Sexual Abuse in Intimate Relationships
Please be aware this blog post contains details that you may find upsetting. If you have been a victim of sexual abuse, please either contact us on 01773 719 111, The Topaz Centre on 0800 085 9993, Nottinghamshire Sexual Violence Support Services helpline on 0115 941 0440
Sexual Abuse in Intimate Relationships
As with all forms of domestic abuse, sexual abuse is about power and control first – sexual gratification is a side issue.
Throughout history and in the current day, there have been instances where invading armies have sexually abused and raped women, children, and men. It is a highly effective means of dominating, humiliating, and breaking down in order to gain power and control. Sexual abuse in intimate relationships is also used to degrade, humiliate, crush, subjugate, violate and render submissive so that power and control can easily be exerted.
Because of the highly intimate nature of sexual abuse, its impact is particularly devastating for the survivor.
“Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe,” Susan Brownmiller
There is a historical context to sexual abuse that goes a long way in explaining why men believe it is justified to abuse women’s bodies without any notion of the question of consent. Sexual abuse in marriage only became unlawful in 1992, prior to that, men could legally rape and perform forced sexual acts on unwilling wives who could do little to protect themselves. This is shocking enough, however there is a prevailing common belief that rape is not unlawful in the context of a long-term relationship. This shows it takes decades for beliefs to change despite changes in the law.
Sexual activities do not need to be unlawful to be abusive, and women have suffered for centuries having unwanted sexual acts forced upon them in intimate relationships. The fact they had no protection in law arguably made their experiences worse – their feelings of horror, degradation and violation completely invalidated by society. Being told to lie back and think of England was a phrase commonly use to suggest to women their duty was to make themselves sexually available to men even when they didn’t want intimacy.
Although sexual abuse in intimate relationships has been happening for centuries, its nature has changed in recent times, largely due to advances in technology.
Mobile phones have become more ‘intelligent’ with cameras now as standard. Revenge porn is a recent and very disturbing development riding on the back of smart technology.
It is when private sexual photographs or videos are shared without consent and with the intention of causing distress to the subject of the photograph. This form of abuse is now frighteningly common, and it is a gendered crime with women constituting 90% of all victims.
Abusive men will sometimes deliberately take images of their intimate partner early in the relationship, so they have material to manipulate and threaten her with as and when it is needed. Educating women about the risks of making themselves vulnerable by allowing the images to be taken is not always helpful. It is not uncommon for these images to be taken covertly in the bedroom or bathroom with the use of hidden cameras. Smart technology is powerful weapon in the abusive man’s arsenal.
Stealthing is an act of non-consensual condom removal during sex. Although condoms have been in common use for decades, this phenomenon was first discussed in 2017 by Alexandra Brodsky in ‘The Columbia Journal of Gender and Law’.
It is considered a sexual assault or rape because the condom removal is without consent and the consent to intercourse was conditional on its use. Stealthing sometimes has devastating consequences including unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
The reason behind the condom removal is not to increase sexual pleasure, rather it is justified by men who practice it as a male right – a selfish act of power and control, the perpetrator feeling entitled to his partner’s body – it’s roots lie in misogyny and the notion of male sexual supremacy. This is known because men discuss this crime on internet sites such as Reddit.
In 2019, Lee Hogben was convicted of rape after stealthing a woman in a hotel room and was sentenced to 12 years imprison. Despite this, there have been few convictions for this form of rape and worryingly stealthing appears to be on the increase.
Objects such as bottles and sex toys are used by abusive men to deliberately inflict injury in intimate situations. Women are less likely to report intimate injuries to the police so abusive men are more likely to get away with this form of abuse. If this abuse is reported, ‘sex games’ or ‘rough sex’ has sometimes been used as an excuse in UK courts by abusive men to justify causing serious injuries to women.
‘Rough sex gone wrong’ has even been used to explain deaths of intimate partners.
Abusive men have often claimed their partner consented to violence for sexual gratification in BDSM style sex. There has been a normalisation of this form of sex with the popularity of the films and book ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’.
The ‘rough sex’ defence was not officially a defence in law, but juries related to it and murder charges have been dropped in favour of manslaughter. In 2016, Natalie Connolly was killed by her boyfriend John Broadhurst after he caused 40 separate injuries. He said her death was due to a sex game gone wrong and on the judge’s direction, the murder charge was dropped, and he pleaded to manslaughter by gross negligence for failing to seek medical help. Thankfully, the new Domestic Abuse Bill includes an amendment invalidating this defence when the victim suffers serious harm or is killed.
“Most men fear getting laughed at or humiliated by a romantic prospect while most women fear rape and death”. Gavin de Becker
Non-consensual strangulation is also inflicted on women by domestic abusers during sex. This is a terrifying act that makes women fear death, but it tends to leave little injury and has historically been punishable only as common assault. Strangulation is second only to stabbing as a cause of death in domestic murders and as such is seen as a ‘red flag’ for domestic murder.
In the Domestic Abuse Bill, non-fatal strangulation has become an offence in its own right, giving women a level of protection they previously didn’t have.
Sexual abuse is not always physical. It sometimes takes the form of the withdrawal of sexual and physical intimacy.
Rejection of an intimate partner physically can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. Men will often express revulsion of their partner’s body. This expression of disgust is often focused on the woman’s vagina. Complaints are often focused on its size. He might claim her vagina is too loose to please him. Men will sometimes unfavourably compare women’s bodies to those of porn stars. This type of abuse can have a devastating effect on women’s sense of self.
More often, sexual abuse takes the form of insensitive demands for sex without regard for the woman’s wishes. Women will commonly acquiesce to these demands because to do so might be the safest option.
Sexual abuse is always accompanied by other forms of abuse, it will never be a feature in an otherwise happy relationship. Women will make careful choices based on damage limitation, always mindful of their safety and doing what’s required to avert an escalation of abuse.
If women refuse sexual demands, they may be raped. If not raped they may be subjected to name calling, accusations that they’re frigid, or their lack of interest cited as evidence that they’re having an affair.
Sometimes women are required to perform sexual acts to buy themselves privileges – they might be expected to pay in sex to be allowed out of the house to go to work. Women might be required to perform oral sex before being allowed out of the car to purchase food for the family.
Sexual abuse can encompass physical abuse, emotional abuse, coercive control and financial abuse (forcing prostitution).
Because of its intimate nature, it has a devastating impact on the survivor’s mental health.
Physically, it can be particularly dangerous as injuries are often inflicted internally and strangulation can be a feature. Survivors are less likely to report this type of abuse and when they do, they are often subjected by the police and judicial system to the most in-depth intrusion of their sexual history. When men want to control women, sexual abuse is a highly effective strategy. So long as society tells men they should hold the power and control in a relationship and treat women as their property, sexual abuse in intimate relationships will persist.