The Difference Between Seduction and Coercion
The idea of coercion in the context of gaining consent for sex is one that can cause confusion for some; when one refers to consent gained under duress, our minds tend to flash immediately to threats, either physical (use of a weapon or a fist) or implied (“Fuck me or you’re going to regret it.”). Going back to the example above, it’s clear that there weren’t any physical threats to the girl, nor did her boyfriend force himself on her. Yet her “yes” was coerced out of her all the same. But absent threats to her immediate safety or health, could we really say she’s been coerced?
So what exactly do we mean by coercion?
Coercion is the practice of forcing another person to perform or behave in an involuntary manner (either through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or other use of force or pressure. And while threats could well be construed to mean “physical” threats, psychological or emotional threats or manipulation can be just as effective in terms of coercing behavior or action out of someone.
Emotional coercion can come in many forms, whether it’s the idea of “tit for tat”, the use of guilt or , or even veiled or implied threats to the relationship or to a person’s reputation.
“Hey, I bought you drinks/dinner/flowers/concert tickets, now you owe me,” would be one example. “If you really loved me, you would do this,” is another. “Don’t you want to? I know you want to do this just as much as I do, so why don’t we just do it now? It bothers me that you’re holding back like this,” is yet another. So too are “Look, everybody’s going to think we did it anyway, so we may as well do it for real” or “Look, if you won’t do it, I’m going to just have to go find someone who will,” or even “I thought you loved me, but I guess you don’t. I just don’t know if I could stay with someone like that.”
The coerced party is made to feel guilty or selfish for not “giving in”; all of the pressure is put on them, reframing them as the one who is causing all of the trouble.
Other forms of coercion involve making the person feel as though the only answer is to have sex, one partner relentlessly pushing their advances upon the other until he or she finally gives in – out of a sense of guilt, an effort to appease or even just to bring an end to the argument. This can be especially pernicious if the one being coerced feels as though they do not have any way to exit the argument or situation. Sometimes this is a case of transportation – the party being coerced may not have their own car or got a ride from the other person. Sometimes it’s just a matter of proximity; they may live close together or in the same dorm. They may work together or have friends or hobbies that bring them into contact regularly. Either way: they can’t just walk away from the argument and have it end; the pressure to give in and say “yes” continues relentlessly.
In the example I gave you, the girl isn’t necessarily kept from leaving in order to avoid or end the argument, but she certainly isn’t quite as free to go as she’d like. She’d have to find another way home, whether it’s walking, calling a friend, a taxi or the bus. This puts a certain level of impetus on her part to stay, which in turn works to her boyfriend’s advantage; she is effectively a captive audience and she’s made to feel that the only way she’s going to be allowed to leave is through giving in.
Regardless of the exact nature of what was said or done, the fundamental matter is that while they may have said “yes”, he or she was having sex that they did not want to have in the first place.
Now, I’ve written an article on this blog about seduction, and I do discuss what to do when the person you’re with doesn’t necessarily want to have sex right then, including how to persuade her into being interested after all.
Herein lies the critical difference between seduction and coercion. The idea behind seduction is to encourage consent – actual, willing and even enthusiastic consent – by building arousal and interest, not by putting pressure on her to give in. The key word here is “encourage”; he or she may be aroused to the point of bursting but still not want to have sex and that is the end of the matter. As I said in the article: it’s incumbent on you to respect that decision. Nobody lost out on sex by being willing to be patient for a little longer, after all. The goal of seduction is the enthusiastic participation on both sides… after all, you presumably would want to see them again, wouldn’t you? A person who feels pressured or coerced into sex isn’t going to want to have a repeat engagement; they will likely feel used or even violated. Coercion can and does ruin relationships; it’s a violation of trust and consideration.
The goal of coercion is simply to get what one party wants regardless of how the other person may feel about it.
Alcohol: The Magical Mind Changer1
Another aspect of coerced consent is removing the ability to consent in the first place.
Now, I would say with some degree of certainty that we can all agree that there is no gray area when it comes to the use of drugs in order to have sex with someone. Whether it’s GHB, Rohypnol or even legal drugs such as Ambien, someone using drugs in order to have sex with someone who would otherwise say no is unquestionably a rapist.
It gets a little more interesting when alcohol is involved.
Not many people think of alcohol when it comes to date rape and coerced consent. And yet, alcohol is the most commonly used date rape drug; it’s perfectly legal, easily accessible and people are quite willing to accept it without question. Men have plied women with booze since time immemorial, turning “no” into “yes” through a haze of drunkenness, impaired judgment and lowered inhibitions. It is precisely because of the impairment of inhibition and ability to make decisions that many communities consider using alcohol to compel consent to be a crime.
Here is where the lines get hazy and we start entering a gray area; what is the difference between someone using alcohol as a magical mind changer, changing someone’s “no” into a “yes”, or “later” to “right now” and a night of sex after the consumption of a few too many shots? Is there a significant ethical difference between a man deliberately getting a woman drunk in order to have sex and having sex with someone who’s drunk already?
It can be hard to say. While intent certainly matters – in the second case, the intoxicated party is responsible for their own state – in both cases, the drunken party is legally unable to consent. Similarly, the effects of alcohol and the someone’s actions under the influence will vary from person to person; there will be plenty of people who, while drunk, would still make the same decisions they would make while sober.
However, just because a person may not have had ill intentions when getting someone drunk, taking advantage of their incapacitation – even with the drunk’s approval or encouragement – crosses a line, especially if the drinker would not have consented otherwise.
It can be a fine line to cross, and the best advice I can give is to try to avoid it in the first place. When in doubt, here is a simple shorthand: if they’re too drunk to drive, they are too drunk, period.
Yes, levels of legal intoxication vary from state to state. So do people’s tolerance and behavior while drunk. It’s better to err on the side of caution and be the gentleman or lady; it’s better to go home alone than to be the asshole who took advantage of someone else.
It’s A Question of Responsibility
Traditionally, the onus of responsibility has been placed on women to guard themselves; women are told they should always be aware of their surroundings, pay attention to their drinking and to their drinks, not to let themselves get put into a position where they might be taken advantage of. Not only is this sexist – implying that women are perpetual victims and that men are incapable of controlling themselves – it ignores that this behavior isn’t restricted to any gender or sexual orientation. According to one study, 12% of men have reported coerced sexual behavior at the hands of women. Similarly, gay men and lesbians both face coercive behavior from others.
While it is important for people – men and women, gay and straight – to be on their guard against threats, it is equally their responsibility not to attempt to force the issue in the first place.
Silence is not consent. Neither is pressuring someone to say “yes” to something that they don’t want to do in the first place
Just because you can get someone to say “yes” after saying “no” doesn’t mean that you have magically made things right.