This is the thirteenth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse.
Sexual abuse equates to unwanted sexualised contact. Sexual abuse pertains to the perpetrator not seeking consent and to the target not giving consent.
Men’s intimate partner sexual abuse involves expecting or demanding sex when she doesn’t desire it, then ignoring her wishes, ignoring her protests, telling her that ‘no’ really means ‘yes’. Sexual abuse entails manipulation, coercion, verbal demands or physical force.
Rodney Vlais from No to Violence Male Family Violence Prevention Association in Melbourne, Australia, states that:
“Sexual violence may serve as an expression of men’s unearned gender-based privilege, based on a belief that they are entitled to sexual gratification and are being ‘victimised’ when women ‘withhold’ sex from them.” (Vlais, 2011)
This socially driven sense of male entitlement leads some men to insist their partner give him sex how he wants, any time he wants, as often as he wants and any style he wants.
During the interviews I conducted with men for my PhD research, I asked: “If there was an unwritten marriage contract what would it say?” Sam responded by saying, that he believed that back when he got married, women “had to be a slave.” He said that now he believes, “No woman is a slave, I know the morals there. But when I got married I was in that demon. The good side knew, but the bad side didn’t want to hear it. It’s hard to describe. I knew from the way I was raised by my mum, my grandmother, all my lovely aunties, the soft side knew that women aren’t to be treated like pieces of meat and sex objects and shit like that. But, then the old demon’s like:
. . . . . ‘stuff it, it’s my missus I’ll do whatever I bloody like. If I want sex she’s going to give it to me whenever.’ And that’s what a lot of males think. ‘You got my ring. You’ll give me sex when I want. If you don’t I’ll get it from somewhere else’.”
Sam went on to say that marriage meant the man owns the woman. He said:
“Yup, it’s like a new car. Like once I’ve done enough payments, it’s mine. I own this. And that’s how it’s going to be. That’s how a lot of males think.”
In discussion with men I interviewed I asked, “what expectations don’t get met for them in marriage?” The most common answer was — sex!
Anthony’s answer was: “Sex, sex and sex! The old joke is ‘how do you stop women from having sex?’ Give them a wedding cake. It’s really all the old bad clichés. That’s one thing men always talk about, how we’re not getting it, how we want more of it, why isn’t that pink skirt over there coming over to say hello for more sex. That has been an old joke that I’ve heard for years.”
Similarly, Bob said, “Sex every night for me! That is really part of the culture I suppose. Yeah, I guess you sort of do kinda think sex is gonna be there whenever I want. Even though that’s not reality.”
And Chris too said, “I think we have an expectation, most guys you’re aware of anyway — ‘how many times a month or how many times a week’ — you hear that all the time. I suppose that’s an unwritten expectation in marriage. I think the sexual expectation doesn’t get met. Coz the guys expect x amount, x amount, x amount and you always hear men BRAG about how many times. I think that’s an expectation that we assume should be met. But definitely can’t be met. That was something I used to always bring up in arguments. I think men do get controlling on sex, because we sit there and whinge and whinge and whinge that we’re not getting it. Looking back now, you know how bad that’d make the girls feel, but that’s one thing we do do. I know I have done it, I was doing it. It is sexual abuse in a form. It is sexual abuse. It is sexual abuse by controlling your wife. If she doesn’t want it bad luck — ‘you’re a bad person for not giving it to me’.”
Much of these expectations stem from social messages about how to be a man. Bill said, “There’s nothing out there that tells you how to have a respectful relationship there’s plenty out there that tells you how to treat women like they’re sexual beings.”
Coercive sexual abuse tactics
Some men who coercively control their partner, give her drugs or alcohol to make her intoxicated or unconscious, so he can perform sexual acts without her consent or knowledge. Some insist she engage in bondage and discipline or sadomasochism against her will, or engage in coerced or attempted rape.
Men who coercively control their partner sexually draw on a sense of male entitlement by telling her that the marriage law means it is her duty to provide him with sex, they help themselves to sex while she is sleeping, beg her to strip when she doesn’t want to, insist she dress in a more sexual way than she wants. Some women talk about having enjoyable sex after a fight, however, for some women ‘make-up’ sex after being badly abused feels bad and occurs against her will.
