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Intimate Partner Sexual Violence

Intimate partner sexual assault is an assault that is committed by a current or past spouse or dating partner. Like other types of violence and abuse within a relationship, sexual violence is about exerting power and control over another person. Rapists do not rape out of sexual desire or to achieve sexual satisfaction. Rather, sexual assault is about power, and, therefore, sex is a weapon and a means of expressing the rapist’s aggression or power, even within a current or former intimate relationship. If you are a victim of any type of sexual abuse by a former or current partner, SWiC can help. Call SWiC’s hotline at 570.622.6220 or 1.800.282.0634.

The myth that the absence of physical injuries or resistance on the part of the victim indicates consent is particularly damaging in the context of intimate partner assault. Often, the response to sexual violence by an intimate partner involves "appeasement" coping or survival strategies. These strategies—such as giving in or avoiding one threat by submitting to a less harmful one—are frequently used by the victims of intimate partner sexual violence for a number of reasons.

Victims often found that trying to talk their assailant out of attacking was ineffective and that running away and hiding brought about broken doors and/or greater physical injury. The decisions to choose appeasement over outright resistance revolved on several perceptions: the perception of the assailant's strength; the presumption that if the victim resisted she would be hurt even worse (especially if past battering had occurred); that resistance prolonged the assault; that appeasement protected the children; that she would have to face the man again; that it was good to "keep the peace"; and that she believed herself to be wrong or at fault.

Often, sexual assault by current or former intimate partners is accompanied by other forms of abuse. Sexual assault is one of the abusive behaviors used by a batterer to establish and maintain power and control over his partner. Women are often raped as a continuation of a beating, threatened with more violence if they fail to comply with their assailant’s sexual requests, or forced to have sex to oblige the abuser's need to “make up” after a beating. Research indicates that men who both batter and rape are more likely to severely injure or kill their victims.

Asserting power and control through sexual abuse also includes:

  • sexual coercion;
  • birth control sabotage (destroying or disposing contraceptives, not allowing victim to obtain or use birth control);
  • pressure to get pregnant;
  • condom manipulation to reduce effectiveness in order to cause pregnancy or spread of disease;
  • knowingly spreading a sexually transmitted disease (STD);
  • pressure either to abort or to maintain an unplanned pregnancy.

In studies, adolescent girls in physically abusive relationships were 3.5 to 6 times more likely to become pregnant than non-abused girls. Women in abusive relationships are often afraid to even ask their partner to use a condom. For these women, the threat of harm is often worse than the threat of negative health consequences.

Forced intercourse within a marriage is often called "marital rape." Other forms of sexual violence can also occur within a marriage. Like other forms of domestic violence, marital sexual abuse and coercion is about exerting power and control over one’s partner. Historically, marital or intimate partner rape was not considered a crime. In many countries, including the United States, rape was traditionally defined as forced sexual conduct with someone other than one's wife. As a matter of law, rape could not occur within a marital relationship; the consent of the wife to the sexual contact was presumed. In recent years, marked progress has resulted in removing such marital exemptions from rape statutes.

Although marital rape may co-occur with other forms of physical abuse, sexual violence is the most commonly used tool to maintain power and control for some batterers. Marital rape is a problem distinct from other domestic abuse because for many women who are both battered and raped, the sexual violence is particularly devastating and that trauma must be addressed specifically by trained service providers. One study found that 40% of the women questioned had experienced "force-only rape," in which their husbands used only the amount of force that was necessary to coerce sexual contact, but did not otherwise batter their wives.

Many studies show that marital rape may result in more psychological and emotional damage than stranger rape because: (1) victims are pressured to stay with their abusive partner or to commingle with them if they have children together; (2) victims may have difficulty identifying the act as a crime or their partner as a criminal; (3) children living in the home are negatively impacted; and (4) a higher likelihood of repeat assault exists.

Prosecuting Marital Rape

In addition to the evidentiary hurdles women face in proving marital rape, many jurisdictions continue to place additional legal limitations on women's protection from rape within marriage. For example, in some parts of the United States, married women have a shorter time period within which to bring charges against their husband for rape. Even as state governments take steps to recognize marital rape, victims’ fear of reprisal, shame, cultural acceptance, and lack of knowledge of the law continue to contribute to the low number of cases reported and prosecuted.

In addition, abusers convicted of marital rape face lower penalties than other sex offenders in part due to the myth that because the husband and wife already have an intimate relationship, the act of forced intercourse is less traumatic for the victim. However, the shock, terror, and betrayal of wife rape are often exacerbated rather than mitigated by the marital relationship. Much research indicates that victims of marital rape appear to suffer particularly severe psychological consequences.

Response by Law Enforcement

Research has indicated that the police response to marital rape is also often inadequate. One study found that when police officers learn that the assailant is the woman's husband, they may fail to respond to a call from a victim of marital rape, refuse to allow a woman to file a complaint, and/or refuse to accompany her to the hospital to collect medical evidence.

Intimate partner harassment is a term often referring to the posting of nude or sexually explicit photographs or videos of people online without their consent, even if the photograph itself was taken with consent. A current or former spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend may get revenge or seek to regain control of a victim by uploading photographs to websites, many of which are set up specifically for these kinds of photos or videos. The victim’s name, address, and links to social media profiles are often included with the images, and some websites charge a fee to have the materials removed.

Thirteen states, including Pennsylvania, have enacted legislation since 2013 criminalizing intimate partner harassment. Pennsylvania statutes define intimate partner harassment as exposing a photograph, film, videotape, or similar recording of the identifiable image of an intimate partner who is nude or explicitly engaged in a sexual act to the view of a third party for no legitimate purpose and with the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm the person depicted. In Pennsylvania, this crime is a felony for depicting a minor and misdemeanor for a non-minor.