Saturday, September 28, 2013

Intimate Partner Sexual Violence - The curse of not knowing

Written by: Fenna Vlekke

I was in a relationship with a sexually abusive partner for ten months. Only six months after the relationship had already ended, did I realise what had happened to me. I wondered why it took me so long to recognise this relationship for what it was. So I reached out to women with similar experiences and discovered that - at the beginning of their healing process - they had struggled with the same issue. So, the question is, why do a lot of women fail to recognise abuse in their relationship? I've asked five women to describe why they didn't know what was happening to them (I've used fake names to ensure their anonymity). I combined their experiences with my own to compile a list of reasons why a lot of women don’t know that what’s happening to them is sexual abuse.

Lack of education

Beth: 'I didn't know I was in an abusive relationship involving partner rape, because I'd never heard of it.'

Katie: 'I didn't know the warning signs of an abuser so I thought it wasn't like that, I thought it was something else.'

Jane: 'I thought domestic violence had to be hitting and physically hurting - I never realized there was sexual abuse in intimate relationships.'

How can someone be raped by their partner if they love them and are attracted to them? Surely it couldn't be that bad? It's most certainly not as bad as being raped by someone hiding behind a bush, right? Wrong. Research shows that women sexually abused by their partner are more likely to experience multiple incidents*. They are also the most likely to get physically injured*.

Because society doesn't teach us rape in a relationship is possible, we tend to not know what's happening to us. When people discuss domestic abuse, they're talking about women being beaten. When they discuss sexual abuse, they're talking about stranger rape or incest. Sexual abuse in relationships fits in both categories, but at the same time falls through the cracks. This is especially worrying, because partner sexual violence is more prevalent than sexual assault by someone else women know, and a lot more prevalent than sexual violence by a stranger*. So there is a large group of women that’s affected by this lack of education. The subject doesn’t come up in schools, and nobody teaches teenagers about the warning signs, or about the rights you have in a relationship.

*Research study used: Rape and sexual assault of women: findings from the British Crime Study

Portrayal in media

Media are an extension of the culture we live in, but they also reinforce it. Especially teenagers and young adults – people with less life experience – look at media as a reference. They watch movies like Twilight, where a man stalks a girl and watches her sleep without her knowledge, and tells her who she can and cannot be friends with. The love between them is portrayed as the ultimate romance, while in fact he's showing obvious and typical signs of an abuser. How can we expect teenagers to know a relationship is toxic, if this is the example they have? Of course, in Twilight, they end up being happy for eternity. In real life, this 'happily ever after' with a partner that shows these signs is very unlikely, because the abusive behaviour will get worse and worse. Because media don't show this development to girls, when they find themselves in such a situation in reality, they are ill-equipped to recognise it at first. Often times when they finally do realise what's going on, they're in too deep.  

It's not only Twilight, there are so many movies and series where controlling and dominant behaviour of men is percieved as normal and acceptable. For example, in the series Rizzoli & Isles Jane Rizzoli, a strong and independent female detective, ends up in a relationship with a man who is in total control. He tells her he doesn't want to be with her, only to come back into her life when he feels like he's really going to lose her. He doesn't want her input when it comes to making life decisions, but at the same time, he tries to get control of the way she leads her life. In the end, he proposes to her. But instead of a declaration of love, it's really an ultimatum, because he tells her he will leave again unless she marries him. The troubling thing is that usually tough-as-nails-no-nonsense- Jane is always there, waiting for him, being in love with him, which gives young girls watching this show the idea that it is alright for a man to treat a woman this way. Or in Vampire Diaries where vampire Damon 'hypnotises' a woman to have a relationship and sex with him. In reality, having sex with someone who is incapacitated, would be classified as rape. On the show, it's portrayed as the unfortunate misbehaviour of the sexy badboy who's portrayed as troubled instead of the offender he really is.

Duty of a wife

Beth: '"Husbands can't do that to wives" was the message that I had because of movies, books, articles and even my church.'

Naomi: 'I didn't know I was in an abusive relationship because sex was my obligation.'

For some reason there is this idea in society, that when you're in a relationship with someone (and especially when you’re married to them), you waive your right to refuse sex. I know we've evolved a lot, so we might be going in the right direction, but still, this is something people have a hard time understanding. Until recently, rape in a marriage was legally speaking not possible. There is this idea that a woman becomes someone owned by her husband after the moment they’re wed. Somehow she loses her free will right then and there.

As I said, society has evolved from that, but it's still a mindset that a lot of people have. Like with Beth, even her church told her that husbands can't rape their wives. If someone's grown up with that mindset, it's not a surprise they don't see warning signs or don't recognise that they are in an abusive relationship. If they do realise it at one point, they're already in that relationship for quite some time. And if people around a woman don't support her, because they don't believe partner rape exists, it becomes very hard to leave her husband.

Manipulation of partner

Monica: 'I didn't know I was in an abusive relationship, because he dictated what was normal and socially acceptable. I knew I wasn't comfortable with the way he treated me, but he repeatedly told me that I was wrong. I was odd, I was inadequate, and I was inconsiderate.'

Theresa: 'I didn't know because my boyfriend always acted like I was the one in the wrong and after a while I started to believe it.'

Katie: 'He was really good at convincing me that I was the problem. He was utterly convincing because in his head it was true.'

Jane: I didn't knnow because when I told him he hurt me, he made me feel guilty for not enjoying it and that I had hurt his feelings, that I was wrong.'

Abusers are often really skilled manipulators. They know how to work up to things, how to turn everything around, how to make it seem like it's your fault instead of theirs. And after a while, their manipulation takes a hold of you. It keeps you imprisoned because your self-esteem has become so low, you don't think you have the right to leave. Or you don't want to leave, because surely no one else would want you. You know you’re unhappy, but he makes that your fault. Why leave someone if you're the reason that this is happening? What good will it do? The next person would do the exact same thing to you, because this is something you bring out in people.

It's painful to see that abusers have society working for them instead of against them. If I had been taught to recognise the signs of abuse, it would have prevented me from going through a lot of terrible experiences. This hurts, and I hope this will be different for other women in the future. It doesn't matter if you're in a relationship or not, it doesn't matter if you had sex with that person in the past or not, it doesn't even matter if you scream your lungs out when it happens, or not. Nobody has the right to force or coerce you into sex. And when someone does, the context doesn't matter, it's still sexual violence and (often) rape.

Written by: Fenna Vlekke


  1. Thank you for speaking the unspoken here on your new blog! You are a wonderful voice for the silent! Keep speaking the truth!

    1. Thank you so much for your positive words!