Intimate Partner Sexual Violence

By Amy Thomson

When many people hear about sexual violence, they often assume that the perpetrator was a stranger. They may picture dark alleys and sinister figures lurking in the shadows. Even though 30% of sexual assault victims are attacked by strangers, the circumstances around each assault vary widely. Victims and survivors of sexual assault are often blamed for what happens to them and face a difficult path to move forward regardless of whether or not they report the crime.

The other 70% of survivors were victimized by someone they know, and it is estimated that about 25% of victims are raped or sexually abused by an intimate partner or spouse. (Marital rape, which some dispute exists, is a common occurrence in domestic violence.) Despite the prevalence of sexual violence in romantic relationships, many are often shocked or refuse to believe that it occurs.

Sexual abuse and rape are used in combination with other methods of abuse in intimate partner relationships in several ways. As with any of the other types of abuse, sexual violence is commonly used to control and regulate the behavior of the victim.

Abusers often use sexual abuse to claim ownership of the victim in the most intimate context of the relationship. Because the abuser views a victim as their property, they exact total control of intimacy in the relationship and how it occurs. With no respect for the boundaries and needs of the victim, abusers reject the idea of consent and expect their partner will allow them to do what they want regardless of how they feel. As such, the abuser will guilt their partner into intimacy, pressure them to do things they are not comfortable with, and make demeaning comments that cause their partner to modify their behavior out of shame.

Another way abusers use sexual abuse and violence against their victims is regulating their behavior by punishment and humiliation. If an abuser feels a victim has attempted to voice any needs or is non-compliant to their demands, they use rape or sexual abuse to bring the victim back under their control and remind them who holds power in the relationship.

It is not uncommon for an abuser to force their partner into something humiliating to keep them silent about what is occurring in the relationship. If the victim tries to disclose the abuse, their abuser would reveal this to friends, family, and possibly coworkers to shame their partner and damage their reputation. Faced with this possibility, many victims choose to keep silent abuse the abuse they endure.  

Ways Sexual Abuse and Assault is Used to Control the Victim by Their Abuser

Comparing You to Previous Partners to Humiliate or Hurt You – While some may view this as emotional abuse, it constitutes sexual abuse as it is used with intent to shame or hurt and condition you to modify your behavior to please your partner. (Ie, changing your body – implants or weight loss – or your behavior to make them happy)

Taking Away Reproductive Choices – Some abusers will sabotage their partner’s choice to use contraception. Use of contraception can be denied with the intent of causing pregnancy. In other cases, an abuser may force the victim to have an abortion, have their tubes tied, or deliberately induce a miscarriage by assault.

Withholding Intimacy as a Punishment – Abusers often withhold intimacy to punish their partner for a perceived transgression or to cause emotional distress so painful the victim gives in to their abuser’s demands to end the hurtful behavior. There are some cases where the abuser might also combine withholding of intimacy with their partner with showing increased attention to other people.

Using Rape as a Form of Punishment – There are some who try to minimize rape in committed relationships as a loss of control or being overcome with an attraction for their partner. However, rape is not about sexual pleasure or lust. It is about control. Use of rape under any circumstance is a show of power. Abusers often use rape when their partner denies them, whether the denial is not consenting to intimacy or not doing something they were told to do.

Pressuring You to Engage in Activities You Do Not Consent to – An abuser may try to talk to you into engaging in risky sexual behaviors, participating in sexual acts with others, or doing things you are not comfortable with. They may use guilt trips, intimidation, or overstepping boundaries a little at a time.

Secretly Photographing or Recording Intimate Acts Without Your Knowledge and Sharing with Others – Regardless of whether or not you choose to be recorded or photographed knowingly, it can be shown to others without your knowledge.

Posting Revenge Porn – This commonly occurs when a victim leaves (or attempts to leave) their abuser. Because their power is being challenged and they have lost control, abusers often retaliate. If they have any intimate pictures or video of you, they may publish it online to shame you and damage your reputation. The same images and video can also be shared via text messaging or email to family, friends, or coworkers.

Using Your Past Sexual History Against You in Arguments to Shame You – Abusers often use things we share with them against us on arguments, and past sexual history is one of them. Whether it is a choice we made with a previous partner or a lifestyle we had when we were younger, abusers can be quick to throw it back in our face during arguments to hurt us.

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