When It's Harder to See It

Signs of Sexual Coercion and Impending Sexual Violence for Folks Struggling with Social Cues

Since early childhood, I’ve experienced sexual⁠ violence ranging from sexual harassment⁠ to rape⁠ . I have been sexually assaulted and subjected to sexual violence more times than I can count. For a long time, I felt it was my fault or that I did something to deserve it. That’s hardly surprising given that when I told others about these incidents, they asked questions about what I was doing before, during, and after they happened, even though I was the victim, not the perpetrator. They usually even had an opinion about what they would do differently if they were in my shoes. With therapy, I learned that what happened wasn’t my fault, even if I’d made decisions that others might, in their ignorance, see as the cause of those events. Sexual violence and inappropriate behavior happen because of the people who choose to do it to others, period⁠ . It’s never the fault of the person receiving the unwanted behavior.

If you’re a survivor of sexual violence, I’m guessing you have a similar story. I’m sorry that we’ve had to go through that.

For those of us who also struggle with social cues due to a history of trauma⁠ , autism, lack of socialization, or other factors, learning to identify potential signs of sexual coercion or impending sexual violence can be empowering and help us to avoid unsafe situations. Still, even if we intellectually know the signs, it doesn’t mean we will be immune to this kind of harm. Unfortunately, we can only control our actions and choices: we cant control the behaviors of predatory people. At the same time, we can be better equipped to protect ourselves from harm, some of the impacts of that harm, or know when to get support if we keep the information below in mind.

What Makes Neurodivergent Folks More Vulnerable?

If you have a history of childhood sexual violence, it increases your risk of experiencing sexual violence in the future by about 50%. While autistic folks of any gender⁠ can be at a higher risk of sexual violence, one 2022 study shows that roughly 90% of autistic women report a history of sexual assault⁠ . Whether you have complex PTSD, autism, ADHD, or another feature that makes your brain deviate from the “norm,” your neurodivergence can be a gift and it can also increase your vulnerability to unsafe situations. Those who have a condition that affects dopamine levels in the brain like ADHD may engage in risky behaviors to chase dopamine, which can create a different kind of vulnerability.

If you are neurodivergent, you may find that these symptoms resonate:

  • Weak pattern predictability
  • Desensitization to red flags
  • Blind trust
  • Literal thinking
  • Dissociation
  • Situational mutism or other communication⁠ struggles
  • Lack of social awareness
  • Difficulty seeing or understanding others’ motivations and thought processes

When you deal with one or more of the above, you may be more vulnerable to sexual violence and coercion. As an example, if someone invites you to their house or offers to drive you somewhere, you may not recognize the potential for harm in this situation if you struggle with something like blind trust. Even if you do understand the potential for harm, you may not feel the urge to remove yourself from the situation if you’re desensitized to red flags, dissociated, or struggling to articulate why you feel uncomfortable.

As neurodivergent individuals, it can be extra difficult to listen to our intuition when we’ve gotten messages from others that our way of authentically existing is wrong. When people tell you to stop stimming, speak more, speak less, or push through overstimulation, you can disconnect from your innermost self and learn how to mask or behave in ways that help you adapt to a neurotypical society. While masking can be useful for navigating social situations without revealing what makes you different from others, it can lead to things that make us more vulnerable to harm, too, like fawning behavior. 

When we discuss vulnerabilities, it’s important to note that they are not weaknesses. Sometimes, they may be outside of your control. In other cases, you might be able to develop skills or use tools to mitigate your vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities don’t make sexual violence or unwanted experiences your fault. They also don’t doom you to a life of violence or traumatization. They simply mean that you may have aspects of yourself that make you more likely to have certain experiences than folks without those vulnerabilities.

What Is Sexual Coercion?

Sexual coercion is when someone uses non-physical means to pressure someone else into any kind of sexual activity. If someone pressures you to have any kind of sex⁠ , wears you down after you say no, asks you repeatedly for sex despite your refusal, makes threats to push you to have sex, lies, blackmails, guilt trips, or uses drugs and alcohol to lower your inhibitions, these can all be examples of sexual coercion. Sexual coercion is also often subtle, which can make it harder to recognize in the moment. Sometimes, the best way to tell if you’ve been sexually coerced is how you feel after having sex with someone. If you felt like you did something that you did not want to do even though you weren’t physically forced, you may have been in a sexually coercive situation.

For folks who have a history of trauma or traits like low social awareness, identifying sexual coercion can be particularly challenging. If you’ve already had experiences in the past where someone made you feel like you had to have sex or where you were physically forced into a sexual act, you might not pick up on when someone is trying to take your agency away. Some people will use sexual coercion to trick you into thinking that you played a part in sexual activities that you didn’t truly want. Others may think that they can convince you that you want sex even when you don’t or view coercion as a “seduction tactic.” Even if someone doesn’t realize that coercion is wrong or that it makes you uncomfortable, you still have a right to feel how you feel about that encounter and avoid being alone with someone who doesn’t respect your first “no.”

