Half of young women in study victims of sexual coercion

By Brittney Nadler

A recent study of high school and college-aged women shows that more than half of the sample, 53 percent, have experienced at least one incident of verbal, physical or substance-facilitated sexual coercion, with more than half of those incidents resulting in sexual intercourse.

Sexual coercion is defined in a couple of different ways, said Bryana French, co-author of the study and assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri. French and co-author Helen Neville, professor of African American studies and educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began the research while French attended the University for her doctorate in educational psychology.

“Some researchers describe (sexual coercion) as an all-encompassing umbrella term to identify any unwanted experience with sex,” French said. “Other researchers define it more as separate from sexual assault or rape and focusing more on the verbal pressure tactics — being pressured if you don’t want to or manipulated.”

In their study, sexual coercion was a term that included multiple ways people have sex when they don’t want to, she said. This includes forcible rape, manipulation, begging, making someone feel guilty and taking advantage of someone while he or she is intoxicated. 

The findings of the study discuss ways that women who have been victimized either by force, pressure or substances have different ranges of sexual behavior. Women who experienced instances of unwanted intercourse, fondling, kissing, touching or attempts at sex were more likely to have lower self esteem, higher levels of psychological distress and increased sexual risk taking, French said.

“Sexual assault can be a form of trauma,” said Molly McLay, coordinator of FYCARE and assistant director of the Women’s Resources Center. “Many people who are sexually assaulted experience symptoms that are similar to that … of post traumatic stress disorder.”

The participants in the study were recruited from two high schools and psychology and ethnic studies classes at a midwestern university, French said. 

Participants completed assessments about their coercion incidents that included verbal coercion, such as threatening to end a relationship; physical coercion, such as threatening to use or using a weapon; and substance-related coercion, when women are encouraged to use drugs or alcohol before being taken advantage of. 

Physical and verbal coercion were reported to be the most commonly used coercion tactics from the 335 women involved in the study. 

“We didn’t focus solely on sexual intercourse,” French said. “We included attempt at intercourse, fondling, those sorts of things as well, so a much broader definition of unwanted sexual experiences than a lot of other researchers use.”

In the survey, physical sexual coercion was reported by about 40 percent of participants, a rate that differs from the 13 percent of women who reported they had experienced sexual coercion at some point in their lives in a 2012 Centers for Disease Control report on sexual violence. 

French thinks the results differ because of the way the CDC words their survey questions.

“(The CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey) just asked participants if they were ever forced to have sex, and that’s just that one question. It’s very vague and depends on how one might define ‘forced’ and how someone might define ‘sex,’” she said. “Our survey asked questions that were much more descriptive, and so it gave examples about being held down or having someone block an exit or having someone beg you until they won’t stop.”

Many survivors do not report sexual trauma experiences or view their experience as rape, according to French and Neville’s report. Women who hold a greater belief in gender role stereotypes may also blame women themselves for the assault, Neville said. 

McLay said many people hold misconceptions that rape is committed by people who are completely different from them, of another race, background or sexual orientation or that it would never happen to them.

“As a society, we have very narrow views of what rape is, at least in terms of what’s publicly known and publicly talked about,” she said.

Results also differed between races depending on factors such as self-esteem and the belief in sexual stereotypes, which are contemporary beliefs that support dominant heterosexual and gendered sexual norms, according to the report. 

Beliefs include men being sex-driven, women’s relationship value resting in their sexual attractiveness and status and appearance taking precedence in dating..

According to the report, both black and white women who experienced verbal coercion had an increase in risky sexual behavior. Risky sexual behavior includes having unprotected sex and having sex with multiple partners, Neville said.

“Some of the important findings that stand out to me are that black and white women have comparable levels of experiences with sexual coercion,” Neville said. “It wasn’t like one group experienced more overall coercion than the other group, so that really stood out to me, that’s an important finding.”

For black participants, those who endorsed sexual stereotypes and had high experiences of sexual coercion had the lowest self-esteem, according to the report. For white women, low endorsement of sexual stereotypes made the relation between sexual coercion and psychological distress stronger. 

“I think it’s the responsibility of all people to take care of each other, and for us to teach about how to respect one another, what consent looks like in a relationship (and) outside of a relationship,” McLay said. “If we see someone doing something coercive and sexually coercive toward another person and we don’t do anything about it, then we are to blame.”

Brittney can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said the study’s participants were chosen from ethics studies classes. The article should have said these participants were chosen from ethnic studies classes. The article also quoted Bryana French saying, “Other researchers define it more as (separate) from sexual assault or rape and focusing more on the verbal pressure tactics — being pressured if you don’t want to or manipulated.” The article should have used “separate” rather than “suffering.” The article also mentioned a CDC survey, which has been clarified to be the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The Daily Illini regrets these errors.