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A Different Battlefield: Understanding the Impact of Intimate Partner Sexual Violence

By Isabelle Kerr & Caterina O'Connor

In her book, ‘Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror’, Judith Herman explores the three occasions where psychological trauma has been thrust upon the world since the late 19th Century. These were the study of hysteria at the end of the 19th Century, the impact of ‘shell shock’ or war neurosis after World War One, and the impact of domestic and sexual abuse since the 1970s.

Though we may not be familiar with the study of hysteria in the 19th Century, we will undoubtedly have seen those grainy black and white images of combat soldiers severely traumatised by the horrors of war. As Herman states:

“One of the many casualties of the [First World] war’s devastation was the illusion of manly honor and glory in battle. Under condition of unremitting exposure to the horrors of trench warfare, men began to break down in shocking numbers. Confined and rendered helpless, subjected to constant threat of annihilation, and forced to witness the mutilation and death of their comrades without any hope of reprieve, many soldiers began to act like hysterical women. They screamed and wept uncontrollably. They froze and could not move. They became mute and unresponsive. They lost their memory and their capacity to feel. The number of psychiatric casualties was so great that hospitals had to be hastily requisitioned to house them. According to one estimate, mental breakdowns represented 40 percent of British battle casualties. Military authorities attempted to suppress reports of psychiatric casualties because of their demoralising effect on the public.”

But though awareness was increasing about the long term impact of war on combat soldiers, it wasn’t until the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s that we began to talk about domestic and sexual abuse of women and children. As Herman also states:

“Women did not have a name for the tyranny of private life.”

And she was right. Until then there was a tacit understanding that whatever happened behind closed doors stayed there. No-one had the right to interfere. To law enforcement agencies, it was ‘just a domestic’ and their role was to calm both parties down and leave them to make their peace with each other.

When the first women’s refuges in the UK opened in the 1970s, women finally had a place of sanctuary and safety. Before that, women may have had family or friends (or private means if they were wealthy enough) to whom they could turn for refuge and support. But for most, the old adage rang true, “you’ve made your bed, so you have to lie on it”.


When women began using refuges to escape their abusers, we began to hear the stories of their lives and to see the impact of the trauma that had been inflicted upon them. The evidence gathered from women showed us very clearly that they were displaying those exact symptoms that combat soldiers from both world wars had displayed, and the symptoms that were still visible among veterans from more recent conflicts such as the Korean War and Vietnam. This was a very different battlefield.


Since those early days of the women’s refuge movement we have broadened our knowledge of all forms of violence against women. Not only do we now understand them so much more but we know that they are inextricably linked to each other and to the power structure that exists to ensure that women remain ‘second class’ citizens. But of course it’s a poorly resourced area of work and an ongoing battle to fund refuges, rape crisis centres and trauma services for women and children. And while we are trying to understand and identify the power dynamics that keep women trapped with abusive men, we still have to deliver the frontline support services every day of every year. It’s multi-tasking on the grandest of scales.


Our society, our culture, portrays women as having only a single story. This story, which has evolved over millennia, has become the definition and description of women as weak and dependent. The danger of the single story of women is that we are seen as a homogenous group whose single story, and need for male oversight and domination, has grown from myth into fact by dint of being told so often and so erroneously. It is a cloak that fits so well that we often slip into it ourselves, comfortably and without protest.


As women, we are many. We are half of the world’s population and our contribution to the world’s work and resources, given our work inside and outside of the home, is immeasurable. Yet the one issue that affects women all over the world, sexual violence, takes no account of a woman’s race, her religion, her class, colour or her sexuality. It impacts on each and every one of us, whether we have experienced it directly or in how the threat of it determines how we behave and police our freedoms.


The dominant story in our collective consciousness is the story of stranger danger, of the outside world as the place where threat exists and home as our safe place, our security. In fact, it is the opposite. In the UK, less than 10% of rapes will be carried out by a stranger and those are only the ones which are reported. We need to move beyond stranger danger. We need to throw out some of those stereotypes that exist and those beliefs that rapists can’t help themselves, can’t control their lustful urges and that’s why another rape myth has to go and that’s the one which says the reason men rape is because women are dressed in a provocative way, are flirting or are drunk.


We also need to throw out with the trash the biggest myth of all, that women who report rape are liars, that they are bent on revenge or have had a one night stand and are ashamed of it or regret it, and accept one simple fact; most rapists are known to the women they rape and they are likely to be in a relationship with them. If we can successfully dispatch all that baggage we are left with this – the danger to women is not from strangers, the greatest danger is the men that they know and love.


Historically, intimate partner sexual violence has been a hidden issue about which women have been silent and silenced. Even when asked by police investigating a domestic abuse incident (should the women ever report to the police) about sexual violence, women will often say ‘no’ because they have not been able to define the abuse they have experienced. Sexual violence is utterly pervasive; it’s a pandemic. Estimating the true extent of intimate partner sexual violence is difficult for a number of reasons; the hidden nature of the issue, women not naming the abuse, shame, stigma and fear.


We have progressed from defining domestic abuse as simply the punch, kick or slap: we recognise that a major part of domestic abuse is coercive, controlling behaviour and see the psychological and emotional damage done to women and children by an abuser. We recognise how these overlap with financial abuse, isolation, cutting women off from family, friends, work and support networks. Yet we are still dancing around the issue of sexual violence. We talk about it in the wider definition of domestic abuse but it is still seen as ‘different’.


Many women have experienced rape as a single act of one person violating another. But in the case of intimate partner sexual violence, that violation may have happened many times. Women do experience sexual violence more than once and from more than one perpetrator but our society has chosen to see this as not ‘normal’ and may blame the victim for attracting abusive men. As Lydia Guy says in her paper, “Revisioning the Sexual Violence Continuum” (2006):


“The basic premise of this concept [rape as a cultural phenomenon] is that rape does not happen just because one individual chooses to rape another. Rape happens because there are attitudes and norms that allow it to happen.”


Over and over again, studies have shown that women experiencing IPSV and physical abuse show higher levels of psychological distress and symptomatology compared to women who only experience physical violence.[1]


When it comes to IPSV, we do seem to have a bit of a dichotomous worldview. It is all contradiction and confusion. Physical violence we can understand; we can see the bruises and understand the pain and fear. But how can we understand and define sexual abuse when a partner is involved? One day sex is OK and then the next day it’s rape? How can that be, if someone has had sex with this guy a hundred times? Is it really that bad if one of you doesn’t really want it or feel in the mood? Yes, rape is really serious – except when society tells us it isn’t.


“He raped me repeatedly, when his sense of ownership of me was threatened, to punish me, or just because I presumed the right to say ‘no’. At the time, avoiding or surviving the battery was a priority: I figured that what happened in the bedroom was best forgotten as soon as possible.”[2]


Whether the rapist is on the street or in the home, the acts he perpetrates are not borne out of his sexual desire. In her seminal work on rape in 1975, Susan Brownmiller[3] provided us with a clear analysis of rape as an act of power and control. The abuser uses the sexual act as a weapon to overcome, to frighten, to dominate and to control the woman. Yes, the act is sexualised but that is less about satisfying a sexual need and more about satisfying a need to control a woman by invading her most intimate space, taking away her dignity and any self-determination she may have had over her own body.


Veronique Valliere states in her 2007 paper that men who rape their wives, “… hide behind the context of their relationship with their victims. They mask themselves as nice guys. There is a pervasive idea that in-home offenders are somehow not as dangerous or problematic as community offenders. They are, however, more experienced: more invested: cross more boundaries: are safer from exposure: create more betrayal and family conflict: and are more psychologically/emotionally involved in offending.”[4]


“He only raped me once ….”