Sexual coercion tends to occur when a person coercing you doesn’t respect your boundaries, or think you have any right to them. Someone who is safe and who truly wants fully consensual sex will take your word for it the first time when you say you don’t want sex or when you seem like you’re not interested in it. Frequently, folks who don’t respect our boundaries in the bedroom also fail to respect our boundaries outside the bedroom. Before you agree to spend time alone with someone, see how they respond to you saying “no” to something else they want, besides sex. It can be as simple as saying “no” to a restaurant suggestion for a first date, not wanting to hold hands or saying you’re not comfortable with telling them certain information on a first date like where you work. If someone tries to push your boundaries or bulldozes them, this can be a good indicator that they probably won’t respect your boundaries behind closed doors, either.

People who could become or are sexually coercive may also lie. I once went on what I thought would be a normal dinner date with an ex- partner⁠ . He pointed out⁠ other restaurants nearby and said that we should go to them on another date. Later that evening, he broke up with me but asked to stay friends. In hindsight, he lied about going on other dates but I thought he might have just said it to make conversation. When we stayed friends, I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in being friends with benefits⁠ . As a result, I thought he was being sincere when he asked me to come over for dinner at his place.

When he said his bed might be more comfortable when I went to his place, I thought he was genuinely thinking of my comfort as a literal thinker. Unfortunately, his thought process was that he could take me to the bedroom and then pressure me into a sexual situation. As you can see from this example, if someone isn’t honest about their intentions in other circumstances, they may not be honest about having sexual intentions.

Red Flags for Sexual Violence

As research has long shown, as many as 80% of sexual assaults occur with someone the victim/survivor knows. This can make identifying red flags for sexual violence even more confusing since the person who sexually assaults you or violates you is so likely to be someone you trust. Sometimes, someone might harm you without you seeing it coming. Even if there were red flags in hindsight, it doesn’t mean it was your fault — it simply means that their behavior makes sense when you process it in the context of their history. There’s a reason why people say “hindsight is 20/20” and not “foresight is 20/20.” In other words, looking back will always give you a clearer picture of someone’s true character or the nature of a situation than trying to predict the future.

To determine if someone might be capable of sexual violence, there are some red flags you might be able to pick up on even if you struggle with social cues or your meter for danger is affected by past trauma.

When someone behaves differently under the influence of alcohol or substances (e.g. becomes mean or aggressive⁠ when drunk), they might be more likely to use that as an excuse to commit sexual violence. Additionally, if someone is trying to get you alone and you feel uneasy about it, that feeling of unease could be a sign you’re picking up on that they might not have good intentions.

In my experience, one common pattern for date rape is someone inviting you to dinner or coffee close to their house, suggesting that you move the conversation to the bedroom, and forcing or pressuring you into a sexual situation that was not previously discussed.  If you don’t know someone well and they want you to go to their house or apartment, I would recommend declining until you get to know them in a variety of settings. Someone with questionable intentions would act angry or pressure you to go to their place even if you’ve expressed that you want to get to know them better before doing that. Someone who may be a safe person is more likely to respect your wishes, to accept that you don’t want to go to their place, and to just continue in communication with you until you can find a place where you do want to go and feel comfortable going.

When you’re meeting someone else or going to their place for the first time, it’s important to let someone else know where you’re going and with whom. Have a timeline for how long you intend to stay and create a plan to leave at a certain time. You can also ask the person you tell to text you a half hour or so into your meeting to see how you’re doing. You can tell a date that you need to meet up with a friend or have work to do at a certain time for an easy out. Even if this is a lie, it could make it easier to remove yourself from a situation if you start to feel uncomfortable.

Because sexual violence can be facilitated with drugs and spiked drinks, I would also suggest bringing your own bottled drink to someone’s home until you feel that you know them well. You can also prepare your drink by offering to get your water or other beverages from your date’s fridge. While these might seem like overkill, it’s better to be extra cautious until you know someone well than be too trusting with someone you don’t know well yet.

Sexual coercion involves being pressured into sexual acts that you don’t want to do. Sexual violence is a broader term that encompasses any non-consensual sexual act or behavior. Spotting the potential for a situation to turn sexually violent or coercive involves understanding your vulnerabilities, knowing common patterns that perpetrators may follow, and seeing how someone you know or are getting to know responds to boundary setting. Although there’s no guarantee how someone will behave — again, these abuses are mostly outside our control if and when they occur — you may be able to anticipate harmful behavior and remove yourself from a situation before it happens if you spot the signs early enough. Even if coercion, sexual violence, or unsafe situations do happen, learning about these signs won’t be a pointless endeavor. This knowledge can empower you to recognize when violations have occurred, validate your feelings on the event, and seek out help or support. Knowing the signs of sexual violence or being intelligent doesn’t necessarily prevent awful things from happening, which can be disheartening. Still, it can help you see what the warning signs may have been and prompt you to get assistance if a situation of the signs we’ve described above.

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  • Heather Corinna

I'm so sorry that you have been in this situation, Michael. It sounds stressful and heartbreaking. Let's see if I can help a little.

Before I say anything else, I want to strongly suggest that you do not have any sex, of any kind, with anyone, that you do not also very much want yourself. It's no…