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  • Writer's pictureJane

Sexual violence in intimate relationships: please debunk your assumptions!

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Image attribution: <a href="">Free Stock photos by Vecteezy</a>

Is sexual abuse a crime when the perpetrator is an intimate partner? Is it rape when the victim doesn't fight off her partner, use the word "no," or is repetitively abused without telling anyone? What's the difference between rough sex and assault? And why'd she stay quiet for so long? These are some questions we tend to ask when a victim in an intimate relationship finally breaks their silence.

Let's debunk ...

🐉 Sexual abuse and assault by an intimate partner - what is it?

Sex involves consent. Sex without consent is rape. Period. By law, it doesn't matter whether you were assaulted by a stranger or by your spouse: rape is rape. Not only is sex without consent considered rape (always), but sexually abusive behaviour by an intimate partner is just that: sexual abuse. Being in a relationship with someone does not override your right to consent. [1]

Sexual abuse by an intimate partner is the least reported form of domestic violence, yet it occurs in most physically abusive relationships and many emotionally abusive ones [2]. It can include physical, emotional, financial and psychological components. The online forum for relationship therapy, Mended Light, describes sexual abuse by an intimate partner as an attack on the identity of a person. [3]

"In a sexually abusive relationship, you are no longer a person ... 'You are here for my gratification. No matter what your desires are, no matter what you need to feel respected, what you need to feel safe ... none of that matters to me. All that matters to me is what I want.' "

- Mended Light

Image attribution: <a href="">Free Stock photos by Vecteezy</a>

Similar to other forms of domestic violence, sexual abuse by an intimate partner is about control. The New York-based National Judicial Education Program says there is a continuum of behaviour, from degrading verbal abuse to physical violence. The four main components of intimate partner sexual violence involve the following. [2]

1. Emotional and psychological

  • calling a partner degrading names

  • pressuring a partner to dress a certain way to either attract or deter sexual attention

  • passive-aggressive acts due to jealousy

  • coercing a partner to have sex without protection against pregnancy or STDs

  • emotionally attacking a partner when she becomes pregnant

  • coercing a partner to get an abortion

2. Physical abuse

  • forced vaginal, oral or anal sexual acts

  • coerced vaginal, oral or anal sexual acts. A threat of punishment for not doing an unwanted sexual act is coercion. Coercion can involve emotional, physical, or financial tactics.

  • unwanted painful sex

  • sex in front of children

  • forcing sex in front of others

3. Financial abuse and extortion

  • pressuring a partner to have sex or perform specific sexual acts in exchange for supplying basic needs, money or gifts

  • extorting sex from an ex for child support or spousal support

4. Pornography and trafficking

  • Forcing a partner to view, imitate, or participate in pornography

  • Trafficking a partner (using a partner as a sexual commodity)

Image from @rape_trauma_services

🤔 But ... could the problem just be this particular relationship?

Strong "NOPE!" Research shows that someone who is sexually abusive towards one partner will continue this behaviour in subsequent relationships. Sexual abuse and assault during an intimate partnership is not because of a one-off toxicity within a particular relationship. The victim is never at fault, and the perpetrator will do it again. [4]

🌱 Sexual assault is not rough sex (!!)

It may seem strange that I need to clarify the difference between rape and rough sex. Still, it's a commonly used 'suggestion' by perpetrators to excuse their actions and by people who'd prefer not to address the possibility of rape during marriage or by specific people. The difference between rough sex and rape is WHETHER BOUNDARIES HAVE BEEN RESPECTED. Dismissing sexual assault as 'rough sex' is enormously damaging to victims as it expresses disbelief and works to re-traumatise victims. [5] To emphasize my point, I want to tell you a story about a good friend of mine (let's call her Bee) and her experience with coming forward about sexual violence in her marriage. Bee has permitted me to share this part of her story. [6]

Bee had been raped by her intimate partner many years ago and subsequently sexually abused until she finally left him. Although Bee had been regularly dealing with emotionally and sexually abusive behaviour by her partner, to the outside world their marriage looked pretty standard. Bee told no one about her partner's sexually violent behaviour. After Bee left, her main goal was to move on and live a happy abuse-free life. But abuse doesn't let go of a person so quickly. A few months later, she found herself having to deal with her trauma rather than bury it.

