Contrary to the popular myth that most sexual assaults are committed by sadistic strangers in dark alleyways, a very high proportion of sexual abuse happens on an existing backdrop of partner abuse. In fact, 80% of survivors of sexual violence knew their attacker previously, and 47% of rapes are committed by a friend or acquaintance.
Partner abuse - or domestic abuse - can occur in a number of forms. Most commonly, these are physical, mental and sexual. It can be hard to notice and acknowledge the signs of such abuse, but it is important to remember that no one deserves to live in fear of the person they love. There is always help available.
Abusers can use fear, guilt, shame, intimidation and violence to maintain and increase control over their partner. While it is most often women that experience domestic abuse, men can also be affected. Notably, trans and gender non-conforming individuals experience domestic abuse at shockingly high levels.
Abusive behaviour of any kind is never even remotely acceptable - everyone deserves to feel valued, respected and safe in their relationships.
While physical injury may be the most obvious danger in an abusive situation, the psychological consequences are also extremely severe. Emotionally abusive relationships can destroy self-worth, leading to anxiety, depression, helplessness and isolation. Recognising abuse is the first and most important step in getting help and breaking free from the situation. Those who are being abused may excuse their partner’s actions, deny that anything is wrong or try to rationalise incidents as a “one off” and it can be very hard for family and friends to see their loved ones in such a situation.
The most common sign of domestic abuse is fear of a partner. If you are constantly watching your behaviour to avoid angering them, the chances are your relationship is unhealthy.
The following list contains a number of signs of abuse: if you answer yes to more than half of these questions, it could be a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
If you are worried, please contact someone.
Your Inner Thoughts and Feelings
Feel afraid of your partner much of the time?
Avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?
Feel that you can't do anything right for your partner?
Believe the you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?
Wonder if you're the one who is crazy?
Feel emotionally numb or helpless?
Your Partner's Belittling Behaviour
Does your partner:
Humiliate or yell at you?
Criticise you and put you down?
Treat you so badly that you're embarrassed for your friends or family to see?
Ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?
Blame you for their own abusive behaviour?
see you as proprerty or a sex object, rather than as a person?
Your Partner's Violent Behaviour or Threats
Does your partner:
Have a bad and unpredictable temper?
Hurt you, or threaten to hurt or kill you?
Threaten to take away your children or harm them?
Threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
Force you to have sex?
Destroy your belongings?
Your Partner's Controlling Behaviour
Does your partner:
Act excessively jealous and possessive?
Control where you go or what you do?
Keep you from seeing your friends or family?
Limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?
Constantly check up on you?
One form of domestic abuse rarely exists in a vacuum, they often occur alongside other forms of abusive behaviour.
Sexual Abuse in a Relationship
Any situation in which you are forced or urged to participate in unwanted, unsafe or degrading sexual activity is sexual abuse, regardless of your relationship to the perpetrator, even if you believe you are in a happy, loving relationship. Forced sexual activity, even with a partner with whom you have frequent consensual sex, is an act of violence.
In an abusive relationship, you may verbally consent to sex, but there may be power dynamics at play which make it impossible for you to refuse. Your partner might threaten you with a break-up, or make you feel guilty for “not loving them enough” if you even show signs of refusing.
Domestic sexual abuse, does not just include forced sexual contact; there are a number of other ways an abuser can be sexually abusive without the partner necessarily realising there is something wrong.
Refusing to comply with a request for safe sex
Withholding sex or affection as a punishment
Being unfaithful when both partners had agreed to monogamy
Fondling in public places, or in front of family and friends in a way that you find embarrassing
Forcing you to watch pornography or films with sexual activity when they would prefer not to
Publishing or otherwise showing intimate photos of a partner against their wishes, even if they were taken in a situation of mutual consent
These examples of sexual assault are more subtle, and you may not consider them abusive in isolated incidents. However, over a prolonged period of time, the psychological effects may become severe. Subtle abuse can subsequently lead to more overt and violent forms of sexual abuse. If you feel this may be happening, take care of yourself and try to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. If you are worried or scared, talk to a friend or call a local helpline (i.e. Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre).
Ending an abusive relationship can be incredibly difficult, but it is not something you have to do alone. Reaching out to help from friends, family, local organisations, your college nurse etc., can help you through the process.
Everyone deserves to feel valued, respected, and loved.
Check out this page on “Safety Planning” to help you in your journey to freedom and independence.