*Content warning: discussion of sexual assault
What You Need to Know About Sexual Coercion and Sexual Assault
Although sexual coercion and sexual assault share many of the same attributes, they differ in notable ways. Here’s everything you need to know about the difference between sexual coercion and sexual assault.
Sexual coercion and sexual assault involve acting without another person’s consent and violating their rights. However, sexual coercion more often goes unrecognized as a criminal act.
What Does it Mean to Give “Consent”?
Under 10 U.S. Code Section 920, an individual consents when they freely agree to conduct. If someone verbally or physically expresses dissent or lack of consent, they do not consent. However, even if someone does not verbally or physically express their resistance, this does not mean they are giving their consent.
Compelling someone into agreement using force, threats of force, or fear is not the same as receiving their consent. Someone unconscious, sleeping, or incapacitated cannot consent to engage in an activity.
What is Sexual Assault?
Although the exact definition varies state by state, sexual assault encompasses any nonconsensual sexual act under federal, state, and tribal law. This broad definition includes many different offenses.
Related: Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Sexual acts involving fear or threats are examples of sexual assault. Committing a sexual act upon another without their consent or engaging in a sexual act with someone incapable of giving their consent are also examples of sexual assault.
Laws Addressing Sexual Assault
Federal law explicitly addresses sexual assault in Article 120 of 10 U.S. Code Section 920. The legislation establishes that individuals convicted of sexual assault will face punishment determined by a court-martial. Additionally, state penal codes have statutes addressing the specific penalties and definitions for sexual assault offenses within their jurisdictions.
What is Sexual Coercion?
Sexual coercion is when an individual, without using physical force, threatens, pressures, tricks, or otherwise compels another person to engage in unwanted sexual activity. Often, sexual coercion occurs with someone an individual has a pre-established relationship, meaning people may be less likely to recognize sexual coercion as a form of sexual violence.
Examples of sexual coercion include repeatedly begging for sex, making the victim feel guilty for not wanting to engage in sexual activity, and threatening the victim’s family or career if they refuse sex.
Are There Laws Prohibiting Sexual Coercion?
Section 2422 of 18 U.S. Code 2422 addresses coercion. An individual commits a criminal coercion offense if they knowingly coerce another person into engaging in a criminally punishable sexual act.
Moreover, sexual coercion fundamentally fails to meet the legal definition of consent. The U.S. Code clearly states that forced agreement is not equivalent to consent. Even in states not addressing sexual coercion as a separate offense, this lack of consent is a key legal aspect.
Related: 7 College Sexual Assault Court Cases
Is Sexual Coercion a Type of Sexual Assault?
Sexual coercion can fall into the category of sexual assault. Acts of sexual coercion involving threats and the intention to invoke fear in the victim fit the legal definition of sexual assault. Sexual coercion that occurs in the workplace, school, or a loan office or rental company can also fall under the sexual harassment category.
Often, sexual coercion and sexual assault offenses overlap with each other. However, the dynamics of sexual coercion (where victims feel intense pressure to agree to have sex) distinguish it from sexual assault in some aspects.
Resources to Seek Help After Sexual Assault or Sexual Coercion
Outside of law enforcement, many resources are available for individuals who face sexual violence. If an individual experiences sexual coercion at school or work, they can file a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the U.S. Department of Education, respectively.
Individuals can also confidentially speak with the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). The hotline provides emotional support and assistance in finding hospitals and reporting sexual assault. Each state also has its own hotlines and services to assist victims of sexual assault, abuse, and coercion.