Sexual Abuse 

“It wasn’t rape, I never refused, I wouldn’t dare do that.” 

Sexual Abuse  

Like all forms of domestic abuse, sexual abuse is about power and control first – sexual gratification is a side issue. Throughout history, invading armies have sexually abused and raped women, children and men, intended as a highly effective means of dominating, humiliating and breaking down individuals to gain power and control. Sexual abuse in intimate relationships is also used to degrade, humiliate, crush, subjugate, violate and render submission so that power and control can easily be exerted. Because of the highly intimate nature of sexual abuse, its impact is particularly devastating for the survivor. 

“Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe.” (Brownmiller, 1975) 

Why some men believe they have the right to sexually abuse

The historical context of sexual abuse goes a long way towards explaining why some men believe they are justified in abusing women’s bodies without any notion of the question of consent. Rape and sexual abuse in marriage only became unlawful in the UK in 1992. Prior to that, men could legally rape and perform forced sexual acts on unwilling wives who could do little to protect themselves. Men could claim their ‘conjugal rights’ – a term meaning rights to sexual intimacy within a marriage, which implies a lack of requirement to obtain consent. Decades after the law was changed, some people still believe that non-consensual intercourse is not unlawful in the context of a long-term relationship. 

Sexual activities do not need to be unlawful to be abusive; women have suffered for centuries because unwanted sexual acts have been forced upon them in intimate relationships. The fact that they had no protection in law arguably made their experiences worse – their feelings of horror, degradation and violation were completely invalidated by society. Being told to ‘lie back and think of England’ was a phrase commonly used to suggest to women that their duty was to make themselves sexually available to men, even when they didn’t want intimacy. Many women still feel duty bound to make themselves sexually available to their partner. It’s common for women to feel obliged to offer an excuse when they don’t want sexual intimacy. It shouldn’t be necessary for them to use the excuse of a headache or tiredness, a simple ‘no’ should suffice. 

Revenge porn

Although sexual abuse in intimate relationships has always existed, aspects of its nature has changed in recent times, largely due to technological developments. ‘Revenge porn’ is a very disturbing development riding on the back of ‘smart’ technology. Private sexual photographs or videos are shared without consent, to cause distress to the subject of the photograph. This form of abuse is now frighteningly common and is a gendered crime with women constituting 90% of all victims. He may deliberately take images of his intimate partner early in the relationship, so he has material to manipulate and threaten her as and when he decides to. Obtaining a naked or next-to-naked picture of another person gives you power over them. (Penny, 2015) Educating women about the risks of making themselves vulnerable by allowing the images to be taken is not always helpful and it also constitutes victim blaming! These images are often taken covertly in the bedroom or bathroom with hidden cameras. Technology is a powerful weapon in the abusive man’s arsenal. 

 “I stayed in the relationship for a year longer because of his threats of revenge porn if I left. In the end, I couldn’t take it any longer and told him to do his worst – he didn’t do it, but for the year, he controlled me with the fear of it.”  (Survivor)

Stealthing – a form of rape

‘Stealthing’ is an act of non-consensual condom removal during sex. Although condoms have been in common use for decades, this act was first discussed in 2017 by Alexandra Brodsky in The Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, (2017). It is considered a sexual assault or rape because the condom removal is without consent and the consent to intercourse was conditional on its use. Stealthing sometimes has devastating consequences, including unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It violates the sexual and reproductive rights of women. The reason behind the condom removal is not so much to increase sexual pleasure, but is justified by men who practise it as a male right – a selfish act of power and control, the perpetrator feeling entitled to his partner’s body, contempt for women and the belief in male sexual supremacy. Men discuss this crime on internet sites such as Reddit. In 2019, Lee Hogben was convicted of rape after stealthing a woman in a hotel room and was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Despite this, few convictions for this form of rape are secured and many women would not name this behaviour as rape. 

Coercion to comply with harmful or degrading sex acts

Abusive men may coerce women to agree to engage in dangerous or degrading sex acts. Due to the nature of the control they hold over their partners, women may not feel they have a free choice to refuse. Sex toys such as whips that inflict injury may be used, women may be coerced into having sex with strangers or their partner’s friend, they might be persuaded to engaging in ‘dogging’ – having sex in a public place while others watch. There is no judgement here about the type of sexual behaviour women involve themselves in, the point is that many women living with abusive partners, do not have a free choice to refuse. 

