CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual violence and assault, abuse and harassment, as well as the effects of this trauma on mental health.
What are the common factors behind the sexual violence many women are subjected to in their intimate relationships?
In the vast majority of cases, the victims are women and the perpetrators men.
It encompasses a full spectrum of behaviours from rape and violent sexual assault, through to more subtle behaviours such as coercion, threats, blackmail and emotional manipulation to obtain sex.
For those subjected to the abuse, it has been linked to a wide range of mental and physical harms including gynaecological problems, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
Yet, IPSV isn’t well understood.
At the policy level, it tends to get cobbled together with domestic violence more generally, or with sexual assault by strangers.
We know a little bit about why men perpetrate these other types of violence and how broader social structures can further exacerbate them.
However, my research suggests the dynamics of IPSV, and the factors linked to it, may be different from either stranger sexual assault, or the physical or psychological violence perpetrated by a partner.
In particular, misconceptions that “real rape” doesn’t or can’t happen within an intimate relationship, and that certain relationship dynamics can facilitate a sexual power imbalance, both feature as factors when I speak with victims and survivors of IPSV.
Based on interviews with 38 victims and survivors involved in the Australian Research Council-funded Beyond Silence project, I developed an ‘ecological model’ of the background factors that might contribute to IPSV.
An ecological model looks at these factors across a number of levels – societal, community, relationship and individual (both for the victim and the perpetrator). Looking at a problem in this way can help to better target prevention and develop interventions more effectively.
At the individual level, over a third of the women mentioned that they had a previous history of sexual assault, child abuse or family violence. This led many of them to have poor self-esteem and they often couldn’t recognise a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy sexual one.
This lack of knowledge was exploited by the perpetrator and used as a way to convince them that what was happening in their relationship was “normal”.
Related to this, over half the participants had entered into the abusive relationship when they were very young, often with a large age gap between themselves and the perpetrator.
This set up a dynamic where the perpetrator was the source of sexual knowledge and responsible for “setting the standard”.
In terms of the perpetrator’s individual motivation, many of the women perceived that their partner felt entitled to sex whenever he felt like it.
One participant recounted how she woke to find her husband digitally penetrating her.
“I woke up, I don’t know what time of the morning, or night, that it was. My husband had his fingers in my vagina, so it was sexual penetration and I had to actually push him off and he tried to sort of just go, ‘There, there, it’s okay, it’s fine’.”
Some participants felt that their partner was compensating for a fragile sense of masculinity and needed to demonstrate his “manhood” and control in the relationship through sexual violence.
At the relationship level, almost all the participants described a context of psychological or emotional abuse or controlling behaviour that coincided with, and overlapped, the sexual violence.
Many of the women’s’ partners used psychological tactics to tear down their self-worth, rendering them increasingly incapable of resisting sexual violence.
More broadly within the community, women spoke of their isolation – either physical or emotional.
Many were estranged from their families or lived far away from them. This meant that they were often reliant on the perpetrator for financial and emotional support – or both.
Similarly, women who had children felt trapped in the relationship and were reluctant to leave for fear of repercussions. Though some women had good friends to support them, they often felt unable to disclose the IPSV due to taboos around discussing one’s sex life.
As one woman told the study: “I think that women’s sexuality in general is still not a topic that is socially acceptable to talk about very much. So that makes it hard.”
Even specialist domestic violence services within the community were perceived as uncomfortable talking about the topic of IPSV. Women felt that services would ask about physical, financial or psychological abuse, but avoid talking about sexual violence.
At the societal level, the women felt there was still significant social pressure on them to sexually service men.
They felt obliged to “give” their partner sex and to try harder to be more sexually available and enthusiastic. This idea, they said, was bolstered by messages received from pornography and other media, but also from more “reputable” sources, like popular science.
Several participants mentioned their partner quoting the often-repeated myth that men “need” to have sex as justification for their abusive behaviour.
“I’d always thought I was sort of obliged to at least give a blow job if I didn’t actually have sex. That was probably something my first boyfriend put on me as well, not to mention society. It’s – the grooming probably comes from everywhere,” said one woman.
Lastly, there was a perception that society’s image of a “real rapist” as a predatory stranger doesn’t match with the experience of a survivor of IPSV.
As we have seen with recent media coverage of the alleged sexual assaults in the Federal Parliament, community outrage can be swift and loud when violence occurs in the public sphere.
But when sexual violence occurs in the privacy of one’s own home and within the confines of an intimate relationship, it seems much harder for people to understand.
As one participant put it:
“It’s a really grey area ... you know, sexual abuse. Especially if you’re actually in a partnership. Because you don’t know what is okay and what’s not okay in terms of sex in a partnership.”
My research suggests that IPSV has some risk factors that overlap with domestic violence, some that overlap with sexual assault by strangers, and some that are unique.
It’s critical that we understand these factors in order to improve responses to IPSV.
Some key improvements that could be made based on the findings of this research include encouraging behaviour change programs to tackle men’s sense of entitlement to sex in relationships, and addressing myths about the male sex drive discourse in educational programs for adolescents and young people.
We should also ensure that service providers feel comfortable to ask about sexual issues when seeing clients experiencing other types of violence.
As a society, we need to talk more about what a healthy sexual relationship looks like – these discussions aren’t just for young people, but for everyone.