Alice has a sensitive secret about Bob. She threatens Bob that if he does not act a certain way, she will reveal the secret. What is the most accurate term for Alice's coercion?

Blackmail is related to coercing money from the victim; here Alice desires Bob to behave differently than he otherwise would, so the term doesn't seem to fit.

Extortion is related to coercing personal property from the victim; again, the word doesn't seem to fit.

So what is the right word for coercing a behavior, choice, or action from someone?

In addition, when would such coercion cross the boundary of legality? (Surely I can withhold candy from a child in order for them to clean their room without fear of arrest.)

  • You could certainly fall foul of the law if you withheld food from an infant in order to get it to use a potty, for example. And by most children's definitions, "candy" is food, whatever nutritionists might say. That secondary question is definitely too subjective to be answered here. – FumbleFingers Nov 29 '11 at 23:22
  • Is blackmail necessarily about money? At least in popular usage, it is not so. Moreover, the term is in widespread use. So much so, to "withhold candy from a child ..." could qualify as blackmail today. – Kris Nov 30 '11 at 11:04

Actually, blackmail (when used as a verb) can be used to mean to force or coerce into a particular action. It is commonly used in this manner among many people here in Canada, but I can't speak for anywhere else in the world. I believe that blackmail is just fine. You could also use coercion.


I think the term emotional blackmail may be what you're looking for. As for the legality, I will leave that to someone with more legal knowledge.

  • I know I mentioned it in my own answer, but I'm not sure OP's example is necessarily emotional blackmail. If the secret were, for example, that Bob had stolen the office charity box, it would be just blackmail. If Bob were married to Alice's sister, but had a secret love-child by Alice - who was threatening to tell her sister - that would definitely be emotional blackmail in my book. – FumbleFingers Nov 29 '11 at 23:34

Firstly, blackmail isn't restricted to contexts where money changes hands (witness the increasingly common emotional blackmail).

Secondly, what's wrong with calling Alice's behaviour coercion anyway?

Thirdly, I don't think there's any particular word for intimidatory or coercive behaviour which is definitively either legal or not - context is everything, as they say.


I would not necessarily agree that the definition of blackmail is so narrow as to include only demands for monetary gain. I see no reason why your example could not be called either blackmail or coercion.

As for the boundary of legality, the Wikipedia entry for blackmail has an interesting section on the interpretation of the relevant British law, which defines the act thus:

A person is guilty of blackmail if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces;

It then goes on to add that a demand would not be considered unwarranted if the person making it does so in the belief:

(a) that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and

(b) that the use of the menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.

A parent's threat of withholding candy as a means to get a child to clean their room would certainly meet both of these criteria and would not be considered blackmail under law. Having said that I'm sure there are grey areas, although in a court of course it would come down to weight of evidence; a defendant may need to provide evidence that their demand was reasonable and proper in order to avoid conviction.


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