If women reported intimate injuries, terms including ‘sex games’ or ‘rough sex’ had sometimes been used as an excuse in British courts by abusive men to justify causing serious injuries to women. ‘Rough sex gone wrong’ has even been used to explain deaths of intimate partners. Abusive men have often claimed their partner consented to violence for sexual gratification. This form of sex has been normalised with the popularity of the films and the books in the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ series. (James, 2012) The ‘rough sex’ defence was not officially a defence in law, but juries understood it and murder charges have been dropped in favour of manslaughter charges. However, the new Domestic Abuse Act 2021 includes an amendment invalidating this defence when the victim suffers serious harm or is killed. 

Non-fatal strangulation

Non-fatal strangulation is the non-fatal application of pressure on the neck whether gently or with some force which can obstruct or compress the airways or blood flow.  This act may be inflicted on women by abusive partners at any time, but often during sex. This horrifying act might be more difficult for men to justify when it happens outside of the bedroom, but when it occurs during sex, he may justify it as an act that heightens sexual desire for both of them, although this is rarely the case. Women may be less likely to name this act as abusive when it is passed off as merely a sex act. It is a terrifying act that often makes women fear death, but it tends to leave few signs of injury and has historically been punishable only as common assault. Strangulation is second only to stabbing as a cause of death in domestic murders, therefore it is seen as a ‘red flag’ for domestic murder. In the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, non-fatal strangulation has become an offence in its own right, giving women a level of protection they didn’t previously have.  

In rough sex, stealthing, non-consensual strangulation and revenge porn, women are subjected to serious sexual violations, often at the hands of a man they know, trust and even love. 

Abusive withdrawal of intimacy

Sexual abuse is not always physical. It sometimes takes the form of the withdrawal of sexual and physical intimacy. This form of abuse can be crushing for women and is designed to be so, it’s a form of passive aggression and a more covert form of abuse. Physical rejection of an intimate partner can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. He may express revulsion about his partner’s body and disgust if she comes near him. He might claim she smells or that her vagina is too loose to please him. He might lie on the edge of the bed as if disgusted by her proximity to him. This type of abuse can have a devastating effect on her sense of self-worth. This type of sexual cruelty may not be identified by survivors or others as sexual abuse, meaning that their experience of abuse is often invalidated.  

“I never would have called it sexual abuse because he wouldn’t touch me, he looked disgusted if he saw me naked. I internalised his disgust and felt terrible about my body, about myself.” (Survivor)

Abusive demands for sex

More often, sexual abuse takes the form of insensitive demands for sex without regard for the woman’s wishes. She will commonly acquiesce to these demands because to do so may be the safest option. She may also believe it’s her duty to submit to him. Sexual abuse is always accompanied by other forms of abuse and will never be a feature of an otherwise happy relationship. She will make careful choices based on damage limitation, always mindful of her safety and doing what’s required to avert an escalation of his abuse. If she refuses sexual demands, she may be raped. If not raped, she may be subjected to name-calling or accusations that she’s ‘frigid’, or her lack of interest cited as evidence that she’s having an affair. Sometimes women are required to perform sexual acts to buy themselves privileges; they may be expected to pay with sex to be allowed out of the house to go to work. Women might be required to perform oral sex before being allowed out of the car to purchase food for the family. Alcohol or drugs may be forced upon women to manipulate them into engaging in sexual acts they would otherwise refuse to perform. Abusive demands for sex can be made too soon after childbirth, during illness, or during menstruation. The perpetrator being completely insensitive to the feelings of the survivor.

Unacknowledged rape

Survivors of domestic abuse may be raped in their intimate relationship but fail to acknowledge that their experience constitutes rape. Unacknowledged rape can be defined as “an experience that meets the hallmarks of rape or assault but is not labelled as such by the victim. Instead, terms like ‘misunderstanding’, a ‘hook-up gone wrong’ and ‘grey area’ are used.” (Thompson, 2021) Thompson suggests that when rape is perpetrated by someone we know and love, it can be difficult to identify sexual violence when it’s actually happening to you. 

In my experience supporting women, unacknowledged rape is very common. The realisation that they are enduring rape can be difficult for some women to comprehend and process, so they often deny the reality to themselves. 

Using sex to help perpetuate coercive control

Perpetrators of abuse sometimes use sex to manipulate and control their partner. He may ‘reward’ her with intimacy when she’s behaved as expected, but also abusively withdraw it if she displeases him. When abusive men alternate between nice and nasty, women may become very focused on hoping for a return of what they perceive as the nice or loving behaviour. When women are still invested in the relationship and hoping for it to work, abusing sex in this way can be very effective for the perpetrator. If trauma bonds are present, they can also be intensified by this type of behaviour.

