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6.1: Sexual Abuse and Coercion

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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How do people take sexual advantage of each other?

Some people sexually take advantage of others through exploitation and abuse. There are many forms of exploitation, sexual or otherwise, but the basic feature of exploitation is the use of another person for selfish purposes. It is a way of treating another person in order to gain something at his or her expense or against his or her wish.

One form of exploitation involves treating one's sexual partner not as a fellow human being who deserves respect, but as a sexual object for one's own gratification. This may take the form of enticing someone into sex by false promises. Money or gifts may be given in exchange for sex, as in prostitution. A few claim that prostitution is fair since sexual favors are being bought just like some other service, but the fact is that most prostitutes exchange sex for money or drugs because they are desperate. So even if they act like they are doing it willingly, they are not really exercising a free choice. This is especially true when young people who run away from home or live in the streets for other reasons are trapped into prostitution to stay alive.

Debate! Debate this statement: Checking out and commenting on another person's physique is sexual harassment.

Abuse means to use another person wrongly or in a harmful way. Exploitation is one form of abuse, but there are also others. A common form is sexual harassment. When two people are sexually attracted to each other, they are flattered by each other's expression of sexual interest through words and gestures (provided these are done the right way and at the right time and place). But when such expressions of sexual interest are unwanted or inappropriate, or they make a person feel uncomfortable, offended, or threatened, these expressions become a form of sexual harassment.

What Do You Think?

At what point does teasing become sexual harassment? Does this point differ for people, or should there be a general rule for everyone? Is sexual harassment a subjective experience or one that can be evaluated objectively? Why or why not?

Harassment may also take the form of being touched or grabbed, being intentionally brushed up against, having one's clothing pulled, having sexual rumors spread about a person, or having sexual messages written about them. Girls are more likely than boys to be subjected to these unwanted behaviors. As a result, some do not want to go to school or talk in class; some find it hard to pay attention and get poorer grades. Those who tease or harass others may not be aware of the harm they do. They may think that the behavior is no big deal or that the person likes it.

When sexual harassment occurs at work, it interferes with the ability of people to do their jobs. There are now laws that forbid such behavior and penalties for those who break them.

Activity 5-1: Sexual Harassment


One does not have to rely on movies or the newspapers to find examples of sexual harassment. There are probably daily examples of sexual harassment on your campus and in your neighborhood, just as there are examples of sexual harassment all across the country. Have you ever been a victim of or a perpetrator of sexual harassment? What can be done to end this form of sexual exploitation?


  • Activity Report


Your teacher will give you instructions before you begin to write. Then, respond to each of the following questions as thoroughly as you can.

Step 1 Describe one example of sexual harassment that you have observed or been subject to in your school or in your community.

Step 2 In your opinion, why were the perpetrators doing it?

Step 3 What was the reaction of the victim? How was this person dealing with it?

Step 4 If there were witnesses to this harassment, what was their reaction?

Step 5 How should a victim behave under these circumstances?

Step 6 What can you, as a person or as a group, do to help stop such behavior?

“I thought for a long time that what was happening was OK because Dad said that it was a game all fathers played with their sons, a secret game that only the men knew about. He said that anyway no one would believe me if I did tell.”

-Jamie, 14, Adolescence

Elizabeth Fenwick and Dr. Tony Smith

Sexual Abuse of Children

It is common and healthy for parents, siblings, and relatives to express their affection for their children physically, such as by hugging and kissing them. These shows of affection are not sexual.

However, some adults may be sexually attracted to children and touch them physically in a sexual way. This is sexual abuse. Our society strongly disapproves of such behavior.

The most serious and damaging form of abuse is the sexual exploitation of children by adults, especially close relatives. Some of you may find it unthinkable that such a thing could happen to children. Others know it does because it may have happened to them. Painful and embarrassing as such experiences may be, you need to understand them and, if necessary, you should protect yourself against them and seek help to overcome their effects. You need not feel alone and helpless in these situations.

What Do You Think?

Much of discipline involves getting a child to listen to, respond to, and respect adults. Yet in some situations, a child needs to say no. How do children know when it's OK to say no to an adult? How can parents teach children to listen and cooperate but also to say no when appropriate?

Children are not old enough or mature enough to give free and informed consent, which is agreement based upon a true understanding of the situation. Children are dependent upon adults. As a result, children can be exploited easily. Therefore, when an adult or adolescent sexually interacts with a child in any way, it is considered child sexual abuse. To protect children, such acts are severely punished.

Victims of child abuse may be girls or boys. Typically, they are about 10 years old. Most cases of child abuse are not reported to the police. Reliable statistics about child sexual abuse are hard to come by. In our survey, 27% of women and 16% of men said that prior to age 18 they had been subjected to some sexual experience, which could be considered sexual abuse. Most of the adults who sexually abuse children are men. Typically, the abuser knows the child. They may be family acquaintances, baby sitters, youth leaders, and even family members. Only in about one in ten cases is the abuser a stranger to the child. This is why most of such sexual contacts occur in the child's or in the adult's home. Others occur in public places and/or in cars.

