y first instance of penetrative sex was coercive. I was 19, he was 25; we had been with each other for barely a month and up until that point, he had been a sweetheart. Within days of our first date, I’d ended up in the hospital with a mystery virus and he’d visited me there, brought me flowers and books, walked me up and down the hallway, my IV pole trailing behind us. After my discharge from the hospital, he stuck with me. He was attentive, careful of my weakened state. Tender. When we fooled around, he was mindful of my inexperience. He seemed to relish teaching me the many ways we could experience pleasure together.
But then there was that night. The way he didn’t listen when I said, “I’m not sure.”
The way he pressed forward when I squeezed my thighs together. The way I kept quiet as it was happening because if he’d ignored my signals before, what more was there to say?
But what looms larger in my mind are the smaller moments later on in our relationship, when he pushed me and pushed me and pushed me to do things I didn’t feel ready for until, eventually, I just gave in.
This coercion wasn’t physical. He didn’t hold me down. Not after that first time. Instead, he used my love against me. Mocked me for my inexperience. Reminded me repeatedly that he had been with women who were older, more willing, more free. When he set his mouth in an angry line and stormed out of the room because I was afraid to try something new, panic fluttered in the pit of my stomach, tried to scrabble its way up my throat.
Over and over again, he showed me how I might not be worth the effort. That if he left, the fault would lie with me.
For a long time, I didn’t know how to define these experiences. And in many ways, I still don’t. At a time in which men are either monsters or angels — and in which he seems like neither, not exactly — words seem too slippery.
How do I talk about all of the moments in our relationship that were clearly not healthy, but that were also clearly not rape? How do I talk about it when it all seems so commonplace? So normal?
I hate to bring up The Aziz Ansari Incident, but when the Babe.net article heard ‘round the world began making the rounds, I felt relief that we were finally being forced to inject greater nuance into the conversation around sexual violence. While some readers berated the woman in question for complaining about an experience they saw as little more than a bad date, others immediately saw how she had shown, in multiple ways, that she did not want something.
That he had repeatedly ignored and pushed past those signals. Sure, it wasn’t illegal. But as some of us were finally feeling emboldened to say, that didn’t make it right.
What Sexual Coercion Looks Like
By this point, we’re so used to coercive behaviors that we expect them. They’re so threaded throughout our lives, so ingrained within the sexual scripts with which we’re familiar, that we don’t even recognize them for what they are.
When I chat with Emily Rothman, Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, it seems she can go on forever listing out the various forms of sexual coercion we experience on a regular basis, the pressures we receive from the people in our lives, the range of emotional, verbal, and physical actions that people engage in.
Sure, holding somebody down is a coercive act. Not paying attention to body language is a coercive act. Trying to wear somebody down after they have already expressed disinterest or discomfort is a coercive act.
But then there are those other things that are even less obvious or expected. There is reproductive coercion, of which “stealthing”—removing a condom without your partner’s consent—is just one example. Or there is the emotional coercion I experienced in that past relationship, the coercion that made me want so badly to be the person my boyfriend needed. The guilt-tripping. The implication that he was going to leave me. That he wasn’t happy. That I wasn’t good enough or sexy enough. That I couldn’t possibly satisfy him.
“It’s saying, basically, ‘You owe me this,’ ” Rothman tells me. “ ‘You’re my partner, my wife, my spouse, and that means our bodies belong to one another and you owe it to me to have sex whenever I want.’ ”
Written out plainly, it seems obvious that these behaviors are destructive. Yet they’re often seen as necessary evils within the world of dating or of intimate relationships — part of the socially accepted dynamic between partners where one always pursues as the other tries to elude the hunt.
“People can get very caught up in ‘legal definitions’ of rape or sexual assault,” Sarah Bear of the NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault tells me, “but they often fail to recognize that these harmful behaviors are unhealthy too.”
How We’ve Been Taught to Normalize Sexual Coercion
But how can we begin to call out these behaviors when, from the moment we enter the world, they’re normalized? When they appear as a given in every relationship model we see?
As young children, we’re taught that we owe people hugs and kisses, even when it causes discomfort. As adolescents, we are taught that we should feel flattered by those who chase us, tease us, snap our bra straps. In films and in the songs that play repeatedly on the radio, we see love and desire as a tango, where one person pursues while the other resists, only to eventually give in to undeniable passion.
“The kind of messages about who we’re supposed to be sexually, what it’s okay to say or do, what makes someone desirable, what makes us happy,” says Rothman, citing family as a source of additional pressure.
“That can serve to create this backdrop for somebody where they feel like saying no has costs. I think people get disconnected from what authentic desire and pleasure is because they don’t even have space to figure that out. They’re so busy trying to be who they think they’re supposed to be.”
Creating A New Model for Intimate Relationships
But when these messages and these relationship models are so all-pervasive, what can you do? How do you push back against what feels like eons of cultural conditioning?
For one, you can start to change what people learn from a very young age, providing kids with comprehensive sexuality education that shows them alternative models of gender roles and sexual identities, and that acknowledges boundaries, body ownership, desire, and pleasure.
“I think even little kids, preschool age, can learn that they need to respect boundaries,” says Ellen Friedrichs, health educator and author of the recently published Good Sexual Citizenship.