Image from @rebelthriver on Instagram

First, she tried talking to her ex. She thought that if she told him how much trauma his actions had caused her, about the nightmares, anxiety and PTSD, then perhaps it would 1) help her heal and 2) make him think twice before abusing his next partner the same way. Talking to him didn't work, of course. He reacted in a typical way for him - with lots of gaslighting. "It wasn't rape, it was rough sex." And when she pointed out that she'd said no and tried to push him off and had been crying - and also, what about all the other times that he'd ignored her boundaries and punished her when she didn't comply with his sexual wants - he started in on the "rape fantasy" argument. It went like, "Remember that time when we were talking about rape fantasies? I was just doing what you wanted." So, nothing got solved. Bee realized the futility of talking with her ex and his outright lack of accountability for his actions. Bee's experience with trauma had only worsened.

You may be thinking, 'Well, that's an abuser for you. Of course, they're going to deny it.' But the denial didn't stop with her ex. Many of us don't want to believe that an intimate partner (especially in a 'standard marriage') could be sexually abusive. And so people can make harmful suggestions like, "Are you sure it wasn't just rough sex?" or "Maybe he misunderstood your boundaries" or "Maybe he'll make amends in his next relationship by treating that partner right" (i.e. 'it was your toxic relationship, not him').

Next, Bee sought counselling services to help her deal with her trauma response. As her finances were tight, getting in with a pro-bono counsellor took time. She finally got a session booked. The counsellor advised her that she knew her ex-husband but didn't consider this a conflict of interest as they didn't spend time together. Bee decided to continue with the sessions as this was the only pro-bono counsellor that could fit her in. However, talking about being sexually assaulted by her husband with someone who knew him made her feel very vulnerable. For the first few sessions, Bee spoke only about the emotional abuse and its effects on her.

Image by @rasa_merseyside on Instagram

Eventually, Bee told the counsellor that her husband had raped her. The counsellor's initial response was to listen and then change the subject. This made Bee feel unheard and more vulnerable, so she dropped the subject for a while. A few sessions later, Bee asked the counsellor why she wasn't addressing her statement about being raped by her ex. The counsellor replied that she had assumed Bee meant rough sex. Bee said she thought she had been quite clear and had used the word "rape." The counsellor then told her a story about how rough sex in marriage can feel like rape. This made Bee feel like the counsellor didn't believe her. The sessions didn't last much longer as a conflict of interest became evident. When the counsellor questioned the authenticity of Bee's sexual assault claim, it worked to traumatize her further and silence her. Consequently, Bee became isolated and sunk into a deep depression that affected her life in many ways, including the loss of her job.

So, please, if someone tells you their intimate partner has sexually assaulted them, don't talk. Listen with the intent to hear them. Dismissive questions, like "Could it have been rough sex?" add arms to a victim's trauma monster.

Image by @humankindist on Instagram

🍁 Substance abuse?

Not an excuse.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in May 2022 that extreme intoxication can be used as a defence for sexual assault. However, if there is a foreseeable risk that a person may lose control when intoxicated, extreme intoxication cannot be used as a defence. Someone who has previously been sexually violent or/and violent while intoxicated, would not get away with using extreme intoxication as an excuse. [7]

🚦 Is it sexual abuse, or am I being triggered?

A person who has previously been traumatized because of sexual abuse may ask themselves whether they are experiencing abuse or if they are being triggered by an act that may not have been abusive but reminded them of previous abuse. Mended Light suggests that if you're wondering whether you are being triggered or experiencing sexual abuse, ask yourself this:

Is my partner respecting my boundaries?

When you relayed your discomfort to your partner, did they pay attention, respect your wishes and back off? If you drew a boundary with words or demeanour (freezing up is a demeanour) and your boundary was not respected, you're dealing with sexually abusive behaviour. [3]

🐘 Why'd s/he stay quiet? Oh, to be the elephant-in-the-room ...




Emotional abuse (rips apart someone's self-esteem and ability to self-advocate)

Gaslighting by partner (this is a biggy as it makes victims doubt their interpretations)

Misplaced guilt

Fear of not being believed

Fear of retaliation

Protecting children

Cultural and religious reasons

Lack of resources and support for victims

Because no one wants to talk about intimate partner sexual violence

... need I go on 🤔 [8]

Image from @rebelthriver on Instagram

🎗️ How you can help

If you suspect a friend is being sexually abused, you can help by taking these steps (from OASH) [9]:

Arrange for a good time to talk.

Express your concern for their safety.

Be supportive, listen, let them talk.

Offer specific help (how can you make their life a bit easier in the present?).

Don't give advice or place shame, guilt, or blame on them.

Help them make a safety plan (may include a go-bag and a safety word they can use to tell you they're in trouble).

Offer them resources and encourage them to talk to someone (family/women's centre and helplines, for example).

Continue to be supportive if they decide to stay.

Please encourage them to do things outside the relationship.

Continue to offer help if they choose to leave.

Ensure they know they can always depend on you to be there for them.

Help through proactive awareness

Educate yourself: read and converse about intimate partner sexual abuse and assault.

Talk with your kids about consent and sexual violence in relationships.

In your own intimate relationship, check in with your partner about what they are/aren't comfortable with and respect their boundaries.

Women: involve men in the conversation - because there is no solution without them.

Men: get involved in the conversation - your kids are paying attention.

Check out my resource list at the end of this page.

💞 Thank you for taking the time to read up on intimate partner violence. October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. My contribution to awareness has been a series of blog posts that will continue until the International Day for The Elimination of Violence Against Women (Nov. 25th). Please take the time to read through my previous posts on my blog or click on the following links (in order from oldest to newest):

If you think that you or someone you know is being abused, call (in Canada):

BC: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808

AB: Family Violence Information Line: 1-780-310-1818

SK: Mobile Crisis 24/7 Helpline: 306-757-0127

MB: Domestic Abuse Crisis Line: 1-877-977-0007

ON: Victim 24/7 Support Line: 1-888-579-2888

QC: SOS violence conjugale 24/7: 1-800-363-9010 (bilingual service available)

NB: Chimo Helpline: 1-800-667-5005

PEI: Island Help Line: 1-800-218-2885

NS: Neighbours, Friends and Families (Abuse and Violence Support Line): 1-855-225-0220 NL: NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre 24/7 Support and Information Line: 1-800-726-2743

Nunavut: Kamatsiaqut Nunavut Helpline: 1-800-265-3333

NWT: NWT Help Line: 1-800-661-0844

YK: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808

Resource List

[1] "Myths and facts about Sexual Assault," Sex Assault Canada

[2] "Webinar: Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse: The Hidden Dimension of Domestic Violence" Legal Momentum (National Judicial Education Program)

[3] "What is Sexual Abuse in a Relationship" Mended Light

[4} Walter S. Dekeseredy & McKenzie Rogues, "Seperation/Divorce Sexual Assault: the Current State of Social Knowledge." 9 Aggressive and Violent behaviours 675, 2004.

[5] "What is Marital Rape?" PsychCentral

[6] Interview with Bee. All identity information is confidential.

[7] "Changes to section 33.1 of the Criminal Code on self-induced extreme intoxication." Government of Canada.

[8] "But, Why'd She Stay?" Jane Powell, Blog.

[9] How to Help a friend Who is being Abused" OASH, Office on Women's Health.

[10] "Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in a Marriage," Florida's Women's Law Group

[11] Sexual Abuse in Marriage: is there really such a thing?"

[12] 7 Signs Your Husband is Sexually Abusing You," Watertown Public Opinion

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