Many couples who have been together for many years would never characterize sexual pressure from their partner as sexual assault. But where is the line? I have prosecuted spousal rape cases that were not revealed to law enforcement for months or even years after the fact. There are several reasons for such reluctance, one simple reason involves perception.
Within established relationships, particularly when there is no violence, victims question their perception of unwanted intimacy, asking themselves whether the behavior was criminal or consensual, and acknowledging that their perception is influenced by their intention to maintain the relationship.
How prevalent is sexual coercion within established relationships? Research provides some answers.
The Difference Between Sexual Coercion and Sexual Assault
Judy M. Ross et al. note that the definition of sexual aggression has expanded to include coerced sexual activity within established relationships.[i] They recognize how this behavior is different from forcible sexual assault, and cite prior research explaining how these acts “generally involve repeatedly begging or pressuring an individual who is resisting sexual activity until he or she consents, often to end the coercive behavior or preserve the relationship.”
Ross et al. recognize that manipulation is more frequently the tactic of choice in sexually coercive situations as opposed to physical force, which is traditionally linked with sexual assault. They describe coercive scenarios within relationships as including a partner engaging in persistence tactics potentially including “repeated begging, continually trying to arouse the other partner, threatening to end the relationship or seek sex elsewhere, or attempting to elicit sympathy.”
Sexual Coercion Within Established Relationships
Sexual coercion often occurs within long-term relationships, where the parties have been intimate many times in the past, and the relationship is likely to continue, despite the coercion. Ginger Faulkner et al. (2008) studied how sex role ideology and relationship context impacted response to sexual coercion among college women.[ii]They note that prior research has established that sexual coercion was more common within long-term relationships than casual relationships.
Faulkner et al. note that research suggests women who have invested a significant amount of time into a relationship may be more reluctant to establish boundaries regarding sexual intimacy. They also note that intimate partners are more likely to experience sexual coercion than rape. Regarding sex roles, they note that traditional females might be expected to submit to advances from an established relational partner, while rebuffing the same types of advances from a casual acquaintance.
Power Imbalance and Sexual Coercion
Faulkner et al. acknowledge the impact of power differentials between individuals with respect to sexual coercion, noting that prior research has found it to be a significant risk factor for sexual aggression. Regarding traditional sex roles, they note that research has suggested that a perpetrator in a position of power, such as a therapist, supervisor, or teacher, might create a situation where a traditional woman would feel helpless to resist. They also note that prior studies have found that nontraditional women were more assertive when faced with a high status perpetrator than traditional women, although this dynamic was not significant when applied to relationships between peers.
Responding to Sexual Coercion
In their research, Faulkner et al. presented participants with a simulated sexually coercive situation and studied differences in the amount of time they permitted the situation to continue, making comparisons based endorsement of traditional female sex roles on the Sex Role Ideology Scale, and also within the relational context in which the behaviors took place.
Regarding their results, they found no significant impact of traditional gender role stereotypes, either alone or in combination with relationship context. They note that their finding of similarity between traditional and nontraditional women in terms of deciding when to end a sexually coercive scenario contradicts previous research suggesting traditional women would be less assertive.
Relationship context, however, was significant. Faulkner et al. found that participants in the long-term relationship condition took a significantly longer period of time (one minute) to end the date in the vignette as compared with participants in other conditions.
Even Within Long Term Relationships, Boundaries Matter
According to research, sexually coercive relationships can fly under the radar because both parties have normalized the intrusive, unwanted behavior. But regardless of how long a couple has been together, re-establishing healthy boundaries can enhance relational quality. As couples grow together, clear communication about independence and intimacy can improve relationships at any stage, and at any age.
[i]Ross, Jody M., Michelle Drouin, and Amanda Coupe. 2019. “Sexting Coercion as a Component of Intimate Partner Polyvictimization.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 34 (11): 2269–91. doi:10.1177/0886260516660300.
[ii]Faulkner, Ginger, Russell Kolts, and Gail Hicks. 2008. “Sex Role Ideology, Relationship Context, and Response to Sexual Coercion in College Females.” Sex Roles 59 (3–4): 139–50. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9435-1.