U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) – After receiving a submission to the Academy Spirit, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s newspaper, last week about one person’s struggle to overcome sexual coercion, I sat down with Teresa Beasley, the Air Force Academy’s sexual assault response coordinator, to discuss where it fits in the continuum of sexual assault and how to recognize warning signs of a bad relationship before they escalate into abusive situations.
The writer was in his early 20s when he first became a victim of sexual coercion, an act that falls just short of sexual assault on the continuum of sexual violence, Beasley said. Coercion within a relationship often begins early on, with one partner talking the other into doing something he or she doesn’t want to do, Beasley said.
“It’s much more subtle, it takes time, it wears you down,” she said. “It’s gradual, and you don’t even realize what’s going on.”
A central issue of contention in the writer’s relationship was whether he and his wife should have children. She wanted to have a child, whereas he did not. After repeated arguments, he wrote, he finally acceded to her wishes.
“There are only so many times you can say ‘no’ before you either walk away … or you give up and say ‘whatever’ instead,” he wrote.
Mike Domitrz, who founded the Date Safe project in 1990, spoke about sexual violence, including both coercion and assault, during a visit to the Academy in June 2013.
“If my partner really doesn’t want to have sex tonight, and I use guilt to get her to have sex with me, how far am I from the person who physically forces somebody down?” Domitrz asked an audience during a visit to the Academy in June 2013. “Am I really far? Or am I getting really close to thinking the same way, that you owe me?
“Why are we bothered by a rapist if we’re not bothered by using guilt to get a partner to do something I want to do?” Domitrz asked his audience. “That’s part of the culture we have to be aware of.”
“How many times does ‘no’ mean no?” Beasley said. “He (the writer) said no, he explained why, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Beasley said. “Coercion can occur all kinds of ways. We have these internalized messages from society: ‘What’s wrong with me that I don’t want kids?’ instead of ‘What’s right with me that I don’t want kids?'”
Warning signs may preclude an incident of sexual coercion, Beasley said, but societal pressures can affect people’s ability to recognize those warnings.
“There are warning signs way before an incident occurs: ‘This is wrong, this is not right.’ But you talk yourself out of it,” Beasley said. “Friends and family can even talk you into ignoring warning signs and gut feelings: ‘Oh, you’ll change your mind, you’re going to want kids.’ We’re taught to override our instincts, but I think they’re there for a reason.”
For cadets who plan to marry after they graduate, Beasley said they should talk with their partners about whether they will want children.
“There’s a lot of pressure, especially when you first get married,” she said.
Cadets earlier in their careers may not face this particular pressure, but they do face others, particularly the pressure to party and drink to excess.
“It’s hard at that age to stand on your own because you get ostracized,” she said. “Their developmental task is to take risks. That’s how they learn. Some risks you can take … but we’re telling them to think first. Part of being that age is that you don’t have any experience to draw on.”
Beasley recalled a case from a few years ago where a male cadet’s friends pressured him into sex with a woman during a night out. The woman in that case knew the cadet was on restriction and shouldn’t have been on base, and she used that against him to keep him from reporting the incident. She used that encounter to coerce him into meeting her several more times.
“She wore him down,” Beasley said. “He just wanted her to leave him alone. Male or female, the techniques are the same. The pressure just wears you down.”
In another recent case, an upperclassman manipulated a freshman who had just finished Basic Cadet Training into sex using manipulation, Beasley said. It started when the upperclassman offered to keep the young woman’s civilian clothes and personal electronic devices in his room, but eventually escalated into a “quid pro quo” situation, Beasley said.
“Finally, he said, ‘Now you’re going to have to do something for me,'” she said. “It eventually became extortion.”
Predators expertly manipulate their victims’ boundaries, leaving them unable to judge what’s healthy in a relationship versus what’s unhealthy, Beasley said.
“They are very good at what they do,” she said. “The will tell you black is white, and they will make you think this whole coerced situation was your idea.”
Young men and women can avoid abusive relationships by establishing boundaries early on and refusing to stay with someone who doesn’t respect those boundaries.
“Young people don’t always know what they want,” Beasley said. “They don’t want to be alone. They want to be in a relationship so badly that they’ll do a lot of unhealthy things. Everywhere you turn, you’re bombarded with societal pressure — you have to be in a relationship.
“How do you hold your ground? And if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, how do you stand up for yourself? How do you stop people from being destructive to you?” she added.
She advises people to listen to their instincts, including first impressions and intuitive hunches that something about a situation is just not right.
“We’re taught to override our instinct, but I think it’s there for a reason,” she said. “It’ll keep you out of all kinds of trouble, not just sexual assault.”
Beasley said it’s important for people who realize they’ve been coerced into sex to reach out for help.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” she said. “It’s not easy to figure out. It’s very complicated and very manipulative. Some of the girls and guys who are coerced are convinced it’s consensual, and that’s why they don’t report.”