Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence
This week is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week #SASVAW. Organisations that support survivors of abuse are sharing the important message that #ItsNotOk and to ALWAYS ensure you have consent. In this month’s blog post, author Sandra Reddish explains the life altering effects of sexual abuse and sexual violence on the victim-survivors.
“It wasn’t rape, I never refused, I wouldn’t dare do that.”
Like all forms of domestic abuse, sexual abuse is about power and control first – sexual gratification is a side issue. Throughout history, invading armies have sexually abused and raped women, children and men, intended as a highly effective means of dominating, humiliating and breaking down individuals to gain power and control. Sexual abuse in intimate relationships is also used to degrade, humiliate, crush, subjugate, violate and render submission 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.” (Brownmiller, 1975)
Why some men believe they have the right to sexually abuse
The historical context of sexual abuse goes a long way towards explaining why some men believe they are justified in abusing women’s bodies without any notion of the question of consent. Rape and sexual abuse in marriage only became unlawful in the UK in 1992. Prior to that, men could legally rape and perform forced sexual acts on unwilling wives who could do little to protect themselves. Men could claim their ‘conjugal rights’ – a term meaning rights to sexual intimacy within a marriage, which implies a lack of requirement to obtain consent. Decades after the law was changed, some people still believe that non-consensual intercourse is not unlawful in the context of a long-term relationship.
Sexual activities do not need to be unlawful to be abusive; women have suffered for centuries because unwanted sexual acts have been forced upon them in intimate relationships. The fact that they had no protection in law arguably made their experiences worse – their feelings of horror, degradation and violation were completely invalidated by society. Being told to ‘lie back and think of England’ was a phrase commonly used to suggest to women that their duty was to make themselves sexually available to men, even when they didn’t want intimacy. Many women still feel duty bound to make themselves sexually available to their partner. It’s common for women to feel obliged to offer an excuse when they don’t want sexual intimacy. It shouldn’t be necessary for them to use the excuse of a headache or tiredness, a simple ‘no’ should suffice.
Although sexual abuse in intimate relationships has always existed, aspects of its nature has changed in recent times, largely due to technological developments. ‘Revenge porn’ is a very disturbing development riding on the back of ‘smart’ technology. Private sexual photographs or videos are shared without consent, to cause distress to the subject of the photograph. This form of abuse is now frighteningly common and is a gendered crime with women constituting 90% of all victims. He may deliberately take images of his intimate partner early in the relationship, so he has material to manipulate and threaten her as and when he decides to. Obtaining a naked or next-to-naked picture of another person gives you power over them. (Penny, 2015) Educating women about the risks of making themselves vulnerable by allowing the images to be taken is not always helpful and it also constitutes victim blaming! These images are often taken covertly in the bedroom or bathroom with hidden cameras. Technology is a powerful weapon in the abusive man’s arsenal.
“I stayed in the relationship for a year longer because of his threats of revenge porn if I left. In the end, I couldn’t take it any longer and told him to do his worst – he didn’t do it, but for the year, he controlled me with the fear of it.” (Survivor)
Stealthing – A Form Of Rape
‘Stealthing’ is an act of non-consensual condom removal during sex. Although condoms have been in common use for decades, this act was first discussed in 2017 by Alexandra Brodsky in The Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, (2017). 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 sexually transmitted diseases. It violates the sexual and reproductive rights of women. The reason behind the condom removal is not so much to increase sexual pleasure, but is justified by men who practise it as a male right – a selfish act of power and control, the perpetrator feeling entitled to his partner’s body, contempt for women and the belief in male sexual supremacy. 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 imprisonment. Despite this, few convictions for this form of rape are secured and many women would not name this behaviour as rape.
Coercion To Comply With Harmful Or Degrading Sex Acts
Abusive men may coerce women to agree to engage in dangerous or degrading sex acts. Due to the nature of the control they hold over their partners, women may not feel they have a free choice to refuse. Sex toys such as whips that inflict injury may be used, women may be coerced into having sex with strangers or their partner’s friend, they might be persuaded to engaging in ‘dogging’ – having sex in a public place while others watch. There is no judgement here about the type of sexual behaviour women involve themselves in, the point is that many women living with abusive partners, do not have a free choice to refuse.
If women reported intimate injuries, terms including ‘sex games’ or ‘rough sex’ had sometimes been used as an excuse in British 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. This form of sex has been normalised with the popularity of the films and the books in the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ series. (James, 2012) The ‘rough sex’ defence was not officially a defence in law, but juries understood it and murder charges have been dropped in favour of manslaughter charges. However, the new Domestic Abuse Act 2021 includes an amendment invalidating this defence when the victim suffers serious harm or is killed.