Raewyn, a woman I interviewed for my Masters research said, “If Brian wanted sex, well he just got his way. It was like I didn’t even think about what my rights were. I think sex just happened.” Raewyn said she never put up a fight and said ‘no’, “until probably the month before I left. And it was scary when I did that, very scary. But that’s because he knew I wanted to leave so the situation was pretty bad, yeah, really bad actually.”
Likewise for Donna: “Well you didn’t have any sexual rights in my marriage with Frank. Sex if he wanted sex. That was that.”
When I asked Pauline about her sexual rights she said, “Oh no, that was completely up to Chris. He initiated it. I was so bloody green and naïve (laugh). He was the initiator, he, far more than me (laugh), yeah, he was the boss.”
Elsie didn’t think she ever contemplated her sexual rights before marrying Leon. But she said that during their marriage, “I didn’t really have any rights. I had none. I wasn’t allowed to say ‘no’. They just wear you down. Sex just had to be the way he wanted it and that was all there was to it.”
Many male partners who use power and control tactics, sexually degrade and insult their partner, they make demeaning remarks about women generally and tell anti-women jokes. They make fun of her body, humiliate and criticise her body, call her frigid, a whore, prostitute, gigolo, or mail order bride. Others make sexual ‘jokes’ about her in front of the children and other people.
Men who sexually abuse their partner ignore her needs and wishes
They will not do what excites her sexually, they minimise the importance of her feelings about sex and withhold affection. They randomly grab or touch her breasts, buttocks or genitals without her consent.
Sally, said that Dylan “would never touch me in an affectionate way without it turning into sex. Every time I asked to be touched affectionately — which he was really good at, and mind you, that is one reason I stayed in there for seven years because he was so affectionate — but he’d always turn it into sex.”
Sally also said, Dylan would “have to grab at my boobs when I was in the kitchen, he’d grab at my boobs when I was in the lounge. To try to make him understand how I felt I would yell at him, I asked him not to, I’d be reasonable and explain how I didn’t like it. I’d grab at his penis to show him how degrading and how awful it was and when I did that all he would do was tell me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t to do that again and of course, I didn’t, unlike him, he would still continue to grab me.”
When I asked Elizabeth if she believed she had any rights sexually, she said, “No, just duties. If he wanted sex then I had to have sex. I didn’t feel like I had any say about that at all. He used to like nice underwear and I had all this beautiful underwear. I remember thinking on a Saturday morning, David’s going to want sex tonight, I am really going to try hard today, I will try really hard, cook a nice dinner. He’d get a bottle of wine and say ‘Is it going to be worth my while? Was I going to give him good sex that night?’ Then getting to the bedroom that night and pulling open the underwear draw and feeling sick, ‘I don’t want to do this’, but going through it anyway to be a good wife to live up to whatever a good wife is supposed to be in my head. I would count the days and think, ‘oh a couple of days it might be all right tonight’, but on the third day it was like ‘oh no I’ve got to have sex with him tonight’. I didn’t used to enjoy that very much. Sex wasn’t much fun.
According to Raewyn, “Brian would do his own thing all the time, his tramping, hunting, building, so really there was very little attention given to me, very little. The only time was when he wanted sex, then he’d be a little bit nice to me, have sex and then that would be it and he wouldn’t be nice to me again until he wanted sex.” After separating from Brian, Raewyn became privy to Brian voicing his attitudes about women. Raewyn said her sons, “were out camping with their dad and his ex-girlfriend, and she was talking to the boys about how women like to be treated by men. Brian then said, ‘Oh, all we want is to have sex first.’ And she was saying, ‘Women like to be nurtured rather than merely jump into bed.’ And Brian was saying, ‘Oh men, we just want to jump into bed.’ I found that a bit derogatory.”
Victoria said, “Our sexual relationship was pretty stuffed. Sex with Graham wasn’t about intimacy, it was about getting his rocks off. It was only ever about him. There were some things I just wasn’t willing to do. And a lot of it was about ‘if I just want to keep the peace then do it’. Just lie back and think of England. And just get on with it because it’s just not worth the hassle sometimes.”
It is also common for men who coercively control their partner to openly, or secretly, watch porn for hours on the internet. Many of these men compare their partner negatively to pornographic images, they make her watch or read pornography and then force her to engage in those pornographic activities.
Other men attempt to, or do involve, third parties in sexual activities against the woman’s will. Some men have affairs with other people after agreeing to a monogamous relationship, some try to seduce her friends and family, others make her perform degrading sexual acts in public, or force her to have sex with others while he watches, or force her to watch or listen to others having sex.
