What is intimate partner sexual violence?
Intimate partner sexual violence includes all forms of sexual assault and sexual coercion perpetrated by one partner in a relationship on the other, either during the relationship, or after it is over.
We often think of intimate partner sexual violence being about rape, sexual assault and online sexual abuse in marriage or in a relationship.
But intimate partner sexual violence includes being coerced or pressured to have sex, having to exchange sex for payment of bills, clothes for the kids or food for the family, and feeling that you have to offer sex to calm your partner or distract them.
It also includes sexual exploitation which can include being pressured to have sex with your partner’s friends, to participate in videos of sex, or to sell sex for money.
Sexual assault and sexual coercion that happen in your relationship is never, ever your fault. Your partner is making a choice to use violence and coercion. Your partner is solely responsible for that choice.
Everyone has the right to feel safe, and to make decisions about their own body. Sexual violence is an abuse of power. No person deserves to be sexually assaulted. A person who commits sexual assault is responsible for their own behaviour.
How common is intimate partner sexual violence?
It is hard to estimate how common intimate partner sexual violence is, but the World Health Organisation identifies it as the most common form of sexual violence globally.
A study by the University of Melbourne estimated that almost 1 in 10 women in Australia have experienced sexual assault or abuse perpetrated by an intimate partner.
9 in 10 of those women did not contact the police.
What is the impact of intimate partner sexual violence?
The impact of intimate partner sexual violence is both similar to and different from the impact of other types of sexual assault.
Intimate partner sexual violence is one of the least talked about parts of domestic violence. The first impact of intimate partner sexual violence is not seeing it as violence. Victims can struggle to name it as abuse if physical violence and threats have not been involved, where it isn’t possible to say no, where they have been pressured or coerced to have sex, or where they have had to use sex as a survival strategy or a way to protect themselves or their children.
Victims of intimate partner violence can be particularly vulnerable to thinking that they are responsible for the violence. This is often a deliberate tactic of the abusive partner designed to keep the victim with them and dependent on them. Where victims have been pressured into prostitution, sex with others or sex being recorded, they can feel overwhelmed by shame. Their partner can threaten to tell other people as a way to maintain power and control.
Rape in marriage was only defined as a crime in 1980. The belief that partners must agree to sex is still common, even though it is incorrect. This can make it difficult for some people to understand that what is happening to victims is a crime and not a normal part of a relationship. The fact that someone you love has chosen to assault, abuse or coerce you is incredibly painful and it can take a long time to come to terms with this.
Beira’s Place is a sexual violence support service for women in Scotland. They say:
In situations where women do not say ‘no’ and in some cases where they initiate the sexual act, it can be extremely difficult to name their abuse. But if refusing the sexual act means that there will be consequences for the woman or her children, the act is not ‘free agreement’, it is a survival strategy.
A woman’s agreement to the abuser’s sexual demands is often one of the survival strategies she uses to manage his behaviour. Women talk about ‘keeping him sweet’, or ‘keeping him quiet’ when they describe the sexual coercion that is taking place.
It’s not only a case of the abuser demanding sex, or actively pressuring the woman, but that invisible pressure she is under to anticipate his moods and ensure that he is ‘kept happy’. This may be a case where the woman will initiate a sexual act, to change the abuser’s mood and ultimately protect herself and her children from other violent or abusive acts.
It’s not unusual for women to take a long time to see this as sexual abuse.
Biera’s Place uses gendered language in part because their clients are women, but also because we know the majority of victims of domestic and family violence are women, and most people who use violence are men. However, we know that some men and gender diverse people will experience intimate partner sexual violence and other forms of domestic and family violence. Many of the same tactics are used regardless of the gender of the perpetrator or the victim. For LGBTQIA+ people and other people from diverse communities, other tactics specific to that community can be used to coerce, control and force sexual acts.
Where to get more information?
You don’t have to go through this alone. There is support available to you if you have been sexually assaulted by your current partner or a previous partner.
There are several specialist domestic and family violence services in Tasmania, including the Family Violence Counselling Support Service, which is available statewide and can be contacted on 1800 608 122. Tasmanian Government’s Safe at Home website
(www.safeathome.tas.gov.au) has a full list of government and non-government support services available here.
The University of Melbourne has written an article about how intimate partner sexual violence is dealt with in the courts in Australia. There are some powerful descriptions in the article Intimate partner sexual violence and the courts.
The Beira’s Place (www.beirasplace.org.uk) factsheet on intimate partner sexual violence that we quote above is available here.
No To Violence (www.ntv.org.au) has published a Practice Bulletin on sexualised violence.