New research provides evidence that destructive communication patterns mediate the relationship between attachment insecurities and sexually coercive behavior. The findings, published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, suggest that dysfunctional communication plays a key role in sexual coercion victimization in long-term relationships.
While a great deal of research has addressed intimate partner violence, subtle forms of sexual coercion have often been overlooked, according to Caroline Dugal, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sherbrooke and the lead author of the new study.
“In addition to being a researcher, I am also a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with couples who have sexual difficulties,” Dugal explained. “In both my research and clinical practice, I have observed that, in most couples, both partners’ level of desire or libido is rarely 100% similar. This means that most couples must negotiate situations in which one partner attempts to engage in sexual activities and the other does not want to, and so refuses the other’s sexual advances. In both research and practice, we have seen that many adults react to this sexual rejection by insisting further, as a way to seduce or persuade their partner.”
“With this study, we were interested in trying to understand what could explain the occurrence of sexual coercion between partners. To do so, we used attachment theory because many studies have emphasized that attachment orientations can help us understand the sexual behaviors of adults in romantic relationships.
Attachment theory describes how people bond to others and maintain their relationships. People can be secure or insecure in their attachments, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. People with an anxious attachment style are fearful of rejection and seek constant reassurance, while people with an avoidant attachment style tend to suppress their emotions and shun intimacy.
“We also know that the ways in which a couple will negotiate sexuality is often a reflection of the ways in which they discuss everyday topics, including conflictual ones, which are also shaped by attachment orientations,” Dugal said. “In my practice, I have become aware that many couples who suffer from discrepancies in desire between partners also report having communication issues. We were thus interested in looking at the way in which attachment orientations can shape communication behaviors between romantic partners, and in turn the occurrence of sexual coercion.”
In the study, 145 French-Canadian couples (who had been in their current relationship for about 6 years on average) completed an anonymous online survey regarding their relationship. As part of the survey, the participants indicated if they had been subjected to a variety of sexually coercive tactics by their partner, which ranged in their level of severity. Coercive tactics included persistently asking for sex, offering gifts in exchange for sex, threatening to have sex with someone else, and threatening to use or using physical force.
“Although not all insisting behaviors can become sexually coercive, some are, such as by using love or the relationship to make the partner feel obligated to have sex or by making them feel inadequate or guilty for not wanting to have sex,” Dugal told PsyPost. “These behaviors are known to be detrimental for a romantic relationship, yet, they are quite frequent in the general population, and often minimized or normalized.”
Among those in a heterosexual relationship, 43% reported experiencing sexual coercion at least once in the past 12 months. Approximately half of women in heterosexual relationships and 36% of men in heterosexual relationships reported being the victim of sexual coercion. Among gay couples, 29% reported experiencing sexual coercion. Among lesbian couples, 20% reported experiencing sexual coercion.
Importantly, Dugal and her colleagues found that attachment insecurities were associated with more destructive communication patterns. Higher attachment anxiety and higher attachment avoidance were associated with higher levels of both “I demand/my partner withdraws” and “my partner demands/I withdraw” communication patterns. In other words, both forms of attachment insecurity were related to communication patterns in which one partner makes demands while the other avoids confrontation. These destructive communication patterns, in turn, were associated with higher levels of sexual coercion victimization.
Higher attachment avoidance (but not higher attachment anxiety) was also related to lower levels of constructive communication, which in turn was associated with being more likely to report being sexually coerced by a partner.
“Although all sexually coercive behaviors are damaging for couples, not all partners who use these behaviors are intrinsically bad,” Dugal said. “If so, a large proportion of adults from the community would be evil. Our primary wish is that this study will help some people acknowledge the sexually coercive behaviors that occur in their relationship in a way that will either help them stop engaging in these behaviors or seek professional help to increase security in their relationship.”
“And since this realization can often be associated with feelings of shame and guilt, we also wanted to offer a conceptualization of sexual coercion that can give specific recommendations to couples and therapists on key variables that can be addressed to reduce the occurrence of sexual coercion. As such, by caring for partners’ attachment insecurities, and by increasing constructive communication in couples, we might be able to decrease the use of sexually coercive behaviors in relationships.”
The researchers also found evidence that destructive communication patterns could be more harmful among gay and lesbian couples. For example, participants who reported the “I demand/my partner withdraws” communication pattern were more likely to have partners who reported higher sexual coercion victimization, but this was only true among same-gender couples.
Destructive communication patterns where both partners mutually criticize or blame one another were also linked to higher sexual coercion victimization, but only among those who were partnered with men.
“We know that statistically, men are more likely than women to perpetrate sexually coercive behaviors, and that LGBTQ couples tend to report more interpersonal victimization than cross-gender couples,” Dugal explained. “With this study, we found that, although communication behaviors occur in a similar way for cross- and same-gender couples, when they are of a destructive nature, they are more strongly related to sexual coercion in same-gender couples and for adults (both women and men) who are in a relationship with a man.”
“What these results suggest is that there are some factors that might put same-gender couples and partners of men at higher risk of sustaining sexual coercion in their relationship in situations where partners have insecure attachment orientations and use destructive communication strategies,” Dugal continued. “Yet our study did not allow to examine what these factors might be, some of which could include the potential influence of minority stress (i.e., internalized homophobia, stigma conscientiousness), discrimination trauma, and social norms of toxic masculinity that frame men’s use of sexual coercion as a form of seduction tactic. Future research is still needed to better understand the gender- or diversity-related dynamics that underlie couples’ experiences of sexual coercion.”
The new findings are in line with a previous study, published in 2016, which found that attachment insecurities were indirectly related to intimate partner violence via destructive conflict resolution strategies.
“With this research, we wanted to understand how past relational experiences, which form attachment orientations, and couples’ communication patterns explain sexual coercion that occurs between partners,” Dugal added. “As such, our study found that some characteristics in partners who sustain sexual coercion (e.g., attachment insecurities and a lower use of constructive communication) are associated with a higher risk of being victimized in their relationship. Yet, it is paramount that we highlight that these results do not mean that victims of sexual coercion are doing anything that explains or justifies their sexual victimization. Indeed, the sole responsibility of sexual coercion lies, and always will, in the perpetrator’s hands.”
The study, “Attachment Insecurities and Sexual Coercion in Same- and Cross-Gender Couples: The Mediational Role of Couple Communication Patterns“, was authored by Caroline Dugal, Audrey Brassard, Aurélie Claing, Audrey-Ann Lefebvre, Ariane Audet, Raphaëlle Paradis-Lavallée, Natacha Godbout, and Katherine Péloquin.