Karen said she and Felix, “had gone on a holiday programme with our work up the valley at this camp. We were in this room sleeping with two other staff members and he decided he wanted to have sex. ‘No I don’t want to have sex with other people here in the room. I can’t do this.’ He got his way. There was no way he was going to take ‘no’ for an answer. But I remember lying there thinking ‘how the hell did I get into this situation? I do not want this to be happening. But if I start kicking and screaming now (laughter) there’s going to be hell to pay’.”
Some men accuse their partner of flirting, or having an affair, or having sex with other men, or trying to attract other men’s attention by wearing particular clothes or make-up. He makes such accusations to manipulate her into having sex, or he tells her he’ll go elsewhere for sex if she doesn’t have sex with him.
Bill believed that because men expect sex from their partner as their right, then “If you don’t get it at home you go next door, in the sexual side of it.”
Donna said, “I wasn’t allowed to go out because Frank was scared I’d have sex with someone, which never happened, so I wouldn’t be allowed to have the car.”
Karen said, “I remember when Felix wouldn’t trust me sexually. He’d stop me from talking to people when I’d gone out. I’d feel I was radiating, it was something that being young, sexy and vibrant was all about, but when he placed the limits on that it was like there was this invisible wall all around me.”
A New Zealand research project found that some men use sexual abuse tactics that involve animals. For example those men made their partner watch him have sex with animals, forced her to engage in sexual activities with animals and made her watch animal-related pornography. (Roguski, 2012)
Some men use blackmail to engage their partner in sexual activities. They may force her to have sex so she may then be allowed to do things she wants, for example, so she may see her family or keep her job. Or he makes her pose for pornographic photographs in exchange for something she needs or wants.
The issue of consent to engage in sexual activties in an intimate relationship is complex.
At one time she may want sex, consent to it and enjoy it — at another time she may feel sexually violated, even though he may not have used any physical force.
Claiming and asserting boundaries can be confusing and difficult in a relationship with a man who uses guilt as a coercive tool. For example, he makes her feel guilty as a way of manipulating her to have sex, or makes her feel guilty and wrong, by telling her that other couples have more sex than they do.
Patrick would use sulking as a way of making Teresa feel guilty. Teresa said, “I thought I didn’t have any sexual rights. I thought I was obliged. I thought I was there to make him happy.”
Teresa’s health deteriorated throughout her relationship. She said, “In the last six months of the relationship I was sick a lot of the time and had a lot of neck problems. I partly at the time related this to sex because I had got to the point where I didn’t want him to touch me and he was really insistent that he was going to. Being sick was a legitimate way of getting out of sex. If you’re demonstrably sick then that’s good.” I asked Teresa if being sick worked. She said, “Some of the time it did, not all the time. I mean sometimes I’d just submit, otherwise he’d sulk for three days and be nasty. So it was the lesser of two evils. If he wouldn’t take bronchitis or whatever as a reason, then it was easier to grit your teeth and think of mother England and be done with it.”
Elizabeth said David, “used to come very quickly. I never got a chance to get into it anyway but then it was always my fault that he would come quickly. One way or another, it is because I was too attractive, or he had to wait too long. It was always my fault. I just took that on board. Underneath I was getting angry and resentful, and I thought ‘I have just got to do it’ and I was always thinking ‘what’s wrong with me?’ When I first went to see a psychiatrist, the question that I went there with was ‘why don’t I want to have sex with my husband, what is wrong with me?’ (laughter)” During the two years of seeing the psychiatrist Elizabeth, came to realise she did not want sex with her husband because “He treated me really badly! Why would I want to have sex with someone that treats me really badly! But that only came to me a long time after I started going to the psychiatrist. Because what I got from going to the counselling was a belief in myself. The sex thing was just a side issue.”
Sally’s and Elizabeth’s husbands compared them unfavourably to previous lovers, for example telling them that other women do things that she does not do.
Elizabeth said, “David had a girlfriend before we got together. And he always let me know how wonderful she was in bed and that I just didn’t measure up and that I must have some big problem, that there was something wrong with me. He used to do that a lot, and it certainly didn’t make me feel very good.”
Some men use coercive control by refusing to use contraception, or by not allowing her to protect herself from becoming pregnant.
