I was nearly 13-years-old when my friend, a girl I bunked with at sleepaway camp, warned us not to have sex yet because we’d regret it. I realize now that the 18-year-old man she considered to be her boyfriend was a predator who committed statutory rape.
We lost touch after camp, so I don’t know what became of that girl. But I know what happened to many girls like her.
While Joy was on vacation with her parents, she met a boy. Their subsequent hook-up ended with her performing oral sex. She was 13-years-old.
I support every woman’s right to do what she wants with her own body. But I think most people would agree that middle school is a bit young for a random hookup that culminates with oral sex.
Bella, a friend from graduate school, was upset after having sex with a guy on their second or third date.
Misunderstanding the cause of her pain, I reassured her that she can do whatever she wants with her own body, and if he really likes her he won’t care whether she slept with him on the first date or the 30th.
“No, that’s not it,” Bella explained.
Bella didn’t want to have sex with him. This intelligent, successful woman gave in because it was easier.
I get it. Sometimes a reluctant “yes” feels like the only answer. But it shouldn’t be.
What is sexual coercion?
Sex should be a joyful act between consenting individuals. But you can’t really say “yes” if you are unwilling or unable to say “no.”
The absence of “no” never implies consent. Only yes means yes. There is a world between yes and no, a chasm that starts with pressure or manipulation and can end with rape.
First, the definition. Sexual coercion is “unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way.” It includes:
- Persistent attempts to wear down someone who has already refused.
- Being threatened by someone who has power over you, such as a boss who makes you afraid for your job if you say no, or a romantic partner who makes you feel like you owe them.
As you can see, sexual coercion is a broad term that describes a range of abusive sexual encounters. The teacher who threatens you with a bad grade is different than the boyfriend who threatens to leave you if he doesn’t get sex tonight or the friend who asks for sex until you reluctantly comply.
Rape is never the fault of the survivor. But there are things you can do to protect yourself from abusive sexual encounters and relationships.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are the limits and rules you set with other people. Your boundaries define the behaviors you deem acceptable and unacceptable from others, and how you respond when someone passes your limits. For example, if a strange man gets too close, do you ask him to move or ignore the violation?
Boundaries are dependent on culture—what is acceptable in one country may be rude in another—and context. For example, standing arm to arm with a stranger is tolerable in a crowded elevator but extremely uncomfortable in an empty train car. Someone with porous boundaries may:
- Accept disrespect or abuse.
- Be dependent on the opinions of other people.
- Find it difficult to say “no.”
- Fear rejection if they do not do not say “yes” to requests.
Healthy boundaries come from a healthy sense of self worth independent of other people’s opinions. You are entitled to your own thoughts, feelings, space, social relationships and activities, and spiritual beliefs.
How to defend your boundaries.
Society teaches women to be nice. Nice girls don’t hurt people’s feelings. If your family didn’t encourage you to set healthy boundaries, you may find it especially difficult to identify boundary violations and respond accordingly.
Defending your boundaries is a skill, like learning to read. The more you do it, the easier it’ll become. An easy way to start is by learning to defend your space bubble. By learning how to protect yourself against minor boundary violations, it’ll be easier to respond to major boundary violations like sexual coercion.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed during a sexual encounter, here are a few tips to keep yourself safe:
- Be direct. You never owe someone sex. In any sexual encounter, you should feel comfortable telling the person how you feel, what you want to do, and what you don’t want to do.
- Take a break. It’s hard to think when you’re overwhelmed. Excuse yourself by announcing that you need to use the bathroom. I’ve never heard someone say no to, “I need to pee.” Take as much time as you need to calm yourself and create a plan to change the situation or leave.
- Remember your worth. Your sexual partners should treat you the way you’d want your best friend to be treated.
- Call a loved one. If you can’t figure out how you feel or the best way to respond, call a trusted family member or friend. They can provide support and help you figure out the best way to respond.
- Leave. If the person won’t listen to you or you are in physical danger, leave as quickly as possible.
- Get help. If you’re in immediate physical danger, call 911.
How do you deal with sexual coercion? Let me know in the comments.