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The Prevalence of Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relationships,

Including ENM

        We have all seen it. We have been at a party or an event, and a couple is arguing about something that has occurred throughout the day or the occasion. There are times that these arguments escalate to physical violence, and then there are the things that happen behind closed doors that no one really gets a chance to witness


        Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a serious issue affecting all types of relationships. While much attention has been given to IPV in traditional relationships, it is vital to acknowledge the prevalence of IPV in alternative relationships. Unfortunately, intimate partner sexual violence (IPSV) is often overlooked, and statistics can be challenging to obtain due to inconsistent terminology and measurement. This article aims to provide valuable information and education on this topic.


      Sexual coercion, defined as the use of nonviolent tactics such as manipulation and intimidation to pressure a partner into sexual activity they do not want, is a significant issue in many types of intimate relationships. 


      Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) refers to any behavior within a relationship that is used to gain power and control over a partner. This can include physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse. Alternative relationships encompass a range of relationship types, such as same-sex relationships, polyamorous relationships, and non-monogamous relationships. In these relationships, the dynamics of IPV can manifest in unique ways.


        Statistics from reputable sources, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, highlight the seriousness of IPV in alternative relationships.


       According to a 2016/2017 report from the CDC, contact sexual violence, physical violence, and stalking victimization were reported by over two in five identifying as male, and approximately one in two identifying as women (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2021).

  • About one in five women and one in five men reported experiencing contact with sexual violence from an intimate partner, with 13.7% of women and 5% of men reporting experiencing sexual coercion (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2021).

  • The CDC reports that 26% of gay men and 37.3% of bisexual men experience IPV, compared to 29% of heterosexual men.

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline recognizes that individuals in polyamorous and non-monogamous relationships are also at risk of experiencing IPV, although specific statistics are limited.


Recognition and Prevention

        Sexual coercion can occur in many types of relationships, including those in the spectrum of ethical non-monogamy (ENM). Despite preaching consent and equality, coercion still exists in some ENM relationships. Research has identified eight common ways that partners use force for unwanted sexual activity in intimate relationships, including ENM:

  • Exploitation

  • Bullying

  • Pressure

  • Relational Threats or Manipulation

  • Humiliation/Intimidation

  • Learned Helplessness

  • Physical Harm/Threats of Physical Violence

  • And general sexual dissatisfaction

Exploitation in romantic relationships, including ENM relationships, can harm the individual's well-being. Recognizing and exposing exploitation is essential to foster a healthy and consensual relationship dynamic.

            Here are some key behaviors associated with exploitation:

  • Claiming to be in love or using their partner's love against them includes statements like "If you loved me, then you would do this..." or "If you truly loved me as much as you say you do, then..."

  • Encouraging their partner to drink more alcohol: This lowers inhibitions and makes it easier to manipulate their partner into complying with sexual requests.

  • One partner pushing to move faster than the other is comfortable with ENM: Both partners must progress at a relaxed and consensual pace. Pressuring someone to move faster than they are ready can be a form of exploitation.

  • Evidence of a power imbalance between the couple: Exploitation often occurs when there is a significant power imbalance within the relationship. This can involve one partner exerting control and dominance over the other.

  • Weaponizing guilt: Manipulating feelings of responsibility to coerce a partner into complying with sexual requests is a form of exploitation. This can involve making the partner feel responsible for the abuser's actions or emotions.

  • Gaslighting involves manipulating the partner's perception of reality, making them doubt their own experiences and feelings. Gaslighting can be a tool exploiters use to maintain control and power in the relationship.


Being dishonest: Exploiters may use dishonesty as a means of manipulation. This can include lying about their intentions, actions, or other essential relationship aspects.

Bullying in relationships is a serious issue that can cause emotional and psychological harm. It's important to recognize the signs and behaviors associated with bullying to address them effectively.

