The term “coercion” is used to describe the act of forcing or intimidating someone to do what you want them to do. At some point or another, most people have been subjected to coercion. For example, coercion is what every schoolyard bully uses when he tells another student to give up his lunch money to the bully or risk being beaten up. To explore this concept, consider the following coercion definition.

Definition of Coercion


  1. The act of forcing, threatening or intimidating a person so as to get a desired result from them.


1515-1525       Medieval Latin (coerciōn)

Sexual Coercion

The term “sexual coercion” refers to unwanted sexual activity that happens as the result of one of the parties being tricked or forced into engaging in sexual activity with the other person. When someone is subjected to sexual coercion, a person can be tricked into believing that they owe the other person sex. This can happen in situations where the person making the advance is an authority figure, like a teacher or boss.

Examples of sexual coercion include:

  • Being repeatedly asked for sex to the point where the person being asked finally just gives in to shut the other person up
  • Being told that things have already gone too far to just stop now
  • Being lied to, or made empty promises in exchange for having sex
  • An authority figure, like a boss or teacher, using his or her power over a person in order to convince that person to have sex with them
  • One party being threatened by the other with dire consequences if they don’t have sex (like “I’ll do something horrible to your family if you don’t give me what I want,” or “I’ll tell everyone you’re gay if you don’t have sex with me.”

If someone is sexually coerced, and then has sex with the person doing the coercing, it becomes a form of sexual assault. No one should feel forced into having sex. That is not a healthy relationship. Sexual contact should only be engaged in when both parties consent.

Coercion Theory

Coercion theory is the study of the development of aggressive and antisocial behaviors in children. Essentially, coercion theory refers to the endless cycle of aggression that develops in a child and is inadvertently fostered by his parents. The child exhibits aggressive behavior, and his parents have no idea how to control it.

So, they get frustrated and respond with aggression, which makes the child even more frustrated and aggressive. The child’s behavior then continues to escalate, and the parents’ frustration continues in kind, until the child is of school age and begins displaying these behaviors outside of the home as well.

A Coercion Example Involving School Prayer

An example of coercion that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court concerns the case of Lee v. Weisman, which was decided in 1992. This case involved Robert E. Lee – not the general but the principal of a school – invited a rabbi to come and give a speech at his middle school’s graduation ceremony. This was not out of the norm, as other middle and high schools in the Providence, Rhode Island area were doing the same thing.

One student’s father – Daniel Weisman – was offended when he found out the rabbi was scheduled to speak at his daughter’s school, and he filed for a restraining order with the District Court in an attempt to stop it. The court denied his request. The ceremony took place as scheduled, Weisman and his family attended, and the rabbi engaged the students in prayer.

After the ceremony, Weisman sought a permanent injunction in the hopes of banning Lee and other principals in the area from inviting members of the clergy to speak and engage students in prayer during graduation ceremonies in the future. The First Circuit Court of Appeals decided in Weisman’s favor. Now it was the school’s turn to appeal. The school applied for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the prayer was not related to a particular religion, and the students were not required to participate. The Court agreed to hear the case.

The issue for the Court to decide was whether the invitation of members of the clergy to speak at school graduation ceremonies was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause essentially says that state-run organizations, including schools, are prohibited from forcing their students to participate in religious activity.

The Court decided in a 5-to-4 vote that yes, by inviting members of the clergy to speak at school graduations, they were fostering “a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school.” It did not matter whether the prayers being said related to a specific religion. By encouraging the students to stand and remain quiet for the prayer, the students were being coerced into acting in such a way as to effectively establish a state religion.

Said the Court in its Decision:

“Petitioners’ argument that the option of not attending the ceremony excuses any inducement or coercion in the ceremony itself is rejected. In this society, high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions, and a student is not free to absent herself from the exercise in any real sense of the term ‘voluntary.’ Also not dispositive is the contention that prayers are an essential part of these ceremonies because for many persons the occasion would lack meaning without the recognition that human achievements cannot be understood apart from their spiritual essence. This position fails to acknowledge that what for many was a spiritual imperative was for the Weismans religious conformance compelled by the State. It also gives insufficient recognition to the real conflict of conscience faced by a student who would have to choose whether to miss graduation or conform to the state-sponsored practice, in an environment where the risk of compulsion is especially high.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.