A consensual encounter where a young woman is kissing another young woman lovingly on the forehead

Sexual coercion has been on my mind a lot lately. And one thing I’m realizing is we don’t talk about it enough. Which makes sense–it’s an uncomfortable topic, and emotions run high when it comes up. But we’re doing a disservice when we teach consent by focusing only on sexual assault, rather than all of the other ways sex can go wrong, as well as all of the amazing ways it could go right.

When I talk about consent in my classes with young students, it’s clear they want to understand what sexual assault is. They ask great, thought-provoking questions. “What if both people are intoxicated?” “What if one person says no but then goes along with it?” Young people know that sexual assault is a crime, and they want to know what fits into that category.

The reality that these students are coming up against with these questions is that sexual negotiations are often messy, and require communication skills that are difficult to learn and often never taught. If we want young people to have sexual encounters where both people feel respected, safe, and able to enjoy themselves, they don’t need to understand which situations are legally considered assault, they need to understand consent.

They need to understand that if you go into sexual encounters with the desire to have an experience that both you and the other person is 100% into and up for, it’s nearly impossible to coerce someone. Coercion happens when you think only about what you want without concern for what the other person wants–or when you think you know what they want better than they do. It happens when you use “nonverbal cues” to try to figure out whether the other person is consenting instead of verbally asking them. Not understanding that that kind of wordless sexual negotiation is something that should be reserved for couples who have already established their boundaries is a recipe for total disaster, but unfortunately that kind of sex scene is also the one kids and teens are seeing over and over again in the media (and porn), shaping their idea of what sex is and how it happens.

It’s like if I’m eating with a friend, and I like the way her burger looks. I’m not going to reach onto her plate and bite into it while looking at her to see if her facial expression shows that she’s appalled, or waiting for her to verbally object before I stop. Unless we have an established relationship where we reach onto each other’s plates and everyone is okay with that, I’m going to ask first. It’s that simple when it comes to sex, too. If you want to do something to someone else’s body, ask and then listen to the answer. And since sex is about continuously doing things to someone else’s body, keep asking.

If the only thing teens learn about is rape and sexual assault, many of them will end up in situations where they thought they got consent but didn’t, or where they’re not sure if they consented but think that’s just what sex is–a wordless improvisation that leaves you feeling confused, empty or used. The bar can be so, so much higher. As educators and mentors, it’s our responsibility to raise it.

Jozkowski, KN et al (2019). A Content Analysis of Sexual Consent and Refusal Communication in Mainstream Films [Abstract]. Journal of Sex Research, 56(6), 754-765 . Abstract retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/