What do I need to know to support women whose partners have sexually assaulted them?

thoughtful young woman

Intimate partner sexual abuse/violence is poorly understood and under-recognized, both by the women who experience it and those who provide services to them. And yet, in Canada in 2011, 17% of sexual assault reported to the police were committed by current or former partners of the women making the report.

Sexual control/violence within an intimate relationship can look like many things, but at the core of all of it is a lack of consent on the part of the woman. The abusive spouse uses coercion – emotional, verbal, financial – and/or physical violence to get his partner to do what he wants.

What he wants can include:

  • Sexual activity on demand
  • Specific sexual acts, especially those that are degrading or painful
  • The partner’s participation in his use of pornography
  • Refusing to use a condom
  • Refusing to let his partner use birth control
  • Rape
  • Taking sexualized photos or videos of his partner
  • Constantly making sexually degrading comments and using sexualized language to talk with/about his partner
  • Sexual activity that includes physical violence
  • Sex in exchange for something the woman wants

Why it’s hard to talk about

Just as there are many kinds of sexual violence in intimate reasons, there are many reasons women find it hard to talk about.

One important reason is that it can be difficult in a long-term relationship to always understand the line between consent and non-consent, especially in a culture like ours that implies sex is a given part of a marriage or common-law relationship. This is even more true in relationships that involve other forms of coercive control and/or physical violence.

Many women have sex they don’t want and to which they have not consented just because it is easier (and for some women safer) than having a discussion about it or saying no. Women in this situation are unlikely to identify what has happened as a form of sexual violence, even though without their active consent, that is exactly what it is.

A man who refuses to let his partner use birth control, forces her to participate in his use of pornography or refers to her constantly using sexually degrading language is engaging in sexually coercive behaviour.

The same is true when a man uses sex as a “negotiating” tool when the woman wants something. For example, a woman’s former partner may have agreed to provide child support informally before a court order is in place, and then insists that the woman have sex with him or he won’t give her the money. Or, the partner won’t return the children from an informal access visit (no custody order in place yet) unless the woman has sex with him.

A man may use the threat of putting intimate photos of the woman online if she does not drop her family court proceeding for spousal support or if she does not agree to joint custody of the children.

However, these behaviours are not what our culture generally thinks of as abusive and, as a result, many women will minimize the seriousness of this behaviour or even deny that there is anything wrong with it at all. They may internalize their reaction to it, thinking the problem is because they are uptight or not sexually liberated or believing that they have consented because there was no physical force and they took the child support money.

There is a general social reluctance to acknowledge the reality of sexual violence within marriage and common-law relationships. (Remember, it has only been against the law in Canada for a man to rape his wife since 1983.) There has been a further isolation of the issue of sexual violence within intimate relationships by the siloing of sexual and domestic violence as though they are two separate entities that do not overlap and intersect. Where to place intimate partner sexual violence? In the sexual violence silo or in the domestic violence silo?

This social reluctance to acknowledge intimate partner sexual violence means that women who do disclose often face judgemental and unsupportive responses from friends, family members and even service providers (including police), who deny or minimize the woman’s experience.

The consequences of sexual coercion/violence in and after a long-term relationship can be both serious and long-term. Women who experience this form of violence report longer lasting trauma, higher levels of physical injury, higher incidences of multiple sexual assaults and are more likely to be killed by their intimate partner. Both their physical and mental health are affected. (The Learning Network, Issue 17, July 2016.)

Strategies for support

When you are supporting women who may have experienced sexual coercion/violence in their intimate relationships or after leaving them, be open to hearing about it. Don’t wait for the woman to bring it up. Include questions about the kinds of behaviours that we have identified above in your conversations about abuse and in any forms you use where you ask women to identify the kinds of abuse they have experienced.

Listen carefully to what is between the lines of what women are saying.

Be aware of the particular ways sexual coercion/violence can play themselves out after separation, especially in the first several months.

Be prepared to hear stories you may not want to hear or that take you outside your comfort zone.

Make sure you have information to share with women about reproductive and sexual safety when you are assisting them with safety plans. Connect with the sexual health service in your community to learn more and for take-away information you can give women.

If you don’t feel adequately prepared to manage disclosure of sexual coercion/violence, talk to your supervisor about training. This is a great opportunity to collaborate with the sexual assault or rape crisis centre in your community through joint knowledge development. Not only will this assist your client, it will help to break down those artificial silos within which women’s violence has been forced to live.

Sexual coercion/violence is a common reality in long-term intimate partner relationships. We need to be ready to respond to it with the women we serve.