Sexual Coercion Is An External Issue: How The Outside World Is Creating Unhealthy Dynamics In Relationships

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When you're not in the mood, you should not feel compelled to have sex, no matter the "benefits" to your relationship. Pedro Ribeiro Simões, CC BY 2.0.

He says he wants me to, to show him I love him.

We’ve been in a relationship for so long, and sex is just a part of that.

He’s a man, and he needs it.

Whether a boyfriend or a husband has ever explicitly said this to us or not, many women have felt a pressure to have sex for these reasons. Sex sometimes doesn’t seem like a choice, but an expectation, something we must do every once and a while to make our partner happy. And if we say no, we’ll often feel guilty, even if we were being true to how we were feeling.

But why? Where does this sense of obligation come from, especially if it’s not from our partner?

Sexual coercion has to be one of the biggest gray areas within relationships because it is so difficult to decipher. Whether we fully understand or not, what’s happening above is a form of sexual coercion women have internalized. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, sexual coercion is “the act of using pressure, alcohol, drugs, or force to have sexual contact with someone against his or her will; [or] persistent attempts to have sexual contact with someone who has already refused.” This first part of this definition displays the obvious; alcohol, drugs, and physical pressure put us out of our control, making us more susceptible to sexual abuse. However, the second part of the definition is a bit broader because these “persistent attempts to have sexual contact” can take many forms.

Coercion is best viewed as a spectrum; physical pressure is just one aspect of coercion, where emotional pressures and subtle manipulation are significantly more common. A study conducted by Dr. Aaron Goetz and Dr. Todd K. Shackelford in 2004 found that the most frequently used coercive tactic involved slight hints and threats, like reminders that sex is an “obligation” within a relationship. 

Forcing a partner to view sex an obligation is one of the most problematic tactics of coercion. Not only is it hard to identify as coercion, it plays on an internalized sense of guilt that often tricks women into believing they gave consent in situations where they actually did not. "Guilt is an internal emotion. Obviously someone else’s behavior can reinforce that, but guilt is something you feel because of expectations of how you should behave,” Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, told Medical Daily.

Sex as a "woman’s duty" within a relationship or marriage is an age-old belief. It may not be obvious, but most coercion starts from the outside; ideas about prescribed gender roles, especially surrounding sexuality, perpetuate a notion that men should want sex and women should give it to them. It’s this unhealthy relationship that leaves women without sexual agency, and men with the need to take something claimed to be theirs.

Coercion As An External Phenomenon

This idea that sex is an obligatory sacrifice on the part of the woman is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society, all discourse on female sexuality seems to point back to it. We’ve put women into a box when it comes to their sexuality; women are constantly being associated with sex in all aspects of the media, from porn, to advertisements, to television shows, but that sexuality is limited, and often comes with condemnation.

“The chronic sexualization of women in the media leads to this presumption that this is a central role women serve in their relationship and in their society, which co-ops their sexuality,” Durvasula said. “This almost primary expectation that society puts on women becomes a role that’s not about intimacy, but about expected function of women, that they are assumed to have.”

By associating women constantly with sex, sex becomes a function of womanhood. As a result, women are made out to be sexual servicers by the sheer fact that they are women; the association breeds a sense that this is the feminine obligation.

Sexuality in this context is not about a healthy expression of desires. “What we don’t do a good job of doing in the media is talking about women’s sexuality in a healthy manner. If we talk about a woman wanting to have sex, she is immediately slut-shamed,” Durvasula said. “The idea that a woman can express her sexuality in a healthy way, or that a woman wants to have sex, is viewed as a caricature or she is written off as a whore. There really isn’t a happy medium.”

And the repercussions of this attitude are no longer uncertain. Evidence has been found to show just how damaging objectification of women and narrow views of feminine sexuality can be. A 2014 study published in the Psychology of Women Quaterly found a direct link between female objectification, and increased incidences of sexual pressure and coercion. After interviewing 119 males and 162 females, researchers found that men who excessively obsess over their partner’s appearance not only tend to shame their partner for their physical appearance, but also often engage in forms of sexual coercion that employ the tactics of sex as obligation.

Unfortunately, societal pressures about sex go both ways, and men are just as susceptible. Another study conducted by Shackelford and Goetz found that men who engage in coercive tactics do so mostly to assert control on their relationship. The reason behind this, they found, was mostly to do with prescribed notions of masculinity penetrating into relationships and the male psyche.

According to Dr. Andrew Smiler, a therapist and expert on cultural perceptions of masculinity, the pressure for men to want sex is just as great as the pressure to objectify women. He says the pressure comes through in a lot of ways, including, “living up to [men’s] understandings of what our culture says boys and men should be like. We know that young men pay a lot of attention to cultural messages of what qualifies as masculine. Adhering to those messages varies, but we know most men don’t want to stray terribly far.”

Smiler says this includes things like exaggerating the number of sexual partners, not only to prove that they want sex, but that they’re having it frequently. “Most men aren’t being promiscuous, only 15 to 20 percent of the general population says they’ve had three or more partners in the last year,” Smiler said. “There is pressure to appear masculine and having sex is something you have to do.”

Similarly, Dr. Durvasula notes, “There is a dialogue that men have to be Mr. Sex God. We do men a disservice when we tell them they only want to get laid.”

As we continue to perpetuate a gender binary in which men are supposed to want sex, and that women who do want it are sexual deviants, coercion will of course be the default dynamic within any relationship. The best way to end these behavioral patterns, experts say, is to teach kids from an early age what constitutes healthy sexuality.

“We don’t train boys to understand relationship dynamics in general,” Smiler said. Durvasula makes a similar point, saying “Girls are certainly not getting sex talks, but boys are getting it even less.” She explains that the state of sex education, while practical, does not prevent either sex, especially girls, from viewing sex as a power dynamic. “We talk a lot about STDs and preventing pregnancy, but we don’t do a very good job telling them that it’s a very healthy part of their lives.” 

It's a complicated issue that cannot be solved overnight. But changing the dialogue, especially for those who are young and just beginning to learn about sex, can certainly help. By telling adolescents sex is more than what the media depicts, we can prevent situations of coercion within relationships, and equip young people with the tools to understand what is a healthy dynamic, and what isn’t.

Source: Shackelford T, Goetz A. Men’s Sexual Coercion In Intimate Relationships: Developmental and Initial Validation of the Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relationships Scale. Violence and Victims, Volume 19. 2004.

Shackelford T, Goetz A. Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relationships: A Comparative Analysis of the Effects of Women’s Infidelity and Men’s Dominance and Control. Springer Science. 2008.

Ramsey L, Hoyt T. The Object of Desire How Being Objectified Creates Sexual Pressure for Women in Heterosexual Relationships. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2014.

Correction: A previous of this version included a number of inaccurate references to a 2015 study titled "To Do It or Not to Do It? How Communally Motivated People Navigate Sexual Interdependence Dilemmas." The article has been updated to correct these references.  

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