love having sex with different people, ideally at the same time in one big sexy heap. But actually acting on these impulses is now almost impossible for me.
When I think about initiating sex, I get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Anxiety rears it’s ugly head, and says, ‘Girl, pretty sure that’s a terrible idea.’ I get worried that I’m going to pressure someone to be sexual with me. I worry they’ll feel obliged to participate whilst they’re secretly not that into it. I worry that any enthusiasm they show is actually them desperately trying to convince me that they’re ok, even though they’re hating every second. Essentially, I project how I felt in my previous relationship onto my current partner. And as someone who loves sex, this fucking sucks.
The memories of when I was coerced into sex have made me feel absolutely powerless to control my own sex life. I’m always waiting for someone else to make the first move, which can make me angry at myself, or even at my partner. I feel completely unable to communicate that I want to be sexually intimate with someone. At best, this makes me feel incredibly sexually frustrated, at worst, it can make me want to sabotage my current relationship.
When I talk about sex and consent, people always reply with statements about their own behaviour. ‘I would never force someone to do anything’, ‘I’d never touch someone without their permission,’ or ‘Normal people know not to rape someone.’ I was recently talking to someone who told me that the consent workshops they had at their university were ‘patronising’ and ‘a waste of time’. My partner would have agreed with you. But this is still affecting me today, two years later.
Here’s some sexy advice. If you propose getting hot and heavy with someone and they say no, either explicitly or in another way – I’m tired, I have a headache, I’m playing a game of battleships in my head and you’re putting me off – accept that as your answer.
Listen to your partner, read their body language. Respect them, respect their autonomy and their boundaries. Trust that they know how they’re feeling better than you do. No doesn’t mean, ‘convince me’. Sexual coercion isn’t consent.
Don’t pressure them for a ‘yes’. Hold out for enthusiasm.