3 Things to Know About Partner Rape

January 5th 2017

Many of the myths about sexual violence center around the unknown: a stranger might jump out from behind the bushes, or we'll bring a man home from a bar who will sexually assault us. The truth, however, is that perpetrators of sexual violence are often people we know. According to statistics gathered by the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 70 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the survivor. In fact, 25 percent of all rapes are committed by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend.

In order to shed more light on the issue, we spoke to Kate Harding, author of "Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It" to debunk some of the misconceptions about partner rape.

Misconception #1: Partner rape happens randomly or "accidentally."

The words "abusive relationship" call to mind a partner who slaps or punches. But controlling sexual behavior is also abuse and can include behavior like rape, forced oral sex, or public groping. "It is a form of control. It is a form of abuse," says Harding.

Sexual violence in a relationship is about "enforcing the message" that you are not in control of your own body, she continues. It's making a clear statement: I can do what I want, whether you like it or not.

Misconception #2: Sexual violence is not a big deal and will go away.

Someone who has experienced partner rape might feel the incident happened out of nowhere. Experts who work with domestic abuse survivors work with a framework called "the cycle of violence," and that pattern can be useful to consider when discussing sexual violence as well. The three phases are tension-building (leading up to an incident), battering (the incident itself), and lastly "the honeymoon period," which is when the abuser may be remorseful, woo back their victim, and seek forgiveness.

The same dynamic can happen with partner rape. Like domestic violence, Harding says sexual abuse in a relationship can start comparatively small (and seemingly easier to forgive) and escalate into something larger and more dangerous over time. An abuser may start with groping or forced kissing, she explained, the same way that physical abuse may start with a push that then escalates into choking or punching.

Misconception #3: If you consented to sex before, you can't say "no" now.

Establishing consent may take on different forms as a relationship progresses over months and years. But consent always needs to be established, and consent once — say, for anal sex — does not mean consent for that same activity every time. You're allowed to set new boundaries all the time.

A partner who does not establish consent not only failing a basic tenant of sexual activity but also possibly being psychologically manipulative. "Abusers use a lot of psychological tactics and emotional abuse," explains Harding. One of these tactics is coercion, which means manipulating someone using guilt or fear. A girlfriend trying to coerce her boyfriend into sex might say "you owe me" for driving him to school; a husband may guilt trip his wife and threaten to cheat on her if she doesn't submit to him sexually.

To be clear, coercion can happen between established couples, but it can also happen between acquaintances. Coercive behavior is anytime one individual is trying to exert their will over another through manipulation. And it's "extra maddening," Harding says, because the mind games make it easy for the perpetrator to say what happened was the victim's choice.

If you want to speak to someone about sexual violence in your relationship, you can call the free, confidential RAINN hotline at 1-800-565-HOPE or the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

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