According to the Cambridge Dictionary definition, coercion refers to ‘the use of force to persuade someone to do something that they are unwilling to do’ . When you hear the terms ‘force’ and ‘unwilling’ in the same sentence we draw an unconscious connection to physicality, assuming that this is a physical altercation; however, it is important to note that this force can also take the form of mental or emotional power. More often than not, guilt and self-consciousness play a huge role in our behaviour and what is agreed to.
Comparatively, the Cambridge dictionary defines consent as ‘permission or agreement’, a highly problematic definition as it remains ambiguous as to how permission is given. With this definition, if you initially approve something and then revoke your agreement, it still classifies as consent as the parameters of the agreement are not set. This definition also fails to account for forced agreement or agreement given with partial understanding. Can a prostitute fully consent to sexual activity? Are you consenting to a toxic relationship if you stay together out of fear or guilt?
Determining whether you are being coerced can be quite difficult, there is no way to completely understand another person’s actions because you are obviously not them. However, you can look at common behaviours or emotions they frequently evoke in you to realise whether they have an agenda or not. If you often feel targeted, pressured, or victimised when in their company then it is likely that you need to cut ties with them. On the flip side, if you realise that you behave like this towards others then you should re-evaluate why you are doing this and how to rectify this situation.
Most importantly, what does coercion look like? Coercion can come in many forms ranging from physical to emotional, compliments to verbal abuse. They might tell you, you look attractive when you dress a particular way, or that a certain characteristic of yours is really ugly. Perhaps they yell at you when you decide you don’t want to go clubbing, or they dismissively reject you when you do. It is the emotional blackmail here that makes them manipulative. You are behaving in a way that they cannot control so they act out and attack you for this. People like this tend to be focused on their own needs, if their actions indicate that they don’t care about your wellbeing then it is highly likely that don’t care about you as a person.
It can be especially difficult to tell someone you don’t want to have sex. If you turn them down there is always the possibility that you will have to justify yourself or apologise for not being ‘in the mood’. The most daunting part is that this pressure comes not only from the person you are with but from yourself also. There is this immense pressure to agree to other people’s wants: whether it is a one-night stand or a long-term relationship, saying no feels like you are letting someone down, inconveniencing them, upsetting them. It is important to acknowledge that self-coercion is a huge problem and whilst you may not be consenting internally if you do not show this lack of consent it can be difficult for the other party to realise what they are doing is harming you.
Defining consent and establishing boundaries is integral to all relationships: intimate or not, as it tells others what you are okay with and what makes you feel comfortable. In some cases, it can even save a relationship by creating an open discourse within the partnership. It may seem intimidating to initiate a conversation when you feel obliged to agree with someone, but improvements are not possible unless the problem is addressed.
There are several ways to prompt conversation about this topic. For instance, you could ask them if they have ever felt coerced by you or others. By initially focusing on their perspective it makes it easier to later talk about your own. What’s more, you also prevent the conversation from seeming like an attack on them as you are acknowledging your faults and mishaps. Another way to bring this topic up is to talk about the context of the incidence: ‘you remember last week when — happened? Well, I felt this particular way. I am not sure whether this was what you intended, and I would like to discuss this with you to prevent it from happening again’. This is a more direct example that both clearly describes the event from your perspective and asks to understand their viewpoint.
If talking to this individual is not possible then you need to consider an escape strategy: family and friends you can talk to, excuses you can make to avoid the person troubling you, and professionals you can go to for help. Always trust your gut, if you are uncomfortable then leave.
Whilst Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) does have lots of services and resources available to students, I noticed a lack of detailed information about sexual harassment and advice online. Instead, QMUL provides information about how to report discrimination and harassment , how to seek professional medical help , and points of contact at QMUL . Whilst these services are good for counselling and making legal claims, they are not so good at explaining what these harassments may look like.
During my research I found that the University of Michigan has a fantastic page that outlined consent perfectly: it outlines what consent is, it explains why consent should not be assumed, and why consent is important . There was even a section labelled ‘healing’ which provided additional information about stalking, sexual assault, survivors, and more . Sites such as this are particularly useful to better understand your situation and give you the courage to speak up about your experiences.