Talking about sexual matters is difficult, it’s deeply personal and awkward. It’s also necessary, so bear with me today.
The American Psychological Association states “Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. Most victims and perpetrators know each other. Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder. While efforts to treat sex offenders remain unpromising, psychological interventions for survivors — especially group therapy — appears effective.”
I want to take a broader look at sexual abuse, particularly within the context of marital-type relationships.
In my opinion, the definition above, is descriptive of an assault. It is possible, and all too frequent, for sexual assault to happen within a marriage. Just because a couple is in an relationship that agrees, or implies to agree, to sexual relations does not mean that assault is no longer possible. The timing and type of sexual interaction also needs to be consensual.
That isn’t all though. I want to talk about how an abuser mingles emotional and verbal abuse into the sexual relationship, turning it into a tool to hurt instead of enjoy.
An abuser mingles their abuse into every aspect of the relationship.
It’s not easy to discuss the things that that go wrong during the intimate acts in a bedroom. It’s very hard to share them with others. It makes it more challenging to expose this type of abuse.
Abusers will use any interaction to beat down the esteem of their victims. One of the best avenues for this is sexual encounters. It is something private, intimate, and taboo to discuss. It is not socially acceptable to discuss what happens between a couple, and there is no real “normal”. It’s embarrassing to admit that your partner criticizes you in the bedroom, doesn’t want you at all, wants it too much, prefers porn, takes it without permission, gets angry if it doesn’t go the way they expect it to, complains about not getting enough, insults your looks or action, blames you if they can’t reach satisfaction, or if you never reach satisfaction. An abuser will also fault you for the clothes you wear; wanting you to wear clothes that are more revealing than you are comfortable with or accusing you of wearing clothes that are too revealing. Wanting you to be sexy without defining what sexy means to them and faulting you for not meeting their expectations. How an abuser exerts their control can look different from person to person or even encounter to encounter.
In no other interaction is it as easy to feel at fault if the sex isn’t appealing or satisfactory.
There are many ways an abuser can use sexual interactions to hurt their partner. There is, of course, the obvious way of forcing his attentions, taking what is not offered (rape), insisting on methods undesired, ignoring a “no”, using violence to take what they want. Sometimes they force your attentions and then turn on you in anger if you exercise your right to say no.
There are other ways too: blaming you if it’s not “good enough”. My ex used to yell at me during sex if I moved too much, or not enough. I never knew which was wanted and there were times I got yelled at for both in the same encounter. Other times, he would complain that he didn’t get enough foreplay. He would complain that I did not initiate sex, but then would ignore me when I invited him to join me. Sex happened when he wanted it, or not at all. Frequently, it was not at all and then he would complain that it was not enough.
Some abusers insult their partners, criticizing how they look, how they act, what they say. Some take only their own pleasure without even attempting to give pleasure.
Another way sex can be used against a partner is to withhold wanted or cause unwanted pregnancy. Some abusers will pretend to use contraceptive to get their partner pregnant or be impregnated. Other abusers will talk about wanting another child, acting as if that is what they are working for while they are, in fact, sabotaging the attempts. When my ex and I decided we wanted a second child, we began tracking my cycle so we could get pregnant. He would avoid intercourse during my fertile days, joining me at the end of the potential days. While I thought we were actively trying to get pregnant, he was using his knowledge of my cycle to avoid sex when I would be fertile. No wonder he was positive I’d had an affair when I did get pregnant for the second time…. According to my usual cycle I should not have been fertile, but stress had changed my cycle.
An abuser will not hesitate to use sex to embarrass their partner publicly either. While we were entertaining another couple for dinner, he startled me by suddenly, out of the blue, asking them about how often a couple should be intimate. I burst into tears and ran from the room. He used it to embarrass me and drive a wedge in a fledgling friendship. Discussing those matters with another trusted couple is actually a good idea, if it is agreed upon between the two of you before the discussion is raised.
The more intimate the topic, the more likely an abuser is using it to cause harm and excerpt control because they know you are less likely to discuss it with others. It will be one of the first areas where they step out of emotional and verbal abuse.
Sexual abuse is not necessarily sexual assault.
There are so many facets to sexual abuse it is practically impossible to address them all here. Suffice it to say that if you feel unwanted, dirty, sinful, disgusted or undesired when engaging in sexual encounters, there is a very good chance you are experience sexual abuse.
It’s not acceptable, it’s not necessary and it’s not healthy. Let’s strive to have healthy interactions in every facet of our relationships.