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.
Allana* had just moved in with her boyfriend.
Five months pregnant and exhausted from cleaning, sorting, unpacking and looking after her boyfriend’s two other children, she told him she was too tired to have sex.
Her boyfriend’s response was to hold her down and rape her. Shocked and horrified, Allana lay frozen and silent until he rolled off.
“If I had left the next morning,” she said, “I could have found another place to live. But I didn’t. I thought, I will change him. I will make it better. I will make him see that this is not the way you deal with me.”
Allana’s story is one of many told to me as part of my Australian Research Council-funded Beyond Silence project, which aims to understand women’s experiences of Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (IPSV).
It demonstrates the complexity of the issue when women are sexually abused by an intimate partner.
On the one hand, victims of IPSV – the overwhelming majority of whom are women – experience sexual abuse that can be coercive, painful, distressing, violent and degrading.
But on the other hand, these women are heavily invested in their relationship, often with children, mortgages and pets.
Admitting to yourself then that your partner is a rapist is no easy feat.
IPSV – defined as any sexual behaviour perpetrated against a person’s will by an intimate partner – is estimated to affect almost one in every ten Australian women (if not more).
It’s an incredibly harmful form of violence. But, despite this, it’s critically under-researched and poorly understood within the community. We have only to consider that before 1984 it was legal in Australia for a man to rape his wife.
As with all forms of intimate partner violence, one of the main questions many people ask is; “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
However, sexual violence, more so than other types of abuse in relationships, is often difficult to identify – even for the victim.
One reason why this is the case has emerged from my recent research speaking with 38 victims and survivors of IPSV and now published in the Journal of Family Violence.
I learned that these women put an enormous amount of effort into convincing themselves that they weren’t experiencing abuse. There’s a term for this type of emotional struggle – or emotion work – which was coined by American sociologist, Professor Arlie Hochschild, in the Seventies to describe the unseen labour of keeping people happy in the workplace setting.
Subsequent research has shown that emotion work happens in intimate relationships too. Mostly, it is women who undertake it.
Professor Hochschild describes two main types of emotion work: “surface acting” is where the person fakes an emotional response for someone else’s benefit without actually feeling it; “deep acting” is where a person convinces not only others, but themselves that they are feeling a particular way.
For the women in Beyond Silence, there were three main phases of emotion work which loosely corresponded to their level of awareness of the IPSV.
At the beginning, when IPSV first occurred in their relationships, the women convinced themselves that they were having “relationship problems” or “sexual issues”. They hoped that things would change for the better if they only worked harder at improving their sex lives.
They also felt protective of their partner’s feelings, not wanting to admit that they were uncomfortable or distressed by what was happening.
As Ciara* explained to me:
“I [didn’t say] to him, “I don’t like it when you pin me down and masturbate on me”, because I didn’t want to put him under that pressure, I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about what had gone on.
“I wanted to make him feel that it was okay, that if he wanted to do things, we could talk about them.”
In a classic example of “deep acting”, many of the women blamed themselves and convinced themselves they had a libido problem. They mentioned the pressure they felt to align their actual feelings about sex in their relationship with what they thought they “should” be feeling.
Another participant, Frieda*, described how she blamed herself for being “too straight and narrow”.
She told me:
“I suppose in a way it was easier to do that than to accept what he was doing. It was easier to blame myself. Because if I didn’t blame myself then I had to go into all of those scary words of what he was doing to me. That felt harder to do and so it was easier to accept the blame.”
As time went on and the IPSV got worse, many women began to realise that what was happening in their relationship was unhealthy. They began to undertake more “surface acting”, pretending that they were enjoying their partner’s sexual behaviour in order to avoid upsetting him, or worse, bringing further emotional or physical abuse upon themselves.
As Helena* explained:
“If I didn’t make out that I enjoyed it, then he would be grumpy … I’d have to deal with him [sulking] and then I would have to do something even worse to make him not upset.”
At the same time, despite being distressed and anxious, many women tried to minimise what was happening. They told themselves it “wasn’t that bad”, often because they weren’t yet ready to admit to themselves that they were being sexually abused.
“He loved me,” participant Kayleigh* told me. “Of course he didn’t mean anything by it. It wasn’t like he was, you know, raping me – even though I’d said ‘No’, it’s not like I didn’t consent originally.”
Eventually, most of the women reached a point where they could no longer deny to themselves that they were experiencing IPSV.
However, by this point many were feeling so unsafe and fearful that they weren’t prepared to risk an argument or trigger physical violence by denying their partner what he wanted sexually.
Instead, they carefully “managed” their partner’s emotions and detached themselves emotionally from what was going on in order to protect themselves.
My research highlights the challenges for health services in responding to IPSV. After all, how can we help women earlier if they don’t even realise they’re being abused?
For one thing, if other forms of violence are disclosed, it’s critical that services ask women about how this impacts their ability to consent to sex. For healthcare practitioners, women’s concerns around low libido or poor sexual desire could open up a discussion about their relationship.
It is vital that we increase community understanding around how women become enmeshed in abusive relationships, and how societal expectations for how women should behave sexually can facilitate them becoming trapped.
Younger women in particular need greater education about consent in relationships.
People know that stranger rape is wrong, but we still have a poor understanding of how consent operates in the shades of grey that can mark intimate relationships, and how it can be untangled.
* Names have been changed to protect anonymity