“I know as a parent myself it’s often tempting to tell my kids they have to play with someone or invite a classmate to something when they don’t want to. But I think we need to be cautious in our messaging so that our instinct to be kind and inclusive doesn’t obscure a child’s development as someone who can set limits and boundaries.”
Sage Carson, manager of Know Your IX, points out that, at a young age, kids are developmentally starting to learn what empathy means, and she suggests we should tap into this. “A lot of unhealthy sexual behavior is rooted in a lack of respect for a partner or a lack of empathy,” she says. “If we grow somebody’s respect and caring for other beings, then we can create a healthier space for everybody.”
By the time kids reach middle school — when they begin to absorb messages about sexual behavior from YA novels, movies, and television — we should be building upon those previously taught lessons… not starting cold. Rothman points out that we tend to highlight the dangers of sexual activity in sex ed classes, yet we don’t tell teens what to do if they are in a sexual situation.
“Adolescents want to feel grownup and have grownup experiences,” she says. “As kids get older, we have to help them see the social forces that make it difficult for people to be empowered and assert what they want. We need to teach them what they can do to undermine that.”
Of course, we are sometimes powerless to change the type of sexuality education that is provided within our child’s school district. Convincing those in charge that this type of education is essential can be an uphill battle. But everyone I spoke to on this topic seemed optimistic that we are in the midst of a cultural shift and that, education aside, the conversations around gender roles and sexual behavior are changing.
Carson also mentioned Aziz Ansari. Sure, there were those who felt recognition when reading about the experience and whose response was to assume that, because it was a common experience, there was nothing wrong with it. But there were others who also felt recognition, and who chimed in to say, Hey, he acted inappropriately. This was a moment of clear coercion.
“Having notable figures be held accountable for causing harm to others and having folks say they acted inappropriately is important,” says Carson. “We need to start having more conversations around healthy sexuality that are not just based in ‘this is rape / this is not rape.’ The more we can start talking about what causes those moments, I think we’ll see more of a shift.”
And then there are the models we are presented with on a structural level. “Are women represented in government and in positions of power and in leadership positions?” asks Rothman.
“Is there equal pay? Childcare options? All those structural things actually matter. The way people treat each other — that’s reinforcing things. When you address equity at the societal level, that tends to play out in individual relationships, too.”
And, of course, pop culture has an impact. “Pop culture gives us an opportunity to create constructive discourse,” Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., sexuality educator and the author of Got Teens?, tells me.
“There are always going to be places that foster healthy conversations about gender and sexuality and relationships and then there are so many people who are not getting any of this information and that’s who we have to worry about. Those who have no other model aside from what they see in pop culture.”
And while the messages we receive from pop culture can still be problematic (lord do I feel guilty every time I dance around my kitchen to “Blurred Lines”), new, more positive messages have begun to emerge.
Shows like PEN15 and Big Mouth, for example, immediately come to mind, being shows that acknowledge and center female desire. But Carson points out that even the guiltiest of guilty pleasure television is showing signs of awareness.
She mentions an episode of The Bachelorette in which one of the men was being abusive, and the other men confronted him. “It blew my mind,” says Carson.
“I feel like we’re constantly dragging ourselves up the hill, but seeing traditional masculine men in mainstream pop culture call out bad behavior… It was an amazing moment. It shows that this education is working.”
And then Rothman makes my day by mentioning Lizzo, whose Tiny Desk Concert I’d recently enjoyed while seated at my own tiny desk at home. “If you can love my big, black ass at this tiny, tiny little desk,” Lizzo had said near the end of the concert, “you can love yourself.”
At which point I’d actually burst into tears. That terrible, sexually coercive, emotionally abusive relationship all those years ago was just one instance in which I’d behaved as if I was not deserving of love. “Lizzo provides a new model of being in the world,” says Rothman in a way that makes me want to pump my fist in the air. “She’s self-possessed and assertive. She’s being human and vulnerable and communicating about all of that. She’s modeling self-love.”
Which feels like the point. The core of it all. After all, when it comes down to it, isn’t this entire conversation about loving and respecting ourselves and others?
Pushing Past Resistance
In starting to question the messages and the behaviors we’ve lived with for centuries, there are those who inevitably feel threatened, uncomfortable grappling with the possibility that what they’ve previously done or enjoyed or taken for granted, was and is wrong.
“How do we acknowledge that this exists and has existed without villainizing those who perpetuate certain actions and do things they’ve been told is okay and have never been challenged on?” asks Levkoff.
“For me, I think we have to take expectations about behaviors based on assigned sex and gender out of it. This is not a male/female issue. This is a human issue.”
And the male/female binary isn’t the only dichotomy that’s problematic when it comes to having productive conversations about sexual coercion and gender roles. “The law is also very binary,” says Rothman.
“But in terms of public health and prevention and how we look at what happens to people sexually, it’s less helpful to parse it out into ‘this was legal or illegal.’ We need to look at it more holistically: What are the power dynamics here? What are the people in the situation grappling with? What do they need to behave in a healthier way going forward?”
After moving past the discomfort, however, the lesson should be simple:
“If someone gives you an answer, let that be the answer until they say otherwise,” says Levkoff. “One and done.”