The issue of coerced sex is not a simple one; regardless of how many confident opinions you may see flying about the place. There are arguments over the differences between force and co-ercion; co-ercion and manipulation; manipulation and convincing.
I am by no means an expert on this subject but I understand coerced sex to be sex or sexual activity that a person didn’t want but was pressured into having, by another person. It can be easily distinguished from sex they wanted at the time, but are now regretting. A lot of people think it falls short of rape, depending on the particular circumstance, because of the existence of technical consent.
In high school, I’ve heard coercion described as ’emotional rape’. The term covered a range of activities – begging; badgering and/or crying (people have reported this kind of bothering for hours); threatening shame and public disgrace; creating and manipulating circumstances so that the other person can’t leave a particular location; or creating physical barriers or restraints without actually forcing yourself on the victim; or sometimes just standing over the person, visibly frustrated and enraged, nursing what seems like a painful erection, until she gives in.
What differentiates coercion from what people usually consider to be rape is the giving in, or the failure to say ‘no’ (assuming the person is not incapacitated).
The reasons people reluctantly consent also vary. For some, there is a real fear of being attacked (whether the other party acknowledges it or not) or of the threat of blackmail being carried out. With others, it is a desire to stop the Other person’s apparent distress; not wanting to cause trouble; or giving in just to be left alone. Some freeze; others rationalise – with themselves and the other person – and a lot of women have been conditioned to blame themselves for being in that position in the first place.
The society’s reaction to claims, and complaints of coerced sex are also varied.
Leaving aside the issue of false accusations, the society’s first reaction seems to be outrage, that people are trying to categorise coercion as rape, or even sexual assault.
Some people think that once consent is obtained, however it is obtained, no one should attempt to ruin a man’s reputation by even hinting at the ‘r’ word. While others accept that coercion is wrong, opinions vary as to whether it should criminalised, or whether the term rape should be reserved for what is, in their minds, a very specific offence.
There are the usual declarations that women should take responsibility for their actions, which include not being anywhere alone with a man who is attracted to them, being prepared to confront or physically fight off their attacker, or to repeat ‘no’ loudly for as many times as is necessary.
In making these declarative statements, people frequently fail to take into account the different forms of coercion. There is a desire for a clean line to be drawn between rape (a criminal act that only monsters and fake men commit) and coercion (not great, but not a crime for goodness’ sake!) and convincing (oh come on! we’ve all done it). To people who consider themselves to be decent, rape is inexcusable, but coercion is debateable.
I think the reason that this has been an issue for such a long time is some problematic views about sex which are similar to views that justify or excuse rape. Society has only relatively recently begun to question long-held beliefs that men cannot, and should not, be expected to control their sexual impulses, because they somehow ‘need’ sex and the responsibility for providing, controlling, or resisting sexual activity, lies with women. This apparent ‘need’ for sex goes hand in hand with reducing women to a receptacle for that desire. ‘Sorry’ goes the traditional advice ‘this is just a risk that women have to wise up to’. The begging, lying and trickery are just things a savvy woman will have to navigate her way around (if she is lucky), all these does not make the man ‘a bad guy’, it just makes him a ‘man’.
It’s difficult to overestimate how much this mindset, that women should be in charge of men’s desires, is engrained in both conservative and liberal societies. Both factions provide different answers. Religious conservatives have preached abstinence and an iron-grip on your sexual desires as a solution while the left has gone for the more relevant emphasis on the importance of enthusiastic consent. This webpage illustrates the point – https://sapac.umich.edu/article/205 .
The left has also championed sexual liberation, particularly in relation to recognising that sex is not just something that happens to women; women have an equal say in what kind of sex takes place at all times.
However, I do get the feeling that the ‘liberation’ part of sexual liberation sometimes lags behind the sex part. The acknowledgement that people will have, quite often, creative and exotic sex outside of marriage and conventional relationships, has, for some, turned into an entitlement to that kind of casual sex.
There have been high profile cases involving men, whom many would expect to be very concerned about enthusiastic consent, but who have instead decided that any woman they fancy is definitely sexually liberated enough to be pressured unconscionably into casual sex with them. This is despite fairly clear signs that the women very much do not want to have sex with them at that moment.
So is the much-derided Matt Walsh right? Does ‘hook-up’ culture lead to rape culture (https://twitter.com/MattWalshBlog/status/476741565046476801)? Not in my view. Rape has existed since recorded history. The reason that it has been treated as a baby crime in so many societies, with the many exceptions and conditions that make detection, punishment and even identification very difficult, is that people have seen rape as an extension of men’s uncontrollable sexual desires (instead of an act of violence and the exertion of power that it is) and because women are reduced and objectified as recipients, receptacles or ‘plunder’ when it comes to sex and sexual violence.
Coerced sex is just another manifestation of this thinking, perhaps brought about by the stigmatisation of violent rape. Disregard for women’s sexual and bodily autonomy is still very much alive – as long as the hurdle of technical consent can be crossed.
Criminalising, at least, some manifestations of this behaviour is probably necessary, because they are so close to force (which is what a lot of coercion is) and removing any real choice and because some people will never really care about a woman’s consent anyway. However, I do think society needs to dig deeper – especially those of us who call ourselves liberals. If you consider yourself to be a decent human being, you can’t escape the fact that women – people – are autonomous beings. If someone does not want to have sex with you on your terms at that time, that should be the end of the discussion. If you are about to have sex with someone you despise, you’re at greater risk of turning them into an object for your desire and disregarding their wishes. If you go on a night out and your state of mind is that you are going to get laid tonight, come hell or highwater, you are probably on the way to downplaying autonomy and true consent.
There are other complicated scenarios. For instance, there is an expectation of sex in most romantic relationships. The question is when. For some it’s marriage, for others it’s on the first date. For a lot more others, it’s somewhere in between. No one is entitled to sex from another human being, but we acknowledge that if sex suddenly stops in a relationship (or never starts), it is an issue that needs to be addressed. However, in a relationship, when does a discussion about sex turn into coercion? Is threatening to end a relationship really co-ercion as the link above suggests or should people be as entitled to say they want sex as they are to say that they don’t want sex?
How about when you are the only liberated soldier in a backwards, conservative society and you are sure that the woman you are with wants you but is only being held back by outdated beliefs about what good girls do and do not do? Is it your noble duty to disabuse her of her unevolved, primitive ideas – the sex with you being just a collateral benefit, of course, hardly worth mentioning? Should you convince her that’s ‘it’s okay’, God doesn’t love you any less if you have sex with me this minute and it would definitely be the right thing to do?’
I don’t have all the answers but I feel very strongly that if someone does not want to have sex or any kind of sexual activity at that moment, deciding to co-erce, manipulate or convince them to go further shows a disturbing willingness to override their will. And the only relevant communication is what they are saying in the present; not what they have done in the past or what they may enjoy in the future. It sometimes is rape and it sometimes is sexual assault but it doesn’t have to be classified as such for it to be wrong. Consent is not a technicality to avoid trouble or a goal in itself; it is a recognition that the other person is an equal, autonomous person like yourself.
All in all, the issue of coercive sex clearly needs to be addressed and certain behaviour should be criminalised, in my view, if it is not already. But the conversation around it demonstrates the fundamental problems in how we understand and regard consent. It is tempting to demonise everybody or wish everyone would just stop wanting to have casual sex. However, the key may be to answer this question about consent honestly: if you are willing to plough ahead with sex with someone who has expressly said they don’t want to have sex at that time and/or who is clearly reluctant for whatever reason, in what ways exactly do you consider your mindset to be different from a rapist’s?