The sexual abuse of children usually does not involve violence, although verbal threats or psychological pressure are common. The child may also be enticed into the sexual activity through gifts and favors and by shows of affection by the adult. The child abuser usually exposes his genitals or touches the child's genitals. Attempts at sexual intercourse occur much less often.

Think back to the last section, what are verbal threats and psychological pressure called?

When the abuser of the child is a member of the family, such as a cousin, brother, sister, stepfather, parent, or some other relation, the sexual interaction is called incest. All societies forbid incest.

Did You Know?

Sometimes it's hard to know if an adult's behavior is OK or not. If you experience any of the following, you should tell someone (parent, school counselor, or teen clinic).

  • If a person touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • If a person touches you in ways you don't like
  • If a person hurts you
  • If a person says, “Don't tell”
  • If a person ignores your “no's”
  • If a person threatens you

Such experiences are usually very upsetting to the child, who may be frightened and confused by them. The sexual experience is usually not pleasurable, but even if it is, the child senses that the activity is wrong and will not know how to deal with it. Especially difficult are situations involving a parent, since the child cannot easily get away from that person.

The effects of child abuse include fear, anxiety, sadness, difficulties in school, running away from home, and inappropriate sexual behavior. These children often become overly interested or involved with sexual ideas and acts, including engaging other children or even adults in inappropriate sexual activities. The normal and healthy curiosity of children can become changed to persistent and often joyless sexual thoughts. Sometimes they will abuse other children the way they have been abused themselves. Long-term effects include deeper emotional problems, self-destructive behavior, substance abuse, poor self-esteem, and sexual problems. However, these conditions can also result from other causes, so they do not always mean that a child has been sexually abused.

The effect of being abused depends on many factors. Age is one factor. A 7-year-old girl and a 17-year-old young woman are in very different situations regarding their abilities to deal with the sexual advances of an adult. Another factor is how the child is treated-whether threats or force are used. Sexual abuse that occurs over long periods of time, that involves coercion, or that is done by a trusted person results in more harmful effects. What happens after the abuse is discovered and how the abuse is dealt with are also important.

Help is Available What are some resources for abused children? Look in your local phone book under County Social Services in the White or Yellow Pages, and see what you can find. Make a list of names and numbers to call. Add to this list the names of any adults you could turn to for help.

In cases when a young person is being abused sexually through threats and force, he or she should seek help and protection. Even a child can tell the difference between a “good touch” that feels good and a “bad touch” that causes pain or embarrassment. But in other cases, a touch can be confusing. Or it may feel good, but the child feels ashamed or guilty because of it. It is also possible for a child to misunderstand or misinterpret a touch as sexual that was not meant to be so. Children in all these situations need appropriate help and guidance from an adult they can trust.

If you find yourself subject to sexual abuse, you must first of all be aware of what is happening. Frightened as you may be, you must not feel helpless, and you must not blame yourself. Instead, you need to speak to a trusted adult who can help you with the problem.

Occasionally, a child may misinterpret an affectionate gesture as a sexual advance. Or the child may be confused by an activity involving the genital region. For example, one little girl reported that her mother had put something in her vagina when, in fact, her mother had taken the child's temperature by purring a thermometer in her rectum. Repeated questioning of children by legal workers also may lead to confusion. Sometimes this confusion can result in some children reporting events that never happened. Nonetheless, it is very important when children relate experiences of abuse, that what they say be taken seriously.

Sexual Coercion

In any act of coercion, you are more or less forced to do something you do not want to do. Psychological coercion or pressuring can take many forms. At its mildest it involves insisting, nagging, and begging, such as “Please, just this once.” More forceful means are shaming (“Don't act like a baby”), bullying (“Do as I say”), and threatening (“You'll pay for this”). Accusation (“You don't love me”) and the threat of breaking up or withdrawal (“You won't see me again”) are other ways of pressuring.

Rape is the most extreme form of coercion. It involves the threat or the actual use of violence to force another person into a sexual interaction.

Rape typically involves a man forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse against her will by using violence or the threat of harming her. However, sexual acts other than intercourse carried out under similar circumstances are also considered by the law to be rape. When rape occurs between two people who know each other or are friends, it is called date rape.

A second type of sexual coercion, called statutory rape, need not involve violence. It consists of taking sexual advantage of a person who is not able to give consent. This usually means the person is legally not yet an adult. As we discussed, when children are involved in sexual activities with adults, we call it child sexual abuse. But even an adult may not be able to give informed consent because of her or his condition. For example, a person who is mentally handicapped or drunk is not in a position to make a choice. To have sex with someone under these circumstances is a form of rape. The idea of consent is the key to understanding not only rape but also all other forms of sexual coercion. To give consent requires, first of all, that you understand the nature of the activity.