“Despite his abuse, I was always hoping for the relationship to work, I honestly tried my best because I loved him so much. He would be vile to me for days and when I felt completely broken and desperate, he would be intimate with me. I became so desperate for his affection that I’d do anything for him in the hope that I’d please him and he would be loving again. It was only then that I felt wanted and normal.”  (Survivor)

How sexual abuse affects women

Sexual abuse can encompass physical abuse, emotional abuse, coercive control and economic abuse (forced prostitution). Because of its intimate nature, this type of abuse often has a terrible impact on the survivor’s mental health. Physically, sexual abuse can be particularly dangerous because injuries are often inflicted internally, and strangulation can be a feature. Women may also be made vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases. Emotionally, women often suffer trauma, depression, anxiety and feelings of low self-worth. Survivors are less likely to report this type of abuse and when they do, the police and judicial systems often subject them to an in-depth intrusion into their sexual history, which can create a secondary trauma. When men want to control women, sexual abuse is a highly effective strategy. Until society no longer tolerates men thinking that they should hold the power and control in a relationship and treat women as their property, sexual abuse will persist in intimate relationships.  

Tips for surviving the sexual abuser

This is such a huge and complex subject; a few bullet points won’t be of much use. In general terms, we should remember what we would tell our teenage daughters – your body is yours and you should never feel coerced, pressured or forced into sexual activities. Because domestic abuse and in particular sexual abuse is so confusing, it’s sometimes worth considering your feelings and gut instinct – if it doesn’t feel right and you don’t feel good, then perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it and you might be experiencing abuse. 

Women’s response to sexual abuse varies hugely. Some can openly talk about being raped in their relationship with little apparent distress; for others, a similar experience will trigger intense trauma. Whether the abuse is current or historic, if it is negatively impacting you, it is advisable to seek support. The type of support needed will be determined by your level of trauma, and it might be that specialist sexual abuse support or trauma support is needed. If the trauma is less serious, and the sexual abuse not the main aspect of your abuse, then your local Women’s Aid charity will be able to support you appropriately. 

Julia’s story

“I didn’t think that sexual abuse was what I’d suffered, let alone rape! We’d been together for 10 years, the majority of the relationship was abusive. Stephan was very controlling. Although he never hit me, I was pretty scared of him, scared of his temper and frightened by his moods. He had a hold over me and I rarely felt able to express my wishes, I was generally too intimidated, so I would tend to do what he expected of me.

“Because of his abuse, I hated him and couldn’t stand his physical presence. I generally didn’t dare to refuse sex. On occasions when I showed reluctance, he would become very angry and accuse me of “shagging around”. As time went on, I did start refusing intimacy, I’d really stopped caring about the verbal abuse and I believed he wouldn’t hit me. But he didn’t accept my refusal and he forced sex upon me, whatever I said. He wasn’t physically forceful, he didn’t need to be, he just wouldn’t accept my refusal and carried on anyway. He told me I had no right to say no, I think he believed he owned me.

“I left Stephan five years ago. My life is so much better now, but I don’t feel ready for another intimate relationship. I’m aware I’m still damaged by Stephan’s abuse. I have major trust issues; I equate intimacy with abuse and can’t seem to separate the two in my mind.”  


Brodsky, Alexandra (2017) Rape – Adjacent: Imagining Legal Responses to Non-consensual Condom Removal Columbia Journal of Gender and Law Vol. 32, No. 2: New York

Brownmiller, Susan (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape Secker and Warburg: London

James, E L (2012) Fifty Shades of Grey Arrow: London

Penny, Laurie (2015) Unspeakable Things. Sex, Lies and Revolution Bloomsbury: London 

Thompson, Rachel (2021) Rough: How violence has found its way into the bedroom Penguin, Random House: London

Written by Sandra Reddish

If you found this article  helpful, you might like to purchase one of Sandra’s books –

One in Four Women – understanding men’s domestic abuse and violence against women. Link to purchase the book below.

       Beyond the Break-up – understanding and surviving men’s domestic abuse and            violence against women post-separation. Link to purchase the book below.

Sandra Reddish

About the author

Sandra Reddish

Supporting and advocating for domestic abuse survivors is my life’s purpose. I am endlessly inspired by the strength, perseverance and hope so many women show in the face of often terrible circumstances. I will continue to use my expertise to do everything I can to empower women to survive and thrive following domestic abuse.