We don’t understand this phrase in the way that we understand the statement “He only beat me once …” Hearing that statement we immediately understand the controlling nature of the beating. We understand the fear instilled in the woman through that single act of violence, reaching forward in time. Why should it be different with sexual instead of physical violence? There is no reason for us to believe differently, yet rather than not thinking differently, it appears that people tend not to think about the issue at all. There isn’t a different analysis; there is no analysis.


For many women, sex can be both a tool that they use to manage abusive partners and a weapon that is unleashed against them. But it still remains, unseen and unspoken because to examine it too closely would be to force a light to be shone upon the relationship and reveal that all is not as it may appear. Having absolute agency over our own bodies is crucial and in healthy intimate relationships we continually negotiate and compromise to the benefit of both partners. But to the abuser, that absolute agency is anathema. There is no negotiation, only his desires and his demands.


The first real study of rape in marriage was carried out in 1978 by Diane Russell. She studied over 900 women and found that 14% had been sexually assaulted in some way by their husbands. More than twice as many women in her study had been raped by a husband than by a stranger. Another study involving interviews with women who had been raped by their husbands found that 50% had been raped more than 20 times[5]. But women can also experience sexual violence within a relationship that does not include physical assault/injury. A 1985 study by David Finkelhor and Kirsti Yllo found that of the 50 women they interviewed, all of whom had been sexually assaulted by their husbands, 40% stated that there was no physical assault nor any verbal or emotional abuse within the relationship[6].


Domestic Homicide


There is significant data which shows the increased danger of homicide where sexual abuse is present in a relationship. A number of studies have shown that women who are raped by their partners have a higher chance of being murdered by them. The rates of domestic homicide are significant all over the world from 3 women a day being murdered by partners or ex-partners in the USA, to 2 women a week murdered by partners or ex partners in the UK with a similar number in Australia. In Brazil, between 10 and 15 women per day are murdered by a current or ex-partner. A report by WHO in 2013 found that worldwide, 38% of female and 6% of male murders were committed by intimate partners.[7]


Partner homicide is intrinsically linked to a sense of ownership. There is still that long held belief that men are entitled to dictate the terms of a relationship and women should comply. To say this aloud often brings denials about the nature of individual relationships, but a closer examination may reveal that men’s needs within a relationship so often become ‘our’ needs and wants. Across Europe, women provide an average of 70% of household work, even when they are working 30 hours a week or more[8]. Author of one of the studies, Professor Gillian Robinson said, “Gender inequalities in all areas are rooted in social structures but also in attitudes. It is difficult to see how women will ever have the same opportunities in the labour market if equality in the private sphere is not achieved.”


There is a huge body of evidence that points to significant risk factors for both severe and lethal violence. The greatest risk factor is the woman trying to leave the relationship, but other significant risk factors include:

· legal protection being sought by the woman including an interdict, injunction or restraining order

· receiving threats of violence or death from the perpetrator

· stalking behaviour

· previous attempts to kill her

· previous sexual assaults or rapes committed by her partner

· abuse during pregnancy[9].


But paradoxically, sexual abuse is the form of domestic abuse that is least likely to be disclosed, so this major risk factor often remains unknown to professionals. In a 2011 study on IPSV and Stalking, participants were asked how many of them had reported the sexual violence when it was happening to them. More than 80% stated that they did not tell anyone about the rape. Indeed they said that they wouldn’t talk about any aspect of their sex life at all, let alone the sexual abuse they experienced from their partners.[10]


At a 2014 conference in Boston, Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author of the book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, talked about his newly released book. He talked about the impact of 9/11 on him and some observations he’d made about trauma during this time.


During the talk he mentioned that after he’d heard about what was happening in New York, “I called my tribe”. He explained that he phoned his wife, his children and friends of his in New York City to make sure they were safe and to ask how they were coping. He was checking in with them, on their safety and at the same time sharing the shock, pain, fears and trauma of what was happening, something that he, or they had no control over. Sharing those fears was common in New York at that time, Dr van der Kolk told his audience. People were more considerate, more caring and kinder to each other. They spoke to each other about their feelings and as a group, or a tribe, they supported each other and most importantly, they did not judge each other for their grief, their sleeplessness, or their nightmares. Levels of PTSD in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, he told us, were low.


