Domestic violence (DV) is not a new phenomenon. Individuals are generally aware that when one person in an intimate relationship uses tactics to control the other partner in the relationship (physical abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, stalking, etc.), it is considered DV or intimate partner violence (IPV).
However, when people think of sexual abuse they typically think of a vulnerable child being violated. Sometimes they think of a predator jumping out of the bushes and assaulting an unsuspecting victim. They rarely think about sexual abuse within the confines of an intimate relationship. But sexual abuse by intimate partners is far more prevalent than most people realize.
It can be a tactic used as a means to gain and exert power and control in a relationship that is already unhealthy and experiencing domestic violence. While sexual abuse may accompany other forms of violence in some relationships, in other relationships it may be the only form of violence.
Sexual abuse in intimate relationships often encompasses coercing, frightening, pressuring, or manipulating a partner to participate in or perform sexual actions that could include but are not restricted to:
- sexual control and observation, for example telling a partner what to wear and checking their underwear for signs of a sexual encounter
- unwelcome sexual fondling
- forcing a partner to watch pornography
- making a partner be naked when they are uncomfortable with that or unwilling
- forced intercourse of any kind
- humiliating or degrading a partner sexually
- not allowing a partner to practice safer sex or otherwise sabotaging birth control methods
Studies show that between 50 and 75 percent of women who experience physical abuse in a relationship also experience sexual abuse from that same partner. Also, in the United States greater than 50 percent of women survivors of rape and greater than 75 percent of women survivors of sexual pressuring conveyed that the offender was a past or present intimate partner. There is also an acknowledgement that these numbers are grossly under reported. Likewise, prevalence among male victims is largely underreported.
There are unique dynamics that exist and must be considered when examining sexual abuse. Several cultures do not subscribe to the belief that forced sex acts in intimate relationships constitute rape. Gender role stereotypes can be harmful for survivors and lead to underreporting, lack of advocacy, and further violence.
Safety is paramount and safety planning may lead to more positive outcomes for survivors. Here are several tips that could ensure greater safety when one is experiencing sexual assault in an intimate relationship:
- Have essential phone numbers close
- Decide if you have friends you can safely tell about what you are experiencing. Try to create a code word that will alert them to call the police
- Review your plan from time to time
- You may not want to leave your relationship and that is ok. However, come up with a plan to leave the house in the event of an emergency (pretend to walk the dog, take the trash out)
- Seek counseling when and if it is safe and you choose to do so
The following resources provide further pertinent information:
U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233