Carter and Meghan’s email to me contained a very clear question: was Carter guilty of sexual abuse by using coercion? The couple shared details of a recent situation where they agreed on the facts, yet judged the event very differently. Apparently, I was selected as the referee.

Differing interpretations

The facts they both supported were that, early the previous evening, the couple had sex. Meghan, exhausted from her workday and taking care of her special-needs son, fell asleep soon afterward. Carter got up, joined a late conference call, then finished some paperwork.

When Carter came back to bed a few hours later, he woke Meghan up and wanted to have sex again. Meghan said no. Carter begged, saying he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep if they didn’t. Meghan said no again. After 20 minutes of more begging and pleading, and several more no’s, Meghan finally gave in.

The next morning, however, Meghan felt resentful. She believed Carter put too much pressure on her to have sex when she didn’t want to. She felt her wishes – and need for rest – were disrespected. In her mind, this was a clear case of sexual abuse by coercion.

Carter saw the situation differently. He didn’t force himself on Meghan—she did eventually say “yes”. This time wasn’t different from many others where he’d initiate intimacy, she’d dismiss his advances, but his persistence would eventually pay off. To him, Meghan’s “no” meant that he needed to romance her more to get her into the mood. It was part of their mating ritual.

Is it sexual abuse?

According to Healthline, sexual abuse by coercion “happens when someone won’t accept ‘no’ and continues to try to convince you to change your mind about engaging in sexual activity.” Carter’s actions squarely fit this definition of sexual abuse. The key difference between consent and coercion is that with sexual coercion, pressure is being applied. There may be a “yes” eventually, but it wasn’t freely given and didn’t feel like much of a choice.

Sexual abuse by coercion happens when someone won’t accept “no” and continues to try to convince you to change your mind about engaging in sexual activity.

To provide a better understanding, here are a few examples of sexual coercion:

  • Relentless badgering or begging, like Carter did.
  • Layering on guilt or shame—as if somehow you’ve been injured—which Carter also did. E.g. “You know I can’t sleep unless we do it” or “as my spouse, you’re supposed to do this for me.”
  • Punishing a partner for saying no, like refusing to talk, denying affection to them later, or using other forms of emotional blackmail.
  • Using put-downs to make your partner feel bad about themselves when they turn you down: “You’re selfish and frigid.”
  • Threatening consequences unless they say yes. For example, threats to their job, to spread rumors or lies about them, to end the relationship, or to threaten to go elsewhere for sex.

Sexual coercion is related to yet different than sexual assault and rape. Coercion is non-physical, i.e. verbal or emotional pressure. Sexual assault, on the other hand, is non-consensual sexual touching—such as fondling. Rape is sexual penetration without consent. The latter two are typically crimes, whereas sexual coercion is usually not. However, what all three have in common is they all involve making someone engage in a sexual act without their wanting to.

What’s wrong with coercion?

Carter only needed to look at Meghan’s viewpoint for a moment to understand why his behavior was hurtful. No one likes to feel they are being pressured or controlled. Think about your reaction to a high-pressure salesperson. Or consider how you feel about the overly-strict teacher who didn’t let you chew gum in class. Having free will to make our own decisions, without pressure or control, is essential to feeling like we’re an autonomous human being.

Having sex is pretty much the most intimate physical experience we can share with another person. It’s also one of the most rewarding ways we get to give and receive pleasure in life. But it should always be something we enter into willingly and with mutual respect. Anything less can feel deeply invasive and traumatizing, which is why it’s sexual abuse.

Sex should always be something we enter into willingly and with mutual respect.

Unsurprisingly, people who experience sexual coercion are more likely to experience stress and damage to their mental health, like depression, self-blame, and anger. Researchers have also found that it reduces sexual desire and satisfaction in the person being coerced—something neither Meghan nor Carter wanted.

What’s behind our attempts at sexual coercion?

The easy answer to this question, and one you’ll hear often, is that person is a selfish, entitled, narcissist. Of course, if a person does think they are entitled to certain privileges from another person’s body, that needs to be explored and challenged. But I suspect this is a far too simplistic and therefore unhelpful characterization of the majority of us guilty of sexual abuse.

Going deeper, sexual coercion likely has its roots planted deep in our psyche—like most of our harmful behavior. I challenged Carter to ask himself a couple of questions to uncover those origins. Why does he feel that he needs sex? What is the meaning to him if his partner says “no”?

My guess there is an attempt to get some deeper emotional need met, like feeling worthwhile, valuable, or loved. It’s his job is to discover what that need is, then learn how to meet it himself (and I’m not talking about masturbation). Possibly, rejection feels so painful (more so than necessary) that he’s going to great lengths to avoid it.

Only Carter can answer these questions for himself. This is deep mental work, and it will take a considerable amount of self-reflection to get to the answers. I encouraged him to get help from a counselor if he could.

Expecting another to provide these fundamental identity needs or avoid our fears is not only unrealistic, it’s potentially damaging to our partner and the relationship. Once we’ve fulfilled our own psychological requirements, we’re free to enjoy intimacy when offered, but we’re okay when it’s not.

Confusing communication creates problems

Maybe Carter let me be the referee because he thought that, as a man, I’d side with him. If so, he was probably disappointed. Still, there are parts of his point of view that have some merit. It’s worth mentioning a couple factors that can confuse and complicate this dance of intimacy.

One thing Meghan could do is to be consistent. Say no, then stick with it. A basic boundaries principle is to match our actions with what we’ve said, even in the face of pressure. Otherwise, we’re signaling to our partner that we don’t mean what we say.

I heard nothing to indicate this was an issue for Carter and Meghan, but I know some individuals who relish in being pursued. Their “no” does, indeed, mean to try harder. It might work for a while in their relationship, but this type of game-playing is a formula for confusion if they ever do really mean “no”.

Another thing to consider when saying “no” to sex is to offer an alternative. Cuddling is a good compromise–affirming rather than rejecting to Carter, yet more accommodating for Meghan to get to sleep. Or, she could “take a raincheck” now but suggest a time later for their intimacy.

Withholding sex can be sexual abuse

Finally, everyone should understand that unreasonably withholding intimacy is also hurtful (and even abusive) to your partner. This is especially true if it’s done to manipulate, such as refusing to have sex until you get your way on some issue. Even if it’s not conditionally offered, constantly refusing to give affection to a committed partner (always having an excuse) is a powerful and damaging form of rejection.

Always having an excuse not to have sex is a powerful and damaging form of rejection.

The key word in this rule is “unreasonably”. It’s reasonable to turn down intimacy when you’re tired, sick, in pain, or recovering from surgery or childbirth. Timing issues like needing to go to work or care for children are legitimate reasons to say no. It’s also reasonable to pass because of you’re feeling strong emotions like grief, stress, anxiety, or depression.

As you can see, there are many “reasonable” motives for declining sex. It’s one partner’s job to explain those motives clearly and kindly and the other partner’s job to respect them. Make displaying affection and intimacy a priority when you can and communicate with your partner when you can’t.

Genuine intimacy takes communication, trust, and respect to achieve. This is true whether we’re talking about the close connection we desire in our relationship or mind-blowing sex in the bedroom. If your style of seeking sexual intimacy crosses into sexual abuse, you’ll do well to rethink your approach.