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Sexual Violence in Intimate Relationships

March 18, 2021

Abusive relationships and sexual violence are frequently normalized in pop culture. Unhealthy or abusive behaviour, such as stalking or verbal coercion, is often portrayed as romantic. As a result, people may downplay or dismiss these kinds of behaviours in their own lives or in the lives of others. 

Sexual violence can occur in intimate relationships, even if intimate relationships are supposed to be caring, loving and respectful. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced some form of violence from their intimate partner, with the sexual violence rate being 1 in 5 women and 1 in 12 men.

There are many reasons why people stay in abusive relationships:

  • The person experiencing the abuse is too scared to communicate their feelings to their partner because they don’t want to damage the relationship.    

  • The person has children with their partner, and the person might not want to change the family structure.

  • The person has been isolated from their support network by the abusive partner and cutting off the relationship with the abusive partner may lead to a loss of financial support and/or social connection.

  • The abusive partner may threaten to retaliate after the break-up or divorce.

  • The abusive partner makes the person experiencing violence believe that it’s their own fault or that they’re “overreacting.” The abuser may convince their partner that the unhealthy or abusive behaviour is done “in the name of love,” or they may say something like, “If you really loved me, you would…”

Unhealthy or abusive relationships are characterized by a power imbalance between partners. In contrast, healthy relationships, whether they’re with long-term partners, dates, or hook-ups, are characterized by mutual respect, empathy, open communication, and consent. Consent must be willing and ongoing, which means that a person cannot be pressured or threatened into engaging in any kind of physical intimacy and that they can change their minds at any time.

How to ask for consent

Many people feel awkward asking for consent, because they might think that being so rational in such a “hot and steamy” atmosphere is not sexy. They might think it will make them less attractive because they look inexperienced or timid. The truth is, consent is a representation of respect and empathy, and there is nothing sexier than that. 

There are many ways to ask for consent. For example, you can ask about the other person’s comfort levels, or you can ask your partner what they want. You may also discuss with your partner what consent looks like for them: is it a kiss? Is it a nod? And next time, when you’re engaging in sexual activity, be sure to look out for those signs that you have discussed in advance. And if you do not see those signs, ask your partner openly and directly how they feel and what they want. It is also useful to talk to your partner after sexual activity and ask them how they feel.

Although it is always emphasized in many relationship advice websites that communication is the key to healthy relationships, it is worth keeping in mind the importance of empathy when communicating with your partner. When asking for consent, it may be tempting to ask for consent a couple more times if you receive a “no.” But this might pressure your partner into saying yes when they don’t really want to and shows a lack of respect for your partner. During the communication about “what means yes” in your relationships, it is also important to discuss your preferred ways of saying no to each other.

It’s okay to say no. 

While some people may be reluctant to ask for consent, other people may be scared to give their honest answer. They may fear that, if they say “no,”they will kill the mood and make the other person unhappy. They might fear ruining the relationship. The truth is, if the other person really respects or cares for you, they wouldn’t be upset if you say no; and if they are angry, you may want to re-assess the relationship. Guilt-tripping, i.e. making you feel guilty when you have done nothing wrong, is a very common red flag in manipulative and abusive relationships. 

In any kind of intimate relationship, we might think that we know the other person well, but it is always important to ask how the other person feels. We should also be aware of our own feelings: if something doesn’t feel comfortable and doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. If you need help navigating such a relationship, an SVSPO case manager can help you with this process. You can also get guidance from a counsellor or check out these resources:

https://canadianwomen.org/blog/warning-signs-abusive-relationship/

https://www.sfu.ca/sexual-violence/education-prevention/new-blog-/healthy-relationships/everyone-deserves-healthy-relationships-but-what-do-they-look-li.html

References

Breiding, M. J., Basile, K. C., Smith, S. G., Black, M. C., & Mahendra, R. R. (2015). Intimate partner violence surveillance: Uniform definitions and recommended data elements, Version 2.0. Atlanta (GA): National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Johnson, M. (2008). A typology of domestic violence: Intimate terrorism, violent resistance, and situational couple violence. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Smith, S. G., Zhang, X., Basile, K.C., Merrick, M.T., Wang, J., Kresnow, M., Chen, J. (2018). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 Data Brief—Updated Release. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smith, S.G., Chen, J., Basile, K.C., Gilbert, L.K., Merrick, M.T., Patel, N., Walling, M., & Jain, A. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 

About the Author: Bonnie Ng is an undergraduate student in Behavioural Neuroscience. She is a volunteer with the Active Bystander Network (ABN) and has been involved in the podcast Project Consent SFU as one of the writers and audio editors.