The temporal coincidence between rapid late Pleistocene sea-level rise and large-scale slope failures is widely documented. Nevertheless, the physical mechanisms that link these phenomena are poorly understood, particularly along nonglaciated margins. Here we investigate the causal relationships between rapid sea-level rise, flexural stress loading, and increased seismicity rates along passive margins. We find that Coulomb failure stress across fault systems of passive continental margins may have increased more than 1 MPa during rapid late Pleistocene–early Holocene sea-level rise, an amount sufficient to trigger fault reactivation and rupture. These results suggest that sea-level–modulated seismicity may have contributed to a number of poorly understood but widely observed phenomena, including (1) increased frequency of large-scale submarine landslides during rapid, late Pleistocene sea-level rise; (2) emplacement of coarse-grained mass transport deposits on deep-sea fans during the early stages of marine transgression; and (3) the unroofing and release of methane gas sequestered in continental slope sediments.