According to the dictionary, the definition of rape is the following:

Unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person's will or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.

My question focuses around the usage of the term "forcibly". In this context, is "use of force" and "use of physical force" synonyms? Are there any other notable instances of non-physical force in the legal system? Be advised that my question is not about sexual assault - that was just an offhand example of a violent crime.

  • 4
    I'd be careful with the phrasing "the dictionary", since it implies there is a singular authoritative source for the definitions of words. It can be highly insightful in reading a judge's ruling on just what dictionary they use and why.
    – Alan
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 18:31

2 Answers 2


No and yes respectively

Force in general refers to acting under a compulsion. Physical force is specific that the compulsion arises from violence or physical power.

Examples of non-physical force include:

  • Legal obligation: the witness was forced to answer the question.
  • Blackmail: the victim was forced to pay the ransom to the hacker.
  • Contractural: after his car fell in the river, he was still forced to make the payments.
  • Ethical: despite vowing to never have children the tragic death of her brother forced her into the unexpected role of mother to her niece and nephew.

"Force" may figure into the writing of laws. An example is in RCW 9A.44.010, a component of Washington's rape law. It defines "forcible compulsion" as

physical force which overcomes resistance, or a threat, express or implied, that places a person in fear of death or physical injury to herself or himself or another person, or in fear that she or he or another person will be kidnapped.

The first part limits "forcible compulsion" to a subtype of physical force. Threats are not claimed to be a kind of force, instead, the law puts together actual physical force (not all types of actual force), but also threats (promises of future force).

There is a later provision regarding remote testimony by child applicable to distress "if forced to testify in front of the defendant", where "force" is defined, but is understood to mean "is legally compelled" – and it is also understood that physical force is how the law enforces legal requirements. Washington law handles the matter by replacing the broad physical concept "force" with a legal expression that identifies a subtype of force (that which overcomes resistance). That way, speaking to a person (where measurable acoustic force is applied to someone) remains legal.

On the other hand, "force" is used other parts of Washington's criminal law, in RCW 9a.16 (for instance "The use, attempt, or offer to use force upon or toward the person of another is not unlawful in the following cases"), and is not defined (therefore one would have to look it up in a dictionary, or in case law). However, the various laws are stated in such a way that things that could be metaphorically called "non-physical force" (threats) are joined with actually-implemented physical force. You would find different wording in a law that prohibited using an economic advantage, typically via the concept of "threat".

The Wiki article on force in law cited a definition of "force" from the Indian penal code:

A person is said to use force to another if he causes motion, change of motion, or cessation of motion to that other, or if he causes to any substance such motion, or change of motion, or cessation of motion as brings that substance into contact with any part of that other's body, or with anything which that other is wearing or carrying, or with anything so situated that such contact affects that other's sense of feeling: Provided that the person causing the motion, or change of motion, or cessation of motion, causes that motion, change of motion, or cessation of motion in one of the three ways hereinafter described. (First) — By his own bodily power. (Secondly) —By disposing any substance in such a manner that the motion or change or cessation of motion takes place without any further act on his part, or on the part of any other person. (Thirdly) — By inducing any animal to move, to change its motion, or to cease to move.

  • What about economic incentives? (i.e. "Sleep with me or else I will hire another actress to play the role") Do laws usually define a form of "economic force" or is that something different altogether?
    – AlanSTACK
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 16:46
  • No, instead a law would say what kind of transactions are forbidden. Some people see anti-monopoly laws as being about "economic force", but that isn't how the laws are written. Instead, you can't gain "excess" control over a market, and it's not reduced to a question of "forcing" people to buy goods.
    – user6726
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .