Essay about Sexual Coercion

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Sexual coercion has become recognized as a widespread problem in the United States. Significant changes in social norms, legal approaches, and political sensitivity have occurred. This has made sexual coercion a frequent subject of research in recent years. The geographical focus of this problem has been on college campuses, and within that location, the main subject of study has been on men. Attempts have been made to both identify key predictors and causes of the behavior. This has resulted in a large number of mostly correlative studies aimed primarily at men. However, the same changing attitudes and intense legal pressures have created significant problems for researchers and policy makers.

The advent of the “Me Too” movement has brought the problem of sexual coercion to the forefront and forced social, academic and business groups to recognize it as a significant issue. Legal codes, societal norms and political sensitivities have changed, ending the careers of high profile men whose past behavior did not measure up to new standards. Social scientists have responded with increased research on incidence and causes. The very academic institutions where this research has been conducted find themselves one of the foci of the problem. College campuses, where young men and women are for the first time interacting without parental supervision have reported intolerably high rates of rape, sexual aggression, and sexual coercion. As with society at large the problem on campus is largely that of the male aggressor. It is not surprising then that most studies focus on men. As one might expect, the high level of controversy and changing attitudes and legal approaches over time have created problems for researchers as well as policy makers.

Pugh and Becker (2018) observed that sexual coercion has many forms. It is normally brought on by the refusal of sex and the unwillingness of the other partner to take no for an answer. Sexual coercion can take the form of verbal coercion, normally accompanied by touching in the hope of arousing the person who is refusing the sex. When that does not work, it can escalate to threats to end the relationship or to obtain sex with someone else if the partner does not want to comply. In some situations, drugs and alcohol with the intention of making the other person more compliant, accompany sexual coercion. Complete refusal can lead to the use of physical force resulting in rape.

These varying forms, methods, and outcomes have created definitional and conceptual problems for researchers. Given the rapidly changing legal and societal standards, as well as the private and dynamic situations in which sexual coercion may occur, researchers face challenges in properly measuring sexual coercion as a phenomenon and thus making difficult the identification of discreet factors associated with it. Ambiguity or argument over definitions can invalidate assumptions and models that form the basis of understanding the subject. For instance, Bouffard and Goodson (2017) noted the problems with definitions of rape and sexual coercion and warned that the validity of various predictors could depend on how broad a definition was used.

Similarly, Pugh and Becker (2018) cited the problem of defining of sexual coercion as distinct from rape versus part of a continuum, as well as trying to discern what some might consider mild seduction techniques from behaviors that all would agree are coercive. Such a variance in fundamental definitions would obviously create measurement problems for researchers. Pugh and Becker’s (2018) study attempted to bypass this issue by focusing on the opportunity for and perceived validity of female consent in the model. Coercive behaviors that extract consent where it previously did not exist, the authors argued, rendered the consent invalid. Even if the coercive behaviors are verbal or could be viewed in older standards as harmless or benign, they could be considered sexually coercive today. This analysis points to men’s persistence in coercive behaviors in the face of lack of consent as a key to understanding the problem. Pugh and Becker’s (2018) pointed to several confounding issues, including traditional gender roles and the resulting dynamics in typical heterosexual relationships, all of which undermine the idea of female affirmative consent, and even devalues the clearest rejection of sexual advances. Unspoken in this analysis is that as new norms and attitudes take hold, new dynamics and behaviors could invalidate prior analysis and correlates.

Despite the definitional problems, multiple predictive factors for sexual coercion have been identified and researched. They are not however, well organized around a functional model. Indeed, some studies focus on factors or attitudes without analyzing their relationship to sexual coercion. Grubbs, Exline and Twenge (2014) studied the relationship between entitlement, considered a facet of narcissistic personalities, and ambivalent sexism. The paper assumed that this in turn could lead to sexual coercion. To embattled college administrators seeking policies to reduce the problem of sexual coercion on their campuses, these kind of studies may be perceived as overly rhetorical and lacking in practical approaches.

Entitlement is, however, a worthy subject of study. Some researchers define entitlement as an unrealistic expectation of deserving more privileges or special considerations without justification. Like sexual coercion, entitlement is a hotly debated topic on college campuses. Morin (2018) observes that entitlement in the form of academic entitlement has created a pervasive problem in colleges and universities across the United States. Professors in colleges find themselves being confronted by students who expect to be aided in their educational pursuits putting forth a minimal effort and who have grown up never getting no for an answer. Most troubling is their finding that students view aggressive confrontations with educators justified when the student does not get what they want. This acceptance of aggressive behavior by self-entitled students maps to sexual coercion in a disturbing way.