Non-fatal strangulation is the non-fatal application of pressure on the neck whether gently or with some force which can obstruct or compress the airways or blood flow. This act may be inflicted on women by abusive partners at any time, but often during sex. This horrifying act might be more difficult for men to justify when it happens outside of the bedroom, but when it occurs during sex, he may justify it as an act that heightens sexual desire for both of them, although this is rarely the case. Women may be less likely to name this act as abusive when it is passed off as merely a sex act. It is a terrifying act that often makes women fear death, but it tends to leave few signs of injury and has historically been punishable only as common assault. Strangulation is second only to stabbing as a cause of death in domestic murders, therefore it is seen as a ‘red flag’ for domestic murder. In the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, non-fatal strangulation has become an offence in its own right, giving women a level of protection they didn’t previously have.
In rough sex, stealthing, non-consensual strangulation and revenge porn, women are subjected to serious sexual violations, often at the hands of a man they know, trust and even love.
Abusive Withdrawal Of Intimacy
Sexual abuse is not always physical. It sometimes takes the form of the withdrawal of sexual and physical intimacy. This form of abuse can be crushing for women and is designed to be so, it’s a form of passive aggression and a more covert form of abuse. Physical rejection of an intimate partner can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. He may express revulsion about his partner’s body and disgust if she comes near him. He might claim she smells or that her vagina is too loose to please him. He might lie on the edge of the bed as if disgusted by her proximity to him. This type of abuse can have a devastating effect on her sense of self-worth. This type of sexual cruelty may not be identified by survivors or others as sexual abuse, meaning that their experience of abuse is often invalidated.
“I never would have called it sexual abuse because he wouldn’t touch me, he looked disgusted if he saw me naked. I internalised his disgust and felt terrible about my body, about myself.” (Survivor)
Abusive Demands For Sex
More often, sexual abuse takes the form of insensitive demands for sex without regard for the woman’s wishes. She will commonly acquiesce to these demands because to do so may be the safest option. She may also believe it’s her duty to submit to him. Sexual abuse is always accompanied by other forms of abuse and will never be a feature of an otherwise happy relationship. She will make careful choices based on damage limitation, always mindful of her safety and doing what’s required to avert an escalation of his abuse. If she refuses sexual demands, she may be raped. If not raped, she may be subjected to name-calling or accusations that she’s ‘frigid’, or her lack of interest cited as evidence that she’s having an affair. Sometimes women are required to perform sexual acts to buy themselves privileges; they may be expected to pay with 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. Alcohol or drugs may be forced upon women to manipulate them into engaging in sexual acts they would otherwise refuse to perform. Abusive demands for sex can be made too soon after childbirth, during illness, or during menstruation. The perpetrator being completely insensitive to the feelings of the survivor.
Survivors of domestic abuse may be raped in their intimate relationship but fail to acknowledge that their experience constitutes rape. Unacknowledged rape can be defined as “an experience that meets the hallmarks of rape or assault but is not labelled as such by the victim. Instead, terms like ‘misunderstanding’, a ‘hook-up gone wrong’ and ‘grey area’ are used.” (Thompson, 2021) Thompson suggests that when rape is perpetrated by someone we know and love, it can be difficult to identify sexual violence when it’s actually happening to you.
In my experience supporting women, unacknowledged rape is very common. The realisation that they are enduring rape can be difficult for some women to comprehend and process, so they often deny the reality to themselves.
Using Sex To Help Perpetuate Coercive Control
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Brodsky, Alexandra (2017) Rape – Adjacent: Imagining Legal Responses to Non-consensual Condom Removal Columbia Journal of Gender and Law Vol. 32, No. 2: New York
Brownmiller, Susan (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape Secker and Warburg: London
James, E L (2012) Fifty Shades of Grey Arrow: London
Penny, Laurie (2015) Unspeakable Things. Sex, Lies and Revolution Bloomsbury: London
Thompson, Rachel (2021) Rough: How violence has found its way into the bedroom Penguin, Random House: London
Written by Sandra Reddish
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This week is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week #SASVAW. Organisations that support survivors of abuse are sharing the important message that #ItsNotOk and to ALWAYS ensure you have consent. In this month’s blog post, author Sandra Reddish explains the life altering effects of sexual abuse and sexual violence on the victim-survivors. “It wasn’t … Continue reading Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence