Heather Corinna replies:
A friend of mine was in a relationship about 2 years ago. He's a guy. His girlfriend at the time pressured him into doing oral sex by saying that if he didn't do it that meant he didn't love her. Would that be sexual abuse? Because if a guy pressured a girl into giving him a blow job that would be considered sexual abuse and I'm just double-checking to see if that goes both ways.
This doesn't just go both ways, it goes -- it needs to go -- ALL the ways. For everybody. Always.
I really appreciate you asking about this. It's something we remind people about often, both on the site and in our social media, but I feel like we can't talk about this enough or provide enough reminders. Thanks for giving me the opportunity not to just answer your question, but to give others more of this crucially important information.
People of any and every gender can be, have been and are, sexually abused or assaulted, and can be by anyone of any gender. Sexual abuse and assault isn't just something can men do to women. It's something women also can do to men, or women to women, men to men, or people of any gender can do to someone else of any gender. While the prevalence of sexual assault varies among different genders and combinations of genders, and isn't the same for all (though who reports and doesn't influences that data, and many survivors do not report, especially men, so our numbers on men who have experienced sexual abuse or assault are most likely lower than they truly are) it's not exclusive to any one group or pair of people in terms of gender.
Double-standards stink as a rule, and the double-standard that's sadly common around this issue really, really smells. I'm glad to hear that it sounds like, even if you aren't 100% sure, or need some backup, you basically know the right answer to this one already. It sounds like your gut and what you already know are telling you that yes, of course, any kind of sex without full, freely given consent from everyone isn't consensual sex, but instead, some kind of abuse or assault.
Consent -- the truly bonafide kind where people are as free to say no or not now as yes, as where whatever answer they give is accepted and respected, even if it's not the answer the other person wants -- matters for everyone. Not just for women or only with women, not just for people in certain kinds of relationships -- or only for people who aren't in committed relationships -- not just for any one orientation of people, or people of a given age: for everyone.
For the record, about a year and a half ago, the FBI updated their definition of sexual assault and it is absolutely gender inclusive. As they explained when doing so, "The revised definition includes any gender of victim or perpetrator, and includes instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity, including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or because of age... Physical resistance from the victim is not required to demonstrate lack of consent."
If your friend's ex coerced him into any kind of sex, that was, indeed, a sexual abuse or assault. It would have been so in or out of a relationship, in a new relationship or one that he'd been in for 20 years, whether he was a man or wasn't, whether his partner was a woman or wasn't.
"Pressure" is another word for coercion. Pressure and coercion alike are about pushing against something; in this context, pushing against your friend's no to try and make it a yes because of what SHE wanted without care or regard for what he did not. Sexually, pressure and coercion are ways someone responds to someone's no or anything-but-yes-please-do-me-now by not accepting that answer they don't want, which is what we all should do, but instead by acting in some way, including with words, change that person's mind to try and get them to do what they want.
Hopefully you don't mind that I take a little veer here, because while I'm at it, another word I think creates a lot of confusion, intentional or accidental, around this is the word force. I find people often misuse or misunderstand it when talking about abuse or assault. A typically busted way of thinking about abuse or assault, as well as consent, involves centering what abuse or assault are only on if something did or did not involve force. But only of a very specific kind.
Force is one of those words that doesn't mean what people often think it means. To a lot of people, "force" is understood to only mean physical force: hitting, pushing, holding down, kicking, using weapons, and so on. But that's not what force means. That's one kind of force, but just one kind.
What force means, as my wonderful friend, the dictionary, explains, is (bolding mine):
force (transitive verb)
: to make (someone) do something that he or she does not want to do
: to make it necessary for (someone) to do something
: to make (something) necessary
1) to do violence to;
2) to compel by physical, moral, or intellectual means
3) to make or cause especially through natural or logical necessity
4) to press, drive, pass, or effect against resistance or inertia
You perhaps will not be surprised to know that in many definitions of the word force, that "coerce" is listed as the primary synonym.
This business of whether or not there was or wasn't "force," comes up a lot particularly with sexual abuse and assault where a victim knows the person perpetrating the assault or abuse, and also when men have been victims, particularly when women have been the perpetrators. People commonly present force around sexual abuses as only physical, which it's not, and also talk about force as something only men can do to to women, physically bigger people can do to to physically smaller people, or even something only people with sticking-out genitals can do to people with genitals that have an opening someone can put their genitals inside of can do. None of that is right.
Force, or pressure, or coercion, is something that can be and is exerted on men like it is on women, boys as it is to girls, including in sexual contexts or in interpersonal relationships; including when it's women exerting force on or with men. Sexual abuse or assault, in all it's variations, also just isn't about what someone bigger can do to someone smaller, nor is it only about someone putting something inside someone else's body.
Force, pressure, coercion; these are all about power. An abuse, of any kind, is about a person misusing power. Interpersonally, these things are about a person who has power and chooses to abuse it, rather than having it and using it very carefully. The person they abuse it with may also have power themselves, but that the other person either had more overall, or in a certain way, time or situation, and they abused it.
Even with both people having power -- let's say that in every way two people can each have power an let's say we can measure that, so those two people both had it and in the same amounts -- either person, or both, can still have vulnerabilities the other can exploit. Vulnerabilities, like, in this case, probably having it be important to your friend that someone they may well have loved believed that they loved them. Maybe being vulnerable when it comes to their own or others' ideas about what they have to do in relationships to be a loving person. Maybe he was vulnerable around his masculinity, or being a guy, and the common notion that men who are not loving, by anyone's standard, even standards that are abusive, unhealthy and utterly whack, are Bad Guys. Who knows what it was, but we can be sure that when coercion "works" like this, for lack of a better word, it's because someone found a vulnerable spot in someone else they chose to exploit, and were able to exploit.
Consent, mutual consent, is about sharing power we have, or making room for differences in power or vulnerability when they're there. One person might still have more power, or be less vulnerable, in general or specific ways, but they don't abuse that power by doing unwanted things to someone else, or in any way making another person do something they don't want to to get what they want for themselves, without care or regard for the other person. Consent is also about being particularly careful and thoughtful around people's vulnerabilities or tricky emotional places, not exploiting them by playing on them to serve their own wants and needs.
Consent isn't a ball we throw that someone catches or not and then that's that. It's more a ball we throw, then they maybe throw back (or don't), and then we throw back again (or don't), and so on. It's not a straight line from only point A to point B and then ends: it's something we -- and by we, I mean every last one of us -- should be thinking about as a constantly moving circle, not as a once-drawn straight line.
"You would do it if you love me," is sadly a very common line used to coerce people sexually. For many people, sex is all tangled up with ideas about romantic love, what that means, and ideas about what that means loved people are "owed," including sexually. It feels horrible, even scary sometimes, to have someone you care about or really do love, who you want to feel very much that you love them, say you don't really love them. It feels horrible to be told we are an unloving person, especially when we're doing our level best to be loving. People who use this kind of line know how vulnerable people can be around this: it's common because it's such a commonly vulnerable place, and pretty much everyone knows that. Some people know that and then choose to exploit it.
The thing that coercive line ironically communicates, though, -- and this might be something to share with your friend -- is that the person who says something like that to get sex they want? Very clearly is either electing not to demonstrate love themselves for that other person, or probably doesn't love them.
We don't try and make people we care about, people we love, do totally optional things they don't want to do, be close to us in any way when they don't want to, and or emotionally blackmail people them. We absolutely do not sexually assault or abuse people we love and care about, even who we care about the littlest bit. That is not loving behaviour: it is abusive, uncaring, selfish behaviour. In other words, if the person who says, "You would if you loved me," is saying anything clear as day with that, they're saying, "I don't love you." Because that's not how we treat people when we love them, or even care about them a little bit. It's just not.
Too often, still, the conversations or education many people have had about consent have only been about how consent is the thing that men need to ask for from women, which women need to respond to, and then men need to respect whatever a woman's response is. That's all true, but as we've talked about, it's just as true the other way around. Only seeing that as one-way like that not only totally leaves out men without partners who are women in the first place (and also presents sex as a thing only men want, initiate or ask for, which also isn't true), but it also sends a deeply messed-up message about consent. It doesn't really show what consent is supposed to be, or what sex is supposed to be, for that matter: things that anyone and everyone involved with need to be equally active and responsive, mutually seen and respected, parts of.
I don't know the context in which your friend disclosed to you, what he was asking of you, or looking for from you when he did. But in the event that he told you this and you did not respond supportively, validating what he was saying to you as an abuse, and most certainly as nonconsensual,I hope you know it's never, ever too late to go back to someone who disclosed like this and do that.
While the majority of sexual abuse, assault and violence survivors unfortunately still have to face widespread disbelief, denial and lack of support, men who have been victims of sexual abuses, especially by women often face that even more widely, with even fewer people validating them as people who have suffered a violence. If any of this is something you can bring back to him, or didn't give to him when you had this conversation, I hope, if it's something he still wants to talk about with you, you will take the opportunity to do that. Doing that may be more meaningful to him, and more needed, than you know.
We've got a whole lot of content here on consent, abuse and assault, for people of any and every gender, as well as some content that talks about this specifically around men also needing be be asked for consent, and how men also need to give it freely before anyone does anything sexual with or to them. We also have a good deal of information that makes clear that being in a relationship with someone doesn't mean that any and all sex is consensual by default. Whether you want more of that information for yourself, want to pass some on to your friend, or want to share it with friends or others who aren't getting that consent is for and about everyone, of all genders, here's a list to get you started:
If your friend is struggling with this, he's of course also welcome to come and talk with us about it in any of our direct services. If he wants a completely guy-specific place to go with this, Male Survivor is a great online option, and he might also find taking a look at this set of photos from the incredible Project Unbreakable, from other men who are survivors, helps him feel less isolated and alone if he's been feeling that way.