COERCION & HARASSMENT
Do you want to have great sex? Consent is the way! We want to help you practice asking for consent and knowing how to understand your partner's response. But sometimes, it is also helpful to know what not to do.
In general, if you ask for consent and respect the response, you are doing great. Coercion and harassment, on the other hand, are two behaviors where consent is not fully respected. These behaviors are not part of a healthy relationship, nor are they part of the healthy community we hope to see in the world around us.
Coercion is a tactic that is used in all sorts of interactions. If you think of how a friend might pester you to do something you don't want to do, you might have a good idea of what coercion looks and sounds like. It is a behavior people adopt because often enough it gets them what they want.
That said, coercion can look a few different ways. In general it happens when someone pressures, repeatedly asks, or threatens another person in an attempt to change that other person's mind. Making a person say yes, or making it very hard or unsafe to express non-consent, is also coercion. Read more about it below, and in our glossary.
Consent Under Pressure
If you are in a sexual situation, it is important to ask for consent. Asking once about a particular activity is how you find out if someone wants and is willing to participate with you. Repeatedly asking to do a particular activity after you received a response, guilting your partner, or trying to incapacitate them is never acceptable behavior. A "yes" received through these tactics does not count as true consent. Intimidation stemming from your stature or physical strength is also coercive behavior.
Pressuring someone, known as coercion, can sound like:
- Everyone is doing it.
- We should just break up if you're not going to have sex with me.
- It’s no big deal! I’ll use a condom.
- You liked it last time.
- Please? I want you so bad. Just do it for me.
Consent & Power Imbalance
There are certain power dynamics that can appear in relationships - even pretty healthy and loving ones - that can make coercion more likely to happen. When people are in positions that have more power, this is called privilege. Having privilege isn’t good or bad; it is what a person does with that privilege that matters. Our goal here is to help you think about the ways in which you might have power over your partner. By knowing this, you can take the extra care needed to ensure your partner has the genuine ability to give truly informed and enthusiastic consent.
Below is a short list of real identities that create power differences in U.S. culture. Though they are listed separately, many people benefit (or are harmed) by multiple identities. To learn more about privilege and intersectionality, check out scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Peggy McIntosh.
This is a societal and cultural preference for able-bodied people and people without mental disabilites. If you can move about and think through the world in a way that is easy for you, you likely benefit from ableism.
If your partner has a disability, make sure you understand their limits. Ask them what type of communication works best, and make sure you check in.
+ Adultism & Ageism
People of certain ages are given more credence in specific spaces than others. When someone benefits from being older, that is adultism. Ageism is when someone is more privileged for being younger.
It is important to make sure your partner has enough information about the world to understand the implications of sexual and romantic intimacy. Refrain from teasing your partner for being "young and innocent" and be aware of the way an age gap can impact a relationship.
Sometimes called transphobia, cissexism privileges people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth and who live within the gender binary.
Make sure you know how your partner wants to be touched and what your partner wants you to call parts of their body. Clearly identify your boundries as well.
U.S. culture favors folks who are upper-middle class (or who are even more wealthy). This refers to people who grew up with or have access to enough or more than enough resources to meet their needs. Privilege is also granted to folks with higher levels of education and to people who have prestigious employment.
People might assume that someone with more status in society has more say in a relationship. This is untrue. Folks from all walks of life can contribute fairly to relationships.
There are certain settings - like work and school - where particular interactions are inherently unequal in power. Supervisors, managers, and teachers have power over their employees and students because they control paychecks and grades.
While romantic or intimate relationships of this nature are not always prohibited, it is important for both partners to think clearly about their relationship and to ask for external guidance (from HR or a supervisor, for example).
Similar to homophobia, heterosexim privileges straight/heterosexual monogamy over any other type of sexuality.
Respecting your partner's sexuality is an important part of a healthy relaitonship. Ask your partner who they are comfortable with knowing their sexual identity, and only share that information with permission.
In the U.S., racism is the system by which whites/Caucasians are given societal power. Within races, colorism may exist which privileges lighter skin tones.
In a healthy relationship, you should appreciate your partner for all aspects of themselves. Make sure that you are not hypersexualizing or fetishizing another person based on racial stereotypes.
In western society, sexism situates men and masculine presenting people with more societal power and privelege.
Media portrays men as initiators for sexual and romantic intimacy. Remember, however, that all partners are able to and entitled to initiate and respond to sexual advances. It is also important to foster a relationship where refusal is respected.
U.S. citizens are given more rights, freedoms, and opportunities than other residents and visitors. Historically, U.S. culture has given more power and respect to Americans whose ancestors were white, protestant, immigrants from Western European countries than to the original inhabitants of this land or more recent immigrants.
Real or percieved immigration status can impact a person's daily life. Only disclose this information when your partner has willingly given permission to do so.
Sexual & Reproductive Coercion
An important part of informed consent requires being able to make decisions about your own sexual and reproductive health. Coercion (and abuse) can occur when one partner withholds information, disregards boundaries, or pressures their partner into something they do not want.
+ WITHHOLDING INFORMATION
Healthy relationships are all about open and productive communication. It can feel awkward or unsexy to have conversations about your sexual history, your STI status, or your reproductive goals. But sharing that information is an important part of informed consent! So be clear on when you were last tested, what you were tested for, and behaviors that might put your partner at a higher risk for infection or pregnancy.
Lying about being tested, misrepresenting how often you use barriers like a condom with others, or being dishonest about your use of birth control are all ways that undermine affirmative consent.
+ DISREGARDING BOUNDARIES
When you consent to any form of sexual intimacy, it is with the understanding that you and your partner will respect the boundaries you have established together. When a person steps outside of these agreements without the knowledge of their partner, they are sabotaging the ability to have informed consent. Tampering with birth control, stealthing, or not following agreements in regards to being monogamous or having multiple partners are some examples of this behavior. In general, if you have to be covert about it, it is probably not a good idea.
+ PRESSURING A PARTNER
Great sex only happens when each partner is eager, agreeing, and feels safe. This means that intimacy needs to be free from undue pressure. Conversations about barrier methods need to be balanced and honest. In relationships where pregnancy is possible, partners should not intentionally create an unwanted pregnancy nor should they demand the pregnant person do carry or terminate that pregnancy against their will.
Harassment is an umbrella term for a variety of sexual behavior that is unwelcome or violates another person. Below are four ways that harassment may appear.
Repeated & Unwanted
When you want to initiate sexual contact, you should ask for consent. Once non-consent is expressed, it is your role, as an initiator, to respect that response. Continued asking is a form of pressure which is coercive. Repeated sexual advances may create a "hostile environment" in a workplace or at school, which is illegal.
Harassment also includes instances where it would be inappropriate to be asking for sexual contact. If you are hollering at someone down the street, for example, you are harassing them. You do not already have a relationship with them where it would be acceptable to ask for consent or comment on their body. The same goes for brief but intentional touching at bars or on public transit.
Coercion can also happen when someone with power over another requests or forces the exchange of sexual contact for a positive outcome. Known as quid pro quo, this type of harassment can also occur when sexual contact is exchanged in order for something negative not to happen. Both variations are illegal.
Sharing sexual texts or images without permission, physical assaults, and verbal threats are all harassing behaviors. Though the act may not be repeated, the harm done is significant and can have lasting impacts on another person. Severe acts are classified as sexual harassment under Title IX and may also be considered part of a "hostile environment" at work or school.