Karen maintained that “contraception was a real issue. I kept getting pregnant. Felix wouldn’t use a condom, I couldn’t take the pill, I’d bleed for three weeks, five days off, bleed another three weeks, so that wasn’t on for me. He wouldn’t consider a vasectomy. I couldn’t use a diaphragm either because we were having sex too much. That was a huge issue and he wouldn’t deal with it. He’d say, ‘it just isn’t part of my culture, you have babies, that’s what sex is for’.”
Some men treat their partner as a sex object in ways that heartlessly ignore her physical wellbeing. For example, they trick, force, pressure, or coerce her to have unsafe sex, or pressure her to have sex when she’s sick, or kiss and touch her in ways that make her feel uncomfortable and some men continue sexual activities despite knowing he is hurting her.
When Sally was sick Dylan, “insisted on having sex with me. Saying ‘no’ was a waste of time — coz he’d say, in so many different ways, that I was the problem, so part of me believed him.”
For Susan, “There were times, especially after our first child, I didn’t want sex coz if we had sex I’d get pregnant and I’d had such a really bad delivery with the baby being six weeks early. The first thing Anthony did was jump on me when I came home from hospital. I certainly didn’t want that. I didn’t want this because there’s no protection, and of course my stomach had been cut open. Well — he hadn’t had sex for about ten days! I did say ‘no’, but to Anthony ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and, ‘I’ll have it’. I mean he did that for years and years.”
Some women are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse by their partners.
Those men who have partners who are disabled, sick or otherwise vulnerable deny their partner appropriate reproductive health care, they arrange suppression of her menstruation or force her into sterilisation, or termination of a pregnancy. They violate her trust and sense of safety by coercing, demanding or expecting sexual activities in return for providing care, food or money. Or they engage in unwarranted, or excessive, ‘care’ to her breasts, genitals or anus, or they leave her naked or sexually exposed.
Some men manipulate their partner into having sex in return for a gift or a back rub.
Sally had a lot of physical pain during her seven year marriage to Dylan, so she would “Sometimes ask for a massage, but he would never ever give me a massage without insisting that I had to trade sex for a massage. Because I needed to be touched I would trade and I would hate every moment of the sex, but I would lie there and just enjoy the massage. I felt raped and I felt that it was a woman’s place to give a man sex.”
Other men overwhelm their partner by continually pestering her for sex.
As far as rights were concerned for Sally, she “realised, especially sexually, that I was trapped because Dylan was a sex addict. He wanted to have sex 24 hours a day, seven days a week if he could. It was every morning, throughout the day, every night, he was at me, at me, at me. I couldn’t stand it, I felt so trapped. I felt like my rights as a wife were to service him sexually and I realised that I never ever ever wanted to get married again to anybody. That would be one of the major reasons that I wanted to leave him because I just felt absolutely used, raped, coerced into sex, doing things I didn’t like, anal sex.”
Karen said, “I just felt like I was being trampled on like it didn’t really matter what I felt at all. It was just consistent with the rest of the situation. I mean why would he respect you sexually if he didn’t respect you in any other way? (laughter) and it was one very particularly powerful tool he had over me because he was so good at sex. And it was used as a tool. I mean there was lots of love and stuff with it too, but there was always those same sort of power struggles that would go along with it and I learned not to approach him. He’d be the one to dictate how it went. I also learnt that it was not worth trying to say ‘no’ because he would keep going subtly, subtly for a couple of hours. Do it there and then, and then try and get some sleep (laughter).”
Wanting sex or wanting power and control?
In a sense, wanting sex, sex and more sex is not the exact issue for many men who exert dominance over their partner. Instead, as Karen and Sally found when they initiated sex, their partners’ negative responses indicated to these women that in fact the men actually wanted to have power and control more than they wanted sex.
Karen said Felix was a “very very unpredictable person. I tried to figure it out. I was confused about how I should behave. If I tried to initiate sex he would turn stone cold, turn over shrug me off and say, ‘Leave me alone’. I think it only took 6 or 7 times for me to initiate and it would be like that so I never tried ever again for the rest of the relationship. Then he would start and say, ‘Why has it always got to be me?’ Then there’d be a row. He’d say, ‘I feel like you’re taking advantage of me, I want you to put in some work.’ My response would be, ‘Ok, sure cool.’ But you do it once, it goes well, next time stone cold, rolls over. I’d come to the conclusion that it was just something else to bitch about.”
According to Sally, Dylan “would insist that part of the problem we had sexually was that I didn’t initiate. So occasionally I would initiate sex, only because he told me I had to, not because I wanted to. I’d do it every now and then, anytime of the day, it didn’t really matter because I knew he wanted sex all day, everyday. But every time I initiated sex he would become this person who just wasn’t himself, he just became kind of angry, kind of a hatred on his face like a real bastard. I don’t remember his words, but they were something like ‘how dare you initiate sex at this time, I am busy, I’m working’. I was so confused. I did this only about 3 or 4 times, and one day it dawned on me. I thought he doesn’t want me to initiate sex, that’s not the issue. He just wants to be in full control, no matter what.”
Asking for consent to engage in sex with an intimate partner, and genuinely being granted consent, shows respect for both participants.
Our body is our own, no-one is entitled to possess someone else’s body.
Alan Berkowitz, a highly regarded psychologist who works with men to prevent violence and abuse against women, provides four guidelines for consent in intimate relationships:
- Both participants are fully conscious
- Both participants are equally free to act
- Both parties have clearly communicated their willingness/permission
- Both parties are positive and sincere in their desires
When you are in a relationship with an intimate partner you should feel free of coercive control. Both people should feel they have the freedom to be fully themselves — with the proviso that you both care for and respect each other, that both people feel safe, and that both people are honest and trust each other.
Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:
One-Sided power games
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
- Berkowitz, Alan D. (2002). Guidelines for consent in intimate relationships. Kingston, NJ: Campus Safety & Student Development — Vol 3, Issue 4.
- Healey, Lucy, Howe, Keran, Humphreys, Cathy, Jennings, Chris, & Julian, Felicity. (2008). Building the evidence: A report on the status of policy and practice in responding to violence against women with disabilities in Victoria. Melbourne, Vic: Victorian Women with Disabilities Network Advocacy Information Service.
- Logan, T.K., & Cole, Jennifer. (2011). Exploring the intersection of partner stalking and sexual abuse. Violence Against Women, 17, 904-924.
- Roguski, Michael. (2012). Pets as pawns: The co-existence of animal cruelty and family violence. Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and The National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges.
- Vlais, Rodney. (2011). Engaging men on their use of sexual violence as a power and control tactic. Newsletter 45, Pages 3-4 — The University of New South Wales, NSW, Australia: Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse.
- WCA, WCADV & WCASA. (2004). Cross training workbook: Violence against women with disabilities. Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy, Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence & Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault IndependenceFirst.
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My boyfriend just packed and left yesterday. He was really starting to spiral downward with alcohol and unemployment. His self esteem was in the toilet. I went away for a trip for a couple weeks and when I got home the sexual harassment went into high gear. He told me my second night back that “you probably f***d someone” and “shut the f*** up”
The “sexual harassment” (his words) had been bad -off and on- for years, but now every time I went to touch him he stuck a finger in my b**t. I massaged him for an hour because I wanted to help improve his disposition. I turn to walk away- finger in the b**t. It really feels like an invasion when you know the person knows you don’t like a finger in the b**t under the optimal conditions. He was constantly doing puns and jokes about how there’s going to be “c*m on your face later”. I go to kiss him while he was in bed and a tit grab.
I had not seen him in a while, so I was kind of hoping for flowers at the airport and an out to dinner, a little tlc- I have told him I love his kisses, just a gentle touch of my hair, some kissing some “I love you” while looking into my face and within ten minutes he could have all the sex he could muster (which is only about 8 minutes worth) but he just kept saying I was cold.
At one point he was getting so aggressive with it I thought he might rape me. I was making it clear that I didn’t like the grabbing (I have made it clear for years) I told him the other day that it is like I am screaming a safe word and he is just ignoring me. I said it seems like he is purposefully driving a wedge between us. He said maybe he is.
I’ve been living away from him for a few months now and it’s all coming back to my mind. I feel it was more severe than anyone will acknowledge or believe, but…
My ex often kicked out or made me leave to avoid “more drama.” I’d sleep in my car. Most recently, I had slept in car one night, had no money and was hungry and just couldn’t do it again. I’d begged him via text for hours to please let me in, but he said “No, because I’ll want you to have sex with me and you won’t and I’m not putting myself through that.”
After hours and begging, promising to be quiet, still he said no. I was so exhausted and demeaned I sarcastically said “Fine, just you can do what you want with me I just want to sleep.”
He let me in. I had obviously been crying and was a mess so I didn’t think he’d actually take me up on it but he did. It seems unreal now like a bad dream.