Understanding Rape Culture

Sexual Coercion: the normalization of disregarding or overriding consent


Up until the last decade, studies have focused on sexual coercion as a physical tactic used by men against women. While recent studies confirm that gender differences still exist between male and female coercion tactics, a richer understanding of coercion as a multifaceted behavior exhibited by both sexes has emerged.

Sexual coercion can be explained as the use of tactics that are intended to achieve a sexual end with an unwilling partner. These tactics include:

  • physical force: restraining, harming, tying up, use of weapon
  • verbal threats: physical, social or professional threats, blackmail, threats to break-up, threats of self-harm or suicide
  • emotional manipulation: using position of authority, telling lies, shaming
  • intoxication: purposefully providing drugs or alcohol to achieve a sexual end with an unwilling partner. 

(Schatzel-Murphy et al., 2009)

Men have been found to commit approximately twice as many coercive acts as women for all categories listed above. However, both groups report believing that sexual persistence after refusal is not coercive but mutually beneficial to both themselves and the other person (Struckman-Johnson et al., 2003).

Studies have found that, on the whole, men are more likely to believe rape myths about women, conceptualize a narrower range of behaviors as violence, blame and show less empathy for survivors of sexual assault, see behaviors constituting violence against women as less serious or damaging, and trivialize the harms associated with physical and sexual assault. (Flood and Pease, 2009).  Masculinity, or the social conditioning process most centered on the expression of dominance, can lead to male peer support for sexual aggression, development of rape myths, and adversarial sexual beliefs (Kilmartin, 2000; Rozee & Koss, 2001). In addition, rape-supportive beliefs among men have been found to positively correlate with attempted or completed perpetration (Abbey et al., 2001; Humphrey & Kahn, 2000).



Attitudes Towards Sexual Assault

A 2004 study by Carr and Van Deusen compared complex relationships between sexual attitudes and experiences, substance abuse patterns, and child abuse histories in college men. The comprehensive survey measured risk factors that previous studies had found to be associated with male sexual aggression. The results revealed that some hypothesized risk factors were indeed predictive of sexual aggression, including negative gender-based attitudes, heavy alcohol use, and pornography consumption. Few men acknowledged using physical force to obtain sex, whereas more men acknowledged some form of sexual coercion. This included pressuring women and saying things they did not mean to obtain sex, using alcohol to obtain sex, and having sex with a woman even when she wanted to stop. A few men reported some likelihood of raping if they could be sure of not getting caught.

Also, a pattern of alcohol-related sexual coercion emerged. Fifteen percent of the men acknowledged using some form of alcohol-related sexual coercion. Thirty five percent of the men reported that their friends approved of getting a woman drunk to have sex with her, and twenty acknowledged having friends who have got a woman drunk or high to have sex.

Pornography consumption was common among the men in the sample and may further add to the risk of sexual aggression. Laboratory analogues and the self-reports of men who admit to committing rape revealed an association between violent pornography – especially that which is rape-themed – and a propensity to rape women and/or have pro-rape attitudes.

The patterns of sexual coercion, aggression, and rape-prone attitudes found in this study are very similar to patterns reported by other researchers, and they further strengthen our understanding of factors that may lead a subset of college men to commit sexual assault.

Peer pressure to have sex and alcohol-related sexual coercion emerged as important factors in the social milieu at the campus surveyed.

Adapted to Emory University with permission by a team of Respect Program staff and interns from the University of Michigan’s Striving for Justice document.