Subtle sexual abuse within abusive relationships are the less obvious forms of sexual abuse. While violent rape is obviously abusive, there are many other forms which are less so, but can be equally destructive over time. The early warning signs that sexual abuse might take place in our relationship are excessive jealousy and a derogatory attitude towards women generally. I have called these forms of abuse subtle sexual abuse because we frequently do not recognise them as being abusive, i.e. part of a pattern of behaviours designed to control and dominate us.
One of the problems we face as women is that society, tradition and the media frequently reinforce the idea that our value lies in our sexual attraction, e.g. having a fit, young, sexy body, dressing to show our curves, etc. Throughout most of history we have been valued only for our ability to reproduce, and provide services for men, be these catering for his physical or sexual needs and wants.
At the same time, cultural ideals have encouraged the idea that there are only two types of women: the Madonna or the whore. The Madonna type is all that is pure, good and virginal (though often depicted with child!), while the whore is a woman with an insatiable sexual desire, an evil woman who uses her sexual whiles to lure men to their destruction.
The sexual abuser sees women as being put on Earth to provide him with sex and therefore does not take any of our feelings, wants or wishes into account, least of all our right to refuse whatever sexual act he demands of us.
If we enjoy sexual intercourse, we are called a whore or a slut.
If we don’t enjoy it, we are called frigid or a lesbian, or accused of cheating.
When we participate in sexual acts for our abuser which we find disgusting (through coercion, threat or even just trying to keep the peace) then we risk being further verbally or physically abused for having complied.
Within an abusive relationship, subtle sexual abuse is used as a form of control, domination and degradation. Below are some of the indicators that sexual abuse may be an issue together with some examples of subtle sexual abuse.
One of the warning signs of an abusive personality is excessive jealousy, usually initially used as proof of their love for us. They will be unhappy about our spending time or speaking with other males. This is because they see us as bodies which they want to conquer, own and dominate and assume other men think the same way. They will accuse us of cheating, of fancying another man, of flirting, of trying to show off our bodies to make other men desire us.
Sometimes these accusations are used as justification for physical beatings and sexual abuse, as both Hannah and Belinda found out to their detriment.
Some sexual abusers want us to cover up in public; others want us to wear provocative or ‘sexy’ clothing so they can show off their sexual conquests to other men. They will ask us all about our previous sexual partners and encounters, and then call us a slut or throw our sexual indiscretions back at us as proof of our being sluts.
Being Sexually Derogative
The sexual abuser is frequently derogative of us and other women. He will call us names, like slut, bitch or whore to our face. Being called derogatory names is something we hear so often that we almost don’t notice it anymore, and yet it betrays the basic attitude that we are not individuals, we are just whatever tag he decides to give us – and it is usually not very complimentary! But another warning sign to look out for is how they describe us to other people: even though terms such as ‘bird’ or ‘bit of skirt’ might not initially seem too bad, they also denote a lack of respect for the individual.
He will tell or laugh at jokes which portray women as stupid or as ‘lesser’ than men. He will make nasty comments about our appearance in front of other people and then, when we are upset about it, tell us it was just a joke and we take things too seriously. These sorts of things leave us feeling humiliated and upset, but our abuser will make out that we are the ones who are far too sensitive.
When he sees women or girls out on the street, he will comment about their breasts or behind. He might give them a score out of 10 or say that he wouldn’t mind a ‘bit of that’. He will do the same with our female friends and family members. This leaves us feeling degraded and in constant competition with other women. It is likely to affect our friendships and further our isolation.
The sexual abuser does not see women as individuals, with feelings and opinions; he just sees them as pieces of meat. That will be apparent in the way that he talks about us and women in general. Early on in the relationship we are likely to hear how different we are from all the other women he has met or been with, his ex-partner, or even his mother. He will describe these women as controlling and manipulative. It will not be long before he is throwing the same accusations at us. This is because the abuser sees any woman who disagrees with him or does not do as he wishes as trying to control him!
Refusing to take Responsibility for Birth Control
The sexual abuser does not believe that birth control is his responsibility, so he will not share an equal responsibility for ensuring we don’t get pregnant. He will frequently refuse to wear condoms, or take it off during intercourse, because he says that it is not enjoyable enough for him or it is aggravating him. Or he might purposely thwart our efforts to avoid pregnancy by hiding our pills or refusing to use a condom if we know the pill is not likely to be effective (for instance after our having a stomach bug or during the first month of taking it).
