This International Women’s Day, Ceryl Davies talks about the importance of giving young women a voice when discussing sexual coercion experienced by them in their intimate relationships.
The problem of abuse within young intimate relationships continues unabated, and although our understanding of this issue has grown over the years, there has been limited focus given to the voices of young women to help us understand how they negotiate their identity and power within these relationships. My research within schools in North Wales explored (through the use of questionnaires and interviews) how young women aged 15–18 years discussed their attitudes towards, and experiences of, intimate relationships.
What do young women’s attitudes tell us?
The young women were able to articulate ‘healthy’ relationship attitudes through their views on equal gender roles and the role of young women within intimate relationships. They have the knowledge, and understand what equality and a healthy relationship should look like! This perspective is of interest when compared with their individual experiences; in particular, the evidence of their lack of power and equality within their own intimate relationships.
What do young women’s experiences tell us?
For many of the young women, the relationship they were describing was their first intimate relationship. In Jennifer’s case,  she had been with her boyfriend for over a year and explained that their relationship had become acrimonious. She described that a key trigger for their arguments was his open discussion with his friends about their sex life, the influence of porn on their relationship and, in particular, his request to have a threesome. Jennifer explained the pressure she felt to please her boyfriend by doing ‘more sexually’, which he then discussed in the school common room with his friends. She felt trapped by her limited negotiation space and by the apparent demand to prioritise her boyfriend’s desires, which he openly discussed with their peers (without her consent).
The young women reflected on the importance of privacy in their sexual choices, and the repercussions of judgement when their private sexual information was openly disclosed. Michelle was pressurised to have sex with a young man with whom she wanted a relationship. Their sexual encounter was openly discussed by this young man across the school and on social media, which invited hurtful derogatory comments aimed at Michelle. Michelle explained that she had limited agency and space to challenge these remarks. She therefore resorted to humour in an attempt to brush the comments to one side. The peer judgement reflected the harmful view that Michelle ‘deserved’ the consequences of her actions, as she had ‘chosen’ to be ‘used’ for sex, further perpetuating the culture and limited space to challenge this form of behaviour.
The consequences of refusing sexual consent were framed in the aggression of the language used. This rejection and coercion was overtly conveyed by the change in mood and character of their boyfriends, as they would either ‘get in a mood’ or ‘sulk’ if they faced a rejection or a refusal of their sexual advances. Elen’s experience exposes her boyfriend as the instigator, manipulator and the coercer of sexual intercourse, with her perception that ‘If we didn’t have sex, then he would sulk… so we would have sex’. The young women demonstrated their confusion and concern about the potential judgement from peers and a degree of self-blame for not feeling ready to have sex.
The consequences of sexual coercion, both subtly and overtly, resulted in the young women questioning their self-worth if they submitted to both unwanted and wanted advances. This illustrates the sexual coercion inherent in meeting male sexual desires within their timescales, with the sanctions of refusing to respond to their needs well known and rehearsed. Chloe was concerned about whether she had made the right decision to have sex and ‘had to take a step back’ after the event to question whether from now on she would always have to have sex. This illustrates the pressures within relationships and the uncertainty of the boundaries around sex, choice and control.
How do we give young women a voice?
Healthy relationship education needs to have a practical focus on providing young women with the ability to apply their understanding of relationship equality to reality, and prepare young men to relinquish their perceived power and privilege. This argument is offered in response to the experiences of the young women and their overall lack of power to put non-hierarchical gendered relations into practice within their intimate lives, despite being able to clearly articulate their perceived healthy attitudes towards gender equality. Their stories revealed a lack of understanding of what it means to exercise equality in intimate relationships in order to have equal power. It also shows that young women want to discuss their sexual experiences privately with a sympathetic adult.
Abusive behaviour in young intimate relationships was overtly displayed, indicating a lack of awareness of acceptable behaviour or indeed of the need to hide this harmful display of abuse. It seems to have become acceptable among young people to display sexual coercion in the public arena, reflecting the normalisation of this form of abusive behaviour. If considered acceptable, the visibility of this behaviour may not necessarily function as a protective factor. This requires specific consideration when designing healthy relationship support for young women. There was also a sense that young women wanted healthy relationship support that empowered them to make informed choices and gave them the scripts to reject unwanted attention/requests, as they wanted to learn about ‘how to say “no” to guys, no to sex, no to [nude] pictures’ (Aleysha) and ‘respect and keeping sex lives private’ (Claire).
Ceryl Davies is a Social Work Lecturer at Bangor University, North Wales.
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 All names have been changed; the young women selected their own pseudonyms.