Identifying coercive relationships

It’s rather sad that I even have to write this, but every now and then you hear about a relationship in which, despite everyone being over the age of consent, there was a coercive element to it. In this article I want to outline exactly what counts as coercion, and why it’s inherently unhealthy.

Coercion is generally understood to mean getting somebody to do something that they would not otherwise do by making not doing it a less appealing option. This could be achieved either by threatening or implying a penalty for non-compliance. For instance, if you had a friend whose washing machine had broken down said ‘do my laundry and I’ll buy you a pack of beers’ that might be enough of an incentive to load the washing machine, but it isn’t coercion because your friend is offering you a reasonable recompense for the inconvenience of doing their laundry. If however that friend said ‘you know, friends are supposed to help each other out, you are my friend aren’t you? Put this in the machine for us won’t you?’ then that is coercive. While there is no direct threat of any immediate punishment, it would guilt you into compliance because it would make you think that you were being a bad friend if you didn’t. So the punishment for non-compliance would be psychological.

Such tactics reduce a persons freedom without them even realizing it. Let’s look at this from another angle, if you’re locked in a room, could you freely choose to remain in the room? No, you can’t, because you are not able make any other choice. You can only freely choose to remain in a room when the option of leaving it is also freely available. Of course you might choose to stay in the room if there was an incentive to do so, such as your favourite show being on TV in there, but that is a genuine choice.

So now let’s apply the same logic to coercive relationships. A person is being coerced if he or she fears some kind of penalty, emotional or otherwise if they leave the relationship, or if they were pressured into it because the other person made them feel like they ‘should’ be with them, perhaps appealing to a sense of duty.

In the context of consanguine relationships, if somebody was convinced that ‘looking after your family’ includes fulfilling their sexual needs, and that all good people look after their family, then that person would experience a lot of guilt for not participating in incestuous activity. It would be something he or she did out of a sense of duty, because their morality would be such that they would believe that they would be bad human beings if they didn’t go along with it. That is the punishment element of coercion at work. Needless to say, this is really really unhealthy and it is a form of abuse, although much more subtle than many forms of abuse.

People who have been coerced, whether it’s in a regular relationship or a consang one, might not even realize it at the time because it’s so subtle. Often it takes people years to realize that they’ve actually been through this sort of systematic programming and to sort out the reasons why they feel and act the way that they do. Only by divorcing their sense of self worth from their participation in sexual activity can they see clearly what happened to them and begin to heal and move on. Such a shift is in fact a complete change or world-view, and for some people it can happen suddenly but for others it’s a more gradual process.

Here are some links to some resources and articles if you or someone you know has been affected: