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Sexual Consent and Coercion

September 23, 2018
By Whitney Helm

[Crom] David Boonin 

The issue of sexual coercion is an important topic, particularly on college campuses. This year’s Crom Philosopher David Boonin will explore the subject during his keynote lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 7:30 p.m. in Moore Lounge.

Boonin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado-Boulder and director of the department’s Center for Values and Social Policy. His research is on applied ethics, which he described as “the philosophy where we we apply the techniques of philosophical thinking to some bearing on people’s lives.”

His keynote "Sexual Consent and Non-Physical Coercion" will present and defend a general account of coercion and then use that account to help answer the questions raised by cases of non-physical coercion. 

Suppose Pat threatens to inflict significant physical harm on Kris unless Kris agrees to have sex with Pat. Kris says yes to having sex with Pat because of this threat, and Pat then has sex with Kris. In this case, it seems clear that Pat is guilty of having sex with Kris without Kris’s valid consent. But suppose instead that Pat threatens to inflict significant emotional harm on Kris unless Kris agrees to have sex with Pat. Suppose, for example, Pat says, “If you don’t have sex with me, I will break up with you,” or “I will kill myself,” or “I will relentlessly continue pestering you for sex,” or “I will reveal an extremely embarrassing secret of yours,” or “I will post nude photos of you on the internet.”

Cases of this sort are sometimes referred to as cases of non-physical coercion. If Kris really doesn’t want to have sex with Pat but gives in and says yes to having sex with Pat in response to threats of this sort, has Kris given valid consent to having sex? The answer in such cases seems less clear,” writes Boonin in the abstract for his keynote.


Boonin began his exploration into the topic after teaching a class on sexual ethics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. After the class, Boonin says that issues surrounding consent produced the most meaningful discussions. “In all the cases where someone says yes to sex, the circumstances surrounding the “yes” make it plausible that [the yes] doesn’t count as valid consent,” he says.

 The Crom program, named for the late Beloit College philosophy professor Scott Crom, brings  a distinguished and influential philosopher to campus for two days of talks, classroom visits, and lectures each year.