Sexual violence and abuse

Sexual abuse is any sort of non-consensual sexual contact, including rape. Sexual abuse can happen to men or women of any age. Sexual abuse by an intimate partner can include derogatory name calling, refusal to use contraception, deliberately causing unwanted physical pain during sex, deliberately passing on sexual diseases or infections and using objects, toys, or other items, without consent and in order to cause pain or humiliation.

Of all the different types of abuse which may be part of domestic violence, women find this aspect the most difficult to talk about, not helped by the fact that until 1986 rape within marriage wasn’t recognised as a crime in England and Wales. For many victims of abuse it is very difficult to refuse sexual contact since this might lead to negative consequences.

Women we talked to had experienced rape and other forms of unwanted sexual behaviour, as well as name-calling. Linda’s partner called her ugly and ‘awful’ to have sex with, taunting her with his new lover. Shaina’s partner made her take her contraceptive implant out. In contrast, Charlotte’s partner withdrew all closeness and intimacy including sex and was furious at her for suggesting sex.

Sex: men see it as their ‘right’ and the woman’s ‘duty’

All the women we interviewed described elements of sexual abuse or violence in their relationship. They said their partners demanded sex when they, themselves, did not want it. Sophie realised that she was merely a ‘service provider’ in their relationship. Kate said:

‘He didn’t understand why he couldn’t touch me and handle me in any way he wanted , [but] I had no right to impact on his life.’

Many women, like Sarah, Lolita and Sara talked about being ‘coerced into sex’.

Sarah’s partner threatened to have sex with somebody else if she refused to have sex with him.

Age at interview 32

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Lolita’s partner said that as she was his girlfriend, he should be able to have sex with her if he wanted to. Lolita knew that non-consensual sex was rape but she did not challenge her partner as she held on to the hope that he might one again ‘become the person that [she] fell in love with’.

Lolita’s partner would just climb on top and do what he wanted’s and then leave, not caring that she was crying.

Age at interview 20

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Sara felt constantly pressurised in her marriage by her husband’s daily sexual demands, even during pregnancy. She tried to negotiate a compromise, as he became ‘stroppy’ to her and the kids if he didn’t have regular sex, and threatened to leave. She began to feel inadequate when her husband said her lack of interest in sex meant that she did not love him enough.

Sara couldn’st cope with her husband’s sexual demands. Sex was sometimes physically painful for her but her husband would not listen to her (read by a professional).

Age at interview 40

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When women were not keen on having sex, men verbally abused them, calling them either ‘frigid’ or a ‘slag, a ‘whore’. They often falsely interpreted a lack of interest in sex as evidence that the woman was having an affair. This led them to become even more controlling and violent.


Some women described being regularly raped, sometimes violently. Several women woke to find their partner penetrating them without their consent. Many women said they complied with their partner’s sexual demands to avoid further abuse. Melanie said, looking back, there had been ‘a lot of raping’. Forceful, aggressive sex became the norm and she ‘learned to go onto auto-pilot’. She said there was no love involved, her partner blatantly telling her ‘it’s not about pleasing you, it’s about you pleasing me’. She believed it was ‘normal’.

Melanie’s partner insisted on sex when she was dressed to go out and he left her no time to have a wash afterwards.

Age at interview 42

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Ella, like many women, talked about being forced to have sex after clearly saying she did not want it but did not realise it constituted rape. Ella’s image of rape was being attacked ‘in a dark alley by someone you don’t know’.

Ella felt weird’s with her partner after he persisted with sex after she said I don’st want to have sex’s, but she did not realise it counted as rape’s (played by an actor).

Age at interview 27

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Women also talked about some professionals who did not believe that ‘rape’ could happen within a marriage, and did not provide appropriate support. Lindsay was anally raped on her wedding night.

Lindsay described her contact with doctors who did not acknowledge domestic abuse after she was raped by her husband.

Age at interview 35

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Sex for favours

Sex was used as a form of control (see ‘Coercive Controlling Behaviour‘). Some women had to ‘pay’ for the right to go out of the house, to buy food for their children, or to fill the car with petrol to get to work, by first having sex. Victoria’s ex said her would only give her child maintenance payments if she slept with him, making her feel like ‘a prostitute’. Yasmin and Ella both described having to perform oral sex in a car park before they were allowed to go and buy groceries or pay for petrol to get to work.

Yasmin had to adopt a pattern of paying for anything she needed with sex or, as she put it, sleeping with’s her husband.

Age at interview 32

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Ella had to wait and ask for money to put petrol in her car to get to work and then was only given some cash if she had oral sex first (played by an actor).

Age at interview 27

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Financial abuse

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