photo by: Damir Spanic
by Andrea M. Darcy
Did your partner cross a line sexually, and you are wondering if it is or isn’t sexually abusive? What is and isn’t a sexually abusive relationship as two adults?
What is sexual abuse in a relationship?
Sexual abuse in adult relationships, also called ‘intimate partner sexual violence’, is unwanted sexual activity you’ve been made to do against your will, or been manipulated to accept with things like threats, sulking, or blackmail.
What does intimate partner sexual violence look like?
If you said no, or you said you were unsure, and your partner went ahead and did the sexual act anyway? Or you said stop and they kept going? It’s sexual abuse.
And it is sexually abusive if you are being:
- held down during sex without your consent
- purposely hurt during sex
- forced to watch porn or look at sexual imagery
- made to have sex with someone else
- told to accept another person being involved when you don’t want to
- pressured to allow naked and/or sexual photographs or videos
- forced to dress in a sexual way you don’t like
- not told about unsafe sex or the condom being removed without your approval (stealthing)
- given a sexually transmitted disease on purpose
- given drugs or alcohol with the intent to lower your ability to say no.
Sexual coercion in intimate relationships
Sexual abuse can also take the form of coercion. Coercion is manipulation and control. This can look like:
- pressuring you to do things even after you’ve said no
- telling you that what is about to happen has to remain a secret
- pushing you to do things even when you’ve made it clear you’re afraid
- punishing you if you don’t go along with what they want
- making you feel bad you don’t want sex when you are ill, or tired, or injured
- insulting you in sexual ways or being called sexual names
- making you feel like you owe them sex
- insinuating bad things will happen if you don’t do what they want
- getting angry with you if you refuse to do what they want sexually
- or refusing to talk to you, sulking, or otherwise making you feel guilty.
But I’m in an open or alternative relationship, is it still sexual abuse?
If you said no to a sexual act and were coerced into it, then it’s assault or abuse. It doesn’t matter if you are involved in S&M, or if you have a sexually adventurous open relationship, or a LBGTQ relationship.
Sexual abuse in an adult relationship can happen to anyone. It happens across class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and culture.
But I didn’t mind it, I might even have liked it
If you said no, if you were clear you didn’t want something, and were made to do something against your will? It’s abusive. It doesn’t matter if your body responded or not, or if it was or wasn’t as horrible as you expected.
Intimate partner sexual violence can be confusing, particularly if we feel we are in love with the person. We can try to justify things to ourselves afterwards, or blame ourselves.
Note that a partner who is sexually abusive is highly likely to also be abusive in other ways, including emotionally and psychologically. They might be manipulating you to feel it’s all your fault, that you get what you deserve, or that you actually like it but just aren’t admitting it.
How do you feel around the other person?
If you are always trying to justify your partner’s behaviour, it can help to ask yourself the following questions.
- Do you feel fear around them?
- Or intimidated?
- After each sexual act do you feel guilty and ashamed?
- Are you increasingly using a substance like drugs or alcohol when around them, to help you feel calmer?
Other major signs your partner is abusive
Again, sexually abusive partners are almost inevitably abusive in other ways, most often physical abuse. Does your partner push or slap you? Hit you? Physically hurt you in any other way?
They might also be emotionally abusive, constantly belittling you, calling you names and blaming you for everything.
Or psychologically abusive, telling you nobody will love you but them, that you are nothing without them, or threatening to hurt you or themselves if you don’t do what they want. They might cut you off from family and friends, and destroy things that are important to you.
Economic abuse is also important to know about. This means your partner controls you by limiting your access to money or stops you from being financially independent. This can mean they stop you from getting a job, take the money you do earn, or refuse to let you go to school to retrain and be employable.
What do I do if my partner is sexually abusing me?
If you are with a partner who is abusing you in anyway, you need to get help. Abusive relationships are not easy to walk away from. We can be psychologically addicted to the cycle of pain then approval domestic abuse involves, and it can mimic confusion about love and abuse we learned from trauma as a child, called ‘trauma bonding’.
You might also be very afraid about what your partner will do, particularly if they have ever threatened to hurt you, your children, or your pets. Or ashamed about what people might think if they knew.
So do not blame yourself if you can’t just walk away easily. Reach out for whatever help you can. This might be a trusted friend, or a support group, or calling a help line or charity.
Where to find help in the UK
Not sure if your relationship is abusive, or want to talk things over with someone in a safe, confidential environment? We connect you with kind, highly experienced therapists in central London. Or use our booking portal to find UK- wide registered therapists and online counsellors.
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing expert, trained in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and advises people on how to plan their therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy