Sexual Violence and Intimate Relationships
Sex is an important part of many (but not all) intimate relationships. Sex with a partner/s should be joyful, safe, and mutually pleasurable, as well as a way partners can connect and build physical and/or emotional intimacy. Everyone has a right to enjoy sex and do so freely, without fear when saying no or setting boundaries or limits.
However, one of the most common settings that sexual violence occurs in is intimate relationships, especially when there is an imbalance of power in the relationship.
People who experience sexual violence in a relationship may be even less likely to disclose and seek help because they:
- may be in love with their partner but just want their partner to stop using violence,
- don’t fully understand that what happened was sexual violence
- fear reactions from their families of choice, friends, or other partners,
- don’t feel like services will understand or help them,
- fear reactions of the wider public, including homophobia, transphobia, biphobia or other reactions to them or their abuser,
- are unable to leave due to financial dependence,
- don’t want to involve police or the criminal justice system
Some people stay with their partners after experiencing sexual violence. This can be difficult to understand from outside of the relationship, but everyone has the right to make decisions about their own life. The best thing you can do to support someone who has experienced violence is to respect their choices and not express judgement. This allows the person experiencing violence to know that it is safe to talk to you, and keeps the door open if they need to reach out for support in the future.
Sexual violence in an intimate relationship includes when someone’s partner is physically forcing or coercing them to take part in sexual activities, that they do not wish to take part in.Coercion includes being pressured, tricked, threatened or forced in a non-physical way into sex.
It is also important to know that sexual violence isn’t only about forcing someone into a sex act, it also can be your partner breaching your sexual boundaries like:
- removing a condom during sex without your knowledge
- touching you in public without consent
- pressuring you to do things you are uncomfortable with once you have consented to sex
- including someone else in the bedroom without prior consent
- touching you somewhere that you have expressed previously you do not want touched
- forcing kinks onto you if you have said you do not like that kind of sex
- being forced or pressured to watch porn
- giving you a substance like GHB without telling you
There are many ways an intimate partner can perpetrate sexual violence. All experiences should be taken seriously, and victim-survivors deserve all help and support they may need.
Sometimes partners can feel entitled to sex in a relationship, this can be because they have had sex with their partner before, because they think their partner is withholding sex as a punishment, or many other reasons.
No one owns anyone else’s body, if a partner is not in the mood for sex – it is not anyone else’s right to decide that they can ‘make’ them be in the mood for sex.
Coercing someone into sex is sexual violence –if a yes is forced or coerced, then it is a no.
How to recognise sexual violence in others' relationships
We might not always recognise when sexual violence is occurring in other people’s relationships. Although there can be clues, often the only way to know is to be told by someone that they are experiencing it.
It’s important not to make assumptions. We know that sometimes people can be biased in what they see without realising it. For example, sometimes people assume that the more ‘masculine’ or physically larger person in a relationship is using violence- even though gender expression and size doesn’t have any relationship to use of violence.
We also know that some people minimise sexual violence perpetrated by men against men, or against women by other women. All forms of violence should be taken seriously.
There are some things to look out for if you are worried that someone you know is experiencing sexual violence in their relationship:
- they seem anxious when their partner is around
- they mention that their partner is pressuring them to do or try things that make them uncomfortable
- they mention that their partner refuses to use safer sex practices like PrEP or condoms
- they seem overly anxious about pleasing their partner
- they ask their partner for permission to spend time with friends/family.
How to talk to your friends about sexual violence- if they are the person experiencing violence:
- ask if they are okay and how you can support them e.g. “I noticed … and I’m feeling worried about you, how can I support you?”
- listen to what they have to say
- thank them for disclosing
- support them to be in control of decisions and respect their choices
- reassure them, and ask if they want to seek professional support
- suggest support services (if you can) and offer support accessing those services; and
- be consistent in checking in with them, providing information and empowering them.
Your friend may be very grateful and relieved that someone has noticed abusive behaviours but it’s also possible your friend will not be receptive to your attempt at helping. They may not be ready to talk about it, and could get upset, angry with you or defensive. This can be really difficult, but it’s important to respect your friend’s decisions. It can take time for people to recognise violence or to be ready to seek support. Staying supportive lets your friend know that you are there for them, and will reduce the isolation that is a common feature of abuse.
How to talk to your friends about sexual violence- if they are the person using violence:
If you are friends with someone who you believe may be using sexual violence, it’s important to know that intervening with them can create risk for the victim/survivor if not done well and with their input. If you can, talk to the victim/survivor first, they should be trusted to assess whether it is safe to intervene.
You can also access support from services like Full Stop Australia and 1800RESPECT to talk about how you may be able to act.
If the victim/survivor feels that it is safe for you to talk to the person:
- have a conversation with them in a safe and private place. Start by saying something like “Hey, I’ve noticed you… and I’m worried about your behaviour and how it’s affecting your relationship”
- talk about something they have done recently as an example such as disrespectful language or inappropriate behaviour
- challenge any negative comments about their partner through calling out their bad behaviour e.g. “That’s not a nice thing to say and I disagree”
You can also challenge any rigid attitudes they express about their relationship such as that their partner needs to dress/behave in certain ways, or if they tell you stories about sex where they describe ‘convincing’ or ‘pushing’ their partner to shift their sexual boundaries during sex.
Common reactions to being confronted include:
- blaming the victim
- attacking the victim’s credibility
- not seeing their actions as abusive
- assume the victim role themselves
- claim to be misunderstood
- partial admission of guilt
- try and make you doubt yourself
- become emotional, defensive or angry
The best way to handle these reactions is to:
- stay calm
- keep consistent with your messaging
- use solid examples of behaviour you’ve observed
- sound as supportive and non-attacking as you can
If they are not receptive, you could say something like “I hear what you are saying, I don’t know all the details, but I did see you get very angry the other day and I am concerned for the safety in your relationship, I think there is no harm in you talking to a professional so that your relationship can be stronger”.
For more in-depth information around recognising, responding, and recovering from supporting someone after experiencing sexual violence please see the Recognise, Respond and Recover sections of this toolkit.
For more information about how to talk to people you know about sexual violence in their relationship have a look at ACON’s Family and Friends Toolkit here.
You can also check out RAINN’s Friends and Family Toolkit for Supporting a Loved One After Sexual Violence.
If reading this content has caused you distress, or made you think you may need support, you can find an LGBTQ+ affirming service here.
Click here to go back to the home page of this toolkit.