What Do You Think?

How old were you when you first heard about rape? What did you think it was? How did knowing about it make you feel?

The second requirement for consent is that it should be given freely. If someone is threatened with a weapon, and sexual intercourse occurs, there is no free choice involved.

In other cases, the situation is far less clear. This is especially true when a boyfriend (or husband) coerces a woman to have sex. He may not use a weapon or even force. She may resist him but not very forcefully. She may feel confused and frightened by what is happening. After the sexual act is completed, the man and the woman may have very different ideas as to what happened.

The many uncertainties in such situations make it difficult to decide whether consent was present or not. The idea of consent, instead of being a clear yes or no, now begins to look like a continuum (a progression of possibilities). At one end, consent is fully present, at the other, completely absent. Other situations tend to fall in between.

Despite these ambiguities, it is clear that many teenagers may put themselves in uncomfortable situations in which they feel they are not in control of what they do. Or they may engage in activities they would rather not. In a sample of 13- to 18-year-olds who have been in an intimate relationship, almost half said they had done something sexual or felt pressure to do something sexual that they felt they were not ready to do. Girls are usually more likely than boys to be in these situations.

Figure 5.1 Degrees of informed consent in sexual relations.

  1. Why might a person who has been raped not report it to the police?
  2. Why should a person who has been raped report it to the police?

Rapes that are reported to the police are more likely to have been committed by strangers. In general surveys, less than 5% of women who have been forced to do something sexual say that a stranger victimized them. Most of the rest of the cases are coercion by lovers, acquaintances, and friends. Acquaintance or date rape is more common in schools and colleges. But rape is not restricted to any particular group of people-it may happen to anyone.

“‘It was stupid of me to be in the barn alone. But,’ I added bitterly, ‘why should I have to be afraid to go places? It isn't right! Why should I be the one to give up doing what I want, just because there are jerks like Slim around?’”

-Annie's Promise

Sonia Levitin

Preventing Rape

Until fairly recently, most rapes were assumed to be carried out by strangers. The emphasis of rape prevention plans was on protecting women who were alone at home or in risky environments. Some of these safety precautions are the following.

  • Lock doors and windows of cars and houses when alone.
  • Do not walk alone. Walk in groups or accompanied by another person, especially at night.
  • Refuse to open the door to, respond to, or give rides to strangers. Don't take rides alone.
  • Carry a whistle or some other means of calling for aid.

Basically, you want to avoid being in situations where you could not get away if attacked or where help is not likely to be available. This doesn't mean that women must live in a constant state of fear. But it does mean taking reasonable precautions just as people do with regard to other dangers, such as being mugged.

Be Prepared Identify three resources available to you in case of a sexual assault emergency. Who would you call first and what is the number?

Helping Rape Victims

There are effective ways of helping rape victims. After an incident of sexual assault or rape, it is important to seek help immediately. It is also important to help catch and convict (punish legally) the rapist. This means not washing or changing clothes after the rape until the doctor and police have gathered the necessary evidence.

Rape crisis centers and hotlines typically offer 24-hour advice and can help in giving support and in getting immediate medical care and police response. Furthermore, they can help in dealing with the emotional reaction, which often includes denial, anger, depression, and confusion. The consequences of rape and sexual assault include everything from self-esteem and trust problems to physical pain, pregnancy, and infection. It is important to seek support from trained and knowledgeable people in addressing all of these consequences.

Activity 5-2: What Does “Stop” Mean?


How many times have you said “Stop” to someone's behavior only to discover that the person continues to annoy you or, in many cases, continues to hurt you? What is it about the word “Stop” that a person does not understand? In the following scenario you see that some people can misinterpret the word which can result in a felony crime.


  • Resource
  • Activity Report


Step 1 Your teacher will divide the class into small groups and give each student an Activity Report to read.

Step 2 Read the scenario and respond to the questions.

Step 3 Your group will share its conclusions with the rest of the class.

  • You are a peer counselor at school, and you recently spent a lot of time with a student who keeps saying yes to people in a variety of situations when she really means no. You are beginning to worry about whether she is going to get sexually involved with someone against her will, just because she is afraid to say no. What is your advice to her? How might you help her develop some confidence and skills to say no?
  • You have recently discovered that one of your friends has been sexually abused by a family friend. What should you do? Write an entry in your diary about your reactions to the situation and what you plan to say and do to help your friend.

Review Questions

  1. What is sexual exploitation? Provide and explain an example.
  2. What is sexual abuse by relatives called?
  3. What are some common feelings felt by a child being abused, and what factors affect how well a child will handle and recover from abusive situations?
  4. Give some examples of psychological coercion.
  5. What is the difference between rape and statutory rape?
  6. What does informed consent mean? Why is it important?
  7. List five safety tips for preventing rape.

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