As Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week continueswe here at Next Chapter feel it important to spread awareness of sexual abuse that occurs in relationships. Including misconceptions, the significance of power and control, and common responses to trauma Let us start with the legal history...

Brief Legal History of Sexual Abuse in a Relationship 

The offence of Rape has been part of UK Law since at least the 18th Centurybeginning as Common Law and then working its way in to statutory law in the 1800’s.  However, Marital Rape was considered legal until 1992, only 29 years ago. 

Prior to 1992, forced sexual activity within a marriage was legal, as a husband could enforce “matrimonial rights” on his wife without committing an offence. This was based on the belief that a wife had provided their ongoing consent through the contract of marriage.  

The Misconceptions that Follow 

The delay in implementing such laws shows how outdated the attitude to marriage and relationships were, and this mindset continues to show itself in relationships today. With many dismissing the abuse and passing their partners behaviour off as normalWith one in four people believing non-consensual sex within marriage does not constitute rape. 

Social Media, the news and films also influence misconceptions. A common misconception is that rape happens in a dark alley by a stranger. When in realitymore than 90% of rape victims knew their abuser, with almost a quarter of these being in a relationship.

Another misconception is that sexual abuse involved force – including physical violence resulting in injury. This disregards the significant elements of power, control and coercion. Abusers can use force in other ways, including emotional coercion, manipulation, threats or other intimidating tactics. 

Rachel's Story 

One woman, Rachel* was in an abusive relationship for five years. She never realised how significant the abuse was until the relationship was over. Rachel was under a cloud of power and coercion and struggled to see through the fog. Here are some of the things Rachel disclosed: 

*name changed for confidentiality reasons

"He would never force himself on me but I was scared if I didn’t do what he said, he would hurt me. He would use words like “you don’t want me to rape you do you?” 

By him saying “you don’t want me to rape you, do you” it gives the illusion that what he is doing is not rape. But did she consent? No.  Sexual abuse does not need to contain violence or force. He used his power, and manipulated her into doing something she didn’t want to do. This alone constitutes sexual abuse. 

"I relied on him for money and he would only agree to give me the money if I had sex with him."

Domestic abuse encompasses many different forms of abuse. In most instances – a victim of DA experiences more than one kind. Here, Rachel experienced both financial and sexual abuse. She felt she owed it to him because he was providing her with money. This is never a justification for abuse.  

"I didn’t fight him off so it’s my fault for letting it happen." 

Rachel felt that she was partly responsible for what happened because she didn’t try and fight him off. She said in the news and movies the woman always tries to fight their way out – unaware that in reality, everyone responds to trauma differently. 

Rachel explained that she would feel like she is unable to move, waiting for it to be over. I explained that this response is known as FREEZE – where the body goes still and silent and it is an instinctive survival response. See below for other common responses to sexual abuse.  

Rachel soon began to understand what she experienced did in fact constitute sexual abuse. Many women have been in the same position as Rachel – unaware of the abuse until a discussion like this is had. This is why it is so important to raise awareness of sexual abuse, the many forms it can take and why many women subconsciously accept the abuse as normal in their relationship.