If you've ever had the experience where you find yourself in a sexual situation you don't want to be in, you're not alone in that. It can be incredibly uncomfortable and confusing. You might also have feelings that you've been manipulated into a sexual encounter, but may be doubting whether or not you're interpreting your experience "correctly." You may not have previously discussed how to tell if you've been coerced into sex, but it's unfortunately not uncommon. Some tactics of sexual coercion are more obviously direct or threatening, while other forms of this manipulation can be more difficult to pick up on.
"Sexual coercion occurs when someone is manipulated into unwanted sexual activity," Dr. Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D, a professor at the department of psychology at John Jay College, City University of New York, and associate editor of the journal Sexual Abuse, tells Bustle. "This can be through nonphysical means including pressure, emotional pleas, threats, or lies."
More subtle forms of coercion can, again, be much more difficult to discern. A person taking advantage of someone else's vulnerability, like low self esteem, is coercion, as is making someone feel guilty for or embarrassed about not engaging, Jeglic says. An example would be making comments on someone seeming "prude," or being unrelenting in their requests for sexual behavior to make someone feel guilty. Purposefully giving someone drugs or alcohol to make someone more compliant is another coercive tactic.
"Sexual coercion is prevalent and unfortunately most victims doubt themselves and their interpretation of events and do not seek out social support," Becky Paulits, LCSW, who practices in New York, tells Bustle.
Understandably, when someone is acting in a way to manipulate you and your behavior, it can be disorienting. Forms of coercion can get very nuanced which is why it can be hard to discern. But feeling uncertain as to why or how you came to engage in the sexual encounter is a signal that it's happening.
"You might feel confused after engaging in sexual activity and it is often not pleasurable for you," Jeglic says. "You feel like you are being bullied into engaging in sexual behavior and you cannot stop it, or you do not feel like you have a say as to whether you engage in sexual behavior or not. You feel guilty or resent your partner for demanding sex, or your partner keeps requesting sex even after you say no."
Ultimately, an indication of coercion is that you are engaging in sexual activity because you feel as if you have to and not because you want to, Jeglic says.
Nevertheless, a person might feel that because they did not say “no” and they went along with the behavior, that they gave consent — but that is not the case. Engaging in sexual behavior should be done voluntarily because an individual wants to engage in activity and should be done with enthusiastic affirmative consent, Jeglic says.
"Subtle forms of coercion are more likely to happen to an individual," Karla Altmayer, co-founder and co-director of Healing To Action, and expert in workplace sexual violence and trauma-informed community building, tells Bustle. Altmayer says that coercion lessens or removes your ability to feel agency over your sexual choices, and this can be informed by many dynamics or circumstances. Feeling pressured to engage in sex in order to get what you want or need is one of them.
"I think a lot about the Stormy Daniels interview and how she shared that she thought to herself [about sexual encounters with Trump]: 'Oh, OK here we go...this is what you get,' and then engaged in the sexual encounter," Altmayer says. "While right after this, [Daniel's] states it was consensual, she did not have 100% agency."
Daniel's response in conjunction with the fact that Trump had offered her an opportunity to grow her career made her feel like she had to engage in this sexual encounter, Altmayer says.
"I see this encounter as an example of a subtle form of sexual coercion," Altmayer says. "Coercion takes away a person's sense of control over their own experiences and bodily autonomy."
Gaining this sense of control can be challenging to navigate, Altmayer says, because there are some people who do not have a safe space to explore their feelings.
"If possible, try and identify what makes you feel good and safe. Think to yourself: 'how does a 100% yes make you feel both physically and emotionally?'"Altmayer says. Recognizing your pleasure points — both physical and emotional — takes practice, but once you're able to identify what feels good, you can then navigate what crosses that boundary for you. "And if you ever feel confused, stop or take a break— it's OK to make that space for yourself in the moment," Altmayer says. Remember that consent can be withdrawn at any time.
Another challenging element in a coercive dynamic is that a person who is doing the coercion doesn't always know that's what they are doing. Equally as important is recognizing verbal and physical indications from your partner that they are willing and enjoying the sexual activity.
"When the coercion is more subtle, the individual may not know they are engaging in coercive behaviors," Jeglic says. For example, if a person repeatedly asks for sex and then their partner gives in they may not recognize this as coercion.
"Therefore it is very important that as a society we emphasize the importance of enthusiastic consent so that both individuals are on the same page and both partners are willingly engaging in consensual and pleasurable sexual activity together."
Altmayer says it is essential to begin these conversations about consent at a young age, and that sex education should center in building language and understanding about consent, agency, and bodily autonomy.
If you are feeling pain or doubt over any of your sexual encounters, try to reach out for support and talk to a professional, or someone who has thorough knowledge of consensual sexual practices. You deserve sex that you want, enjoy, and feel safe having on all levels.
Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D., Professor Department of Psychology John Jay College, City University of New York. Author of Sexual Violence: Evidence Based Policy and Prevention
Becky Paulits, LCSW, New York based therapist