           Here are critical behaviors of bullying in romantic relationships:

  • Invalidated opinions: The bullying partner may dismiss or belittle their partner's opinions and ideas, making them feel unheard or unimportant.

  • Constant judgment: The bullying partner consistently criticizes and judges their partner's actions, appearance, or choices, creating a negative and hostile environment.

  • Depreciation of accomplishments: Instead of celebrating their partner's achievements, the bullying partner will downplay or diminish their accomplishments, undermining their self-esteem and confidence.

  • Dictating or controlling everything: The bullying partner exerts control over various aspects of the relationship, making all the decisions without considering their partner's input or desires.

  • Physical abuse: In some cases, bullying may escalate to physical abuse, where the bullying partner inflicts harm or violence on their partner.


         Bullying can often be disguised as jokes or playful banter, making it harder to identify and address. However, it is essential to remember that actual jokes are based on mutual respect and consent and should never demean or degrade one's partner.

         Individuals with underdeveloped self-esteem may be more susceptible to accepting bullying in romantic relationships. However, it is crucial to recognize that bullying is never justified and should not be tolerated in any relationship.

Pressure to engage in ENM can harm individuals' mental health and well-being and can even lead to coerced consent.

            Here are some key behaviors of pressure in ENM relationships:

  • Frequent arguments: Partners may frequently argue about wanting to try ENM, which can create a tense and unpleasant environment.

  • Nagging: One partner may continually ask the other to try ENM, creating a sense of unease and discomfort for the hesitant partner.

  • Relentless begging: The partner who wants to try ENM may repeatedly plead with their partner to engage in it, not respecting or considering their partner's doubts and concerns.


         When one partner feels pressured to begin an ENM lifestyle, it can lead to anxiety, fear, and resentment, exacerbating a sense of coercion. It is important for therapists to be mindful of coerced consent, as consent that is not given freely, knowingly, and voluntarily is not truly consent. Therapists should encourage honest and open communication between partners, allowing both partners to honestly express their wants, needs, and limitations within the relationship.


       If one partner hesitates to engage in ENM, the other partner must respect their boundaries and not coerce or pressure them into doing anything they are uncomfortable with. Instead, patience and understanding should be employed while both partners explore and discuss the possibilities of ENM, giving each other time to adjust and adapt. This will help foster a healthy and consensual dynamic within the relationship.


Relational threats or manipulation can take many forms and occur in any relationship. One concerning example is when one partner threatens to end the relationship if the other partner does not agree to engage in consensual non-monogamy (ENM). This behavior can indicate emotional manipulation, where one partner tries to control the other partner's thoughts, feelings, and actions to fulfill their desires.

            Here are some key behaviors associated with relational threats or manipulation

  • Crossing boundaries: The manipulating partner consistently crosses the boundaries of the other, disregarding their partner's feelings and needs.

  • Unable to take no for an answer: The manipulating partner refuses to accept "no" as a response, persistently pressuring and manipulating their partner until they get what they want.

  • Dramatic statements that cause guilt and shame: They use dramatic statements or emotionally charged language to make their partner feel guilty or ashamed for their reluctance to agree to ENM.

  • Ability to cry on cue: The manipulating partner might fake emotions, such as crying, to generate sympathy and manipulate their partner into compliance.

  • The requirement to prove your love for them: They create a sense that agreeing to ENM is the only way to demonstrate love and devotion to them, using this as a tactic to manipulate their partner.

  • Expected to react in a specific way: The manipulating partner has clear expectations for how their partner should react and respond and may become upset or angry if those expectations are not met.

  • Love bombing: They may overwhelm their partner with excessive affection, compliments, and gestures to butter them up and make it harder for them to say no.

  • Playing the role of the victim: The manipulating partner portrays themselves as the victim, making their partner believe that their hesitations or reluctance are causing harm or pain.

  • Frequently "just joking" when the victim stands up for themselves: They undermine their partner's legitimate concerns by dismissing them as jokes, making it difficult for the victim to assert their boundaries and needs.