Because of the nature of intimate partner sexual violence, survivors have no tribe. The hidden nature of it, the silence and the isolation prevents the support that would be generated from people around us. Survivors are alone and silent trying to manage their trauma on their own.


Sexual abuse within relationships and the impact of that abuse is widespread. There is no easy way to say it. Study after study has shown that not only is this a major issue for women but that it is also a significant risk factor in domestic homicide. The studies have shown that of the women who were physically abused by their partners, between 40% and 45% were forced into sexual activity by their partners.[11] [12] [13] A very small number were sexually, but not physically abused. And the ever present psychological abuse traumatises through the use of threats, isolation, ongoing humiliation and degradation including sexual acts that are intended to hurt the woman both physically and psychologically.


In April 2015, the South Carolina Post and Courier won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize Public Service gold medal, for a series of articles on domestic abuse, highlighting the high number of women killed by partners across the state. The seven part series also highlighted the lack of commitment by legislators to deal with the issue. That legislation to protect women and children, couldn’t compete with the powerful gun lobby and so fell at the first hurdle. Ironically, the one piece of legislation that did make it was a bill to protect the welfare of pets left in the care of someone facing domestic abuse charges.


Sex-as-violence within an intimate relationship is the ultimate betrayal of trust, sitting alongside the ultimate expression of control and ownership. The husband/partner is saying, “I own you. I am entitled to make decisions about every aspect of your life, including that most intimate part.” The act of expressing love becomes the act of taking control and pleasure from the unquestioned entitlement to do so.


Crimes of sexual violence are the crimes least likely to be reported to the police, rape and sexual assaults perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner even less so. Yet as an identified risk factor for domestic homicide, it’s something we can no longer afford to remain blind to.


In her book, ‘When God Was a Woman’, Merlin Stone opens by asking, “How did it happen? How did men initially gain the control that now allows them to regulate the world in matters as vastly diverse as deciding which wars will be fought when, to what time dinner will be served?


The question we want to ask is, what will happen if we recognise and name what is happening to over half of the world’s population? What will happen when we stop silencing women?


[1] Shields & Hanneke, 1983: Shields, Resnick, Hanneke, 1990: Whately, 1993.

[2] McOrmond-Plummer, L. (2009). Considering Differences: Intimate Partner Sexual Violence in Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Discourse. Intimate Partner Sexual Violence: Sexual Assault in the Context of Domestic Violence. 2nd Edition, Summer 2009.

[3] Brownmiller, S (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape

[4] Valliere, V. Understanding the Non-Stranger Rapist. National Institute for the Prosecution of Sexual Violence. 1 (8) The Voice, 5 (2007)

[5] Diana Russell, Rape in Marriage. (New York; Macmillan, 1982)

[6] David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo, License to Rape; Sexual Abuse of Wives. (New York: Holt Rinehart, & Winston, 1985)

[7] Global Estimates of Violence Against Women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non partner sexual violence. World Health Organisation, 2013.

[8] Robinson G & Gray AM: “What Women Want? Women and gender roles in Northern Ireland”; University of Ulster (2004): Hansen N & Nielsen O, “Equal Options – Free Choice?”; Danish National Centre for Social Research (2008): European Social Survey (2012); Economic and Social Research Council.

[9] Campbell JC et al. “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a multisite case control study”, American Journal of Public Health, (2003): 93(7): 1089-1097

[10] Logan, T. & Cole, J. (2011). Exploring the intersection of partner stalking and sexual abuse. Violence Against Women, 17 (7), 904-924.

[11] Tjaden P & Thoennes N: “Extent and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence” Washington DC, US Dept of Justice (2000): Publication NJC 181867.

[12] Campbell JC, & Soeken K, “Women’s responses to battering over time: analysis of change.” J Int. Violence. 1999: 1421-40

[13] National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2007), Domestic Violence Factsheet:

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