Making the leap between a sense of academic entitlement to a sense of sexual entitlement thus seems intuitive and logical. More than one researcher has approached the correlations between various definitions of entitlement and various definitions of sexual coercion. However, Richardson, Simons and Futris (2017) found evidence that its role may be overstated or at least more complicated.

The key insight of Richardson, Simons and Futris (2017) was the examination of how family background, the quality of parenting, and family life experienced during childhood can relate to both entitlement and sexual coercion. Their study addressed the sense of entitlement that some adults develop by tracing it back to their family background, which in turn can be connected to sexual coercion. They identified three main possibilities for this personality trait:

  1. Children brought up with inconsistent parenting. This normally happens in divorce situations or parents in hostile relationships. Parents in these situations do not often agree on child-rearing rules. Parental inconsistency can lead to sexual coercion. Children grow up taking advantage of this parental inconsistency learning that “no rarely means no” (Richardson et al, 2017).
  2. Children who grow up with overindulgent parents. This type of parenting is popularly known as helicopter parenting because they hover over every aspect of their children’s lives, helping them get out of difficult situations rather than letting them learn through their own mistakes.
  3. Children whose parents have had a hostile relationship, showing little empathy to one another. Children raised in this kind of household lack empathy towards others due to lack of good role models. They feel resentment towards others because of what they perceived they missed in childhood, and it can sometimes lead to feelings of deservedness.

Richardson et al. 2017 show a direct relationship between inconsistent, overindulgent or hostile parenting and a sense of entitlement, but entitlement alone does not seem to be fully correlated with sexual coercion. Their findings suggest that only when entitlement is combined with a bad parental relationship could a significant correlation with sexual coercion be found. This suggests a course of action mentioned by the previously mention Morin (2018) study of entitlement, which counselled academicians against working against entitlement attitudes and instead recommended addressing entitlement behaviors. Morin (2018) noted that entitlement is stable trait not easily changed. Combined with the finding by Richardson et al. 2017 that entitlement alone may not be the source of the problem of sexual coercion for many students, a focus on behaviors rather than thoughts seems a logical and practical approach.

Richardson et al 2017 also avoided the definitional trap with a study design that involved previously established measurement tools that sought no qualitative or rhetorical demarcation between seduction, coercion and rape. Instead, they used a scored range of attitudes that could withstand future changes in societal and legal standards. However, the authors did note the correlative nature of their study, as well as the reliance on retrospective self-reported behaviors. These problems are common in this field of study and Richardson et al 2017 emphasized the need for prospective studies establishing causality.

Other studies worth noting examine the extremes of male behavior. For instance, Bastomski and Smith (2017) looked at the harmful effect of street harassment experienced by women in public places. While once considered benign, there is growing recognition of its effects. This harassment can come in many forms: catcalls, lascivious comments, touching women inappropriately, or staring up and down. This uncivil behavior causes negative consequences in women by making them feel unsafe in public places.

Although women harass men in public places as well, it is disproportionally low compared to male harassment. Men have no significant changes to their behavior due to the occasional harassment they experience at the hand of women. They are not afraid to go out and modify the places they frequent. Women on the other hand are more disadvantaged than men. They experience more fear and emotional distress than men during these encounters and as a result it limits their movement in public places. Being harassed in public alters the life of many women while it hardly impacts men. Women feel the need to modify their behavior by avoiding areas where they have experienced rude verbal or physical attacks. Fear of sexual aggression diminishes their enjoyment in public places, especially after encountering male harassment.

At the other extreme, both legally and in its severity, Bouffard and Goodson (2017) conducted research about the prevalence of sexual violence in college campuses. Previous research has shown that anywhere from one quarter to one half of the male population on college campuses admit some sort of sexual violence against women. The focus of Bouffard et al was to determine the likelihood that male students would admit to a willingness to commit sexual assault given a premise that they would not be punished. The study measured how likely male college students were likely to commit sexual aggression in hypothetical scenarios. These results were correlated with outside influences (peer pressure, pornography). A clear result of the study was the correlation between sexual entitlement, pornography, lack of self-confidence and sexual violence.

This study, like others, relied on statements by men of behaviors that were hypothetical or self-reported histories. Obviously society’s growing disapproval of sexually coercive behavior will affect the reliability of such self-reported measures. One would expect men to be less willing to state attitudes or admit to acts that are becoming increasingly controversial and taboo.


Despite problems posed by shifting norms, researchers have made progress understanding sexual coercion and its causes. By linking directly to sexual coercion rather than other secondary measures, (Richardson et al, 2017) built a foundation that may survive future changes in definitions and concepts. By teasing out the lack of influence of entitlement on men with positive parental role models, this study, more than others reviewed in this paper may have identified entitlement as an impetus to sexual coercion subject to a braking effect present in men with positive parental family experiences, and absent in men lacking those experiences. This observation suggests a model that could lead to better interventional strategies.

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