Humiliation and intimidation in romantic relationships can have profound adverse effects on individuals and can be as damaging as physical abuse.

        Here are critical behaviors of humiliation and intimidation:

  • Dominating conversations: The person engaging in humiliation or intimidation attempts to control and dominate conversations, not allowing others to share their thoughts or express themselves freely.

  • Screaming and shouting: They resort to loud and aggressive behavior, using screaming and crying to assert power and instill fear in their partner.

  • Creating a scene: They intentionally create public scenes or confrontations, aiming to embarrass and humiliate their partner in front of others.

  • Unnegotiated degradation: They humiliate and degrade their partner without consent or negotiation, undermining their self-worth and dignity.

  • Punching structures to cause fear includes physically damaging objects or structures around the partner, not necessarily targeting the partner directly but inducing fear and intimidation through the destruction.

  • Breaking things to induce fear: The person who engages in humiliation or intimidation may purposefully break objects or belongings to cause anxiety and create a threatening atmosphere.

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that can occur when a partner feels they have no control over a situation, resulting in a belief that their actions will not make a difference. This can particularly apply to areas of a relationship, such as a lack of sexual autonomy, where a person may feel powerless and unable to advocate for themselves.

     Here are key behaviors associated with learned helplessness:

  • Passive behavior: Individuals experiencing learned helplessness may exhibit passivity, often deferring decision-making and relinquishing control to others.

  • Low self-esteem: They may have a diminished sense of self-worth and confidence, feeling incapable of influencing or improving their circumstances.

  • Avoiding decisions: They may actively avoid making decisions or taking actions because they believe their efforts will be futile or not result in any positive change.

  • Quick to give up: Individuals experiencing learned helplessness may quickly give up or become apathetic in the face of challenges or difficult situations, feeling a lack of motivation or belief in their ability to effect change.

  • Lack of solid effort: They may lack sustained effort to change their situation, as they have learned to believe their endeavors will not lead to a different outcome.

Physical harm and threats of physical violence are severe forms of abuse that can create an environment of fear and control within a relationship. When victims feel threatened by the potential for violence or harm, they may engage in uncomfortable behaviors to avoid the consequences.

       Here are critical behaviors associated with physical harm and threats of physical violence:

  • Extreme jealousy: The abuser may exhibit possessiveness and jealousy, monitoring the victim's interactions with others and displaying unwarranted suspicion.

  • Isolation from friends and family: The abuser may isolate the victim from their support system, restricting their contact with friends and family and creating a dependence on the abuser.

  • Accusations without evidence: The abuser may make baseless accusations against the victim as a means of control, undermining their trust and self-esteem.

  • Intense anger: The abuser may have frequent or severe outbursts of anger, which instill fear and establish a power dynamic within the relationship.

  • One partner is 'allowed' to do things the other is not permitted to do: The abuser may create double standards, permitting themselves to engage in certain activities while forbidding the victim from doing the same.

  • Emotional dysregulation: The abuser may be unable to manage their emotions, resulting in unpredictable mood swings and heightened volatility.



            Recognizing that IPV exists in all relationships, including alternative ones, is essential. By acknowledging the prevalence of IPV and understanding the signs, we can create a culture of inclusivity and support and work towards creating safe spaces for all individuals in relationships. It is crucial to address sexual coercion, a form of IPV that can manifest through nonviolent tactics such as manipulation and intimidation to pressure a partner into sexual activity they do not want. By recognizing and addressing IPV and sexual coercion, we can work towards building and fostering healthy and safe relationships for everyone.


Note: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered professional advice. If you or someone you know is experiencing IPV, please seek help from a qualified professional or a local domestic violence hotline.


Dramatically Yours,

Stephanie Sigler CST, LPC, PhD 

*Originally published in the September 2023 edition of ASN Lifestyle Magazine

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