Not allowing us control over our decision to reproduce is also a form of subtle sexual abuse. And as many of us have found, even though he wants us to ‘have his baby’, he will not help us care for it.
If we do get pregnant, he will accuse us of purposely getting pregnant to ‘trap him’, he might threaten to or actually leave us, threaten to or actually have an affair, accuse us of being fat and unattractive and refuse intimacy with us as a result. He might demand or force us to have an abortion. Statistically the chances of physical violence either starting or increasing during pregnancy are high. Many of us have lost our unborn babies due to being pushed down stairs or being physically assaulted while expecting our child.
While we are pregnant he will call us fat and ugly. He will either force us to have sex or refuse all sexual and intimate acts because he says he finds us disgusting.
Intimate Photos and Films
During the relationship our abuser will take intimate photos of us. This might be by mutual consent at the time or it might be coerced. Lots of couples do this without there being any form of sexual abuse involved.
But the sexual controller is likely to use these photos to embarrass us, either by posting them online, showing them to his mates or using the threat of making them public after we have split up. He will ask us for intimate photos by text (sexting) and then pass these on or show them to other people. We are left feeling humiliated, degraded and betrayed.
He will also film us having intercourse or performing sexual acts without our knowledge or consent or under coercion.
Withholding Sex and Affection
The sexual controller does not just demand or force sexual acts, but is just as likely to withhold sexual intercourse or intimacy. It might be conditional on our behaviour or on our participating in certain sexual acts with which we do not feel comfortable. He will also withhold affection in the form of just cuddling or kissing unless it leads to sex. It is either sexual intercourse or nothing. Or he will tell us we are a tease for wanting affection without it automatically leading to intercourse, leaving us feeling guilty. Refusing intimacy is a form of subtle sexual abuse because it is a way controlling sex – it is the flip side of demanding sex.
They will refuse our sexual advances. He has to be in control of sex, when, where and what takes place. He will also call us a whore for being sexual creature and wanting that sexual intimacy. He is also telling us that our sexual needs, desires and preferences are of no value.
Withholding affection, intimacy and intercourse from us not only attacks our feelings of self worth, but also leave us open to more coerced sexual acts. In our need and desire for intimacy we are more likely to agree to sexual acts we would under normal circumstances have refused.
Controlling Sexual Intercourse
The sexual abuser is the persona who is called the sexual controller, and that really describes very well the use of subtle sexual abuse within the context of domestic violence.
Any sexual or intimate act can only be on his terms, and we frequently don’t recognise this subtle sexual abuse as being abusive. But as with withholding sex and affection and coercing or forcing sex after an assault or argument, we soon learn that any intimacy or sexual intercourse will have to be on his terms. He will control when we have sex, and will often demand it when it is completely unsuitable, for instance while we are cooking dinner or looking after the children.
He will go straight for the act without any foreplay which can make sex painful and unpleasant for us. He does not care whether we are ‘in the mood’ or not. If he wants anal sex we have to comply or be faced with ‘moods’, coercion, threats, refusal of any intimacy or rape. He will also control how we respond to his advances, so if he wants us to climax we have to climax, if he doesn’t want us to, we must not.
Controlling our Body for his Sexual Gratification
In an abusive relationship, our body does not belong to us; it belongs to our partner, our abuser. Even if we start off the relationship feeling confident about our body (and not many of us do!), by the time we have been exposed to the comments and criticism of our abuser, we feel as though our body is somehow not ‘good enough’. We want to have the best body for his sake, because it is important to him, and therefore it is important to us, because we want him to like us, to find us attractive, to desire us.
There are countless examples of how the sexual abuser tries to influence us to change our appearance to suit his image of what we should look like. He does not want us to breast feed our baby so that our breasts do not get spoiled for him, so we don’t. He tells us we are too fat or too thin, he tells us what to wear. He keeps comparing our breasts with those of Jordan or someone he has seen in a magazine, until we agree to a breast augmentation. He tells us our vagina is too loose and doesn’t give him the pleasure he wants, so we allow him to bugger us instead.
This form of subtle sexual abuse leaves us feeling ashamed of our body, going on constant diets, develop eating disorders or having cosmetic surgery to try to live up to his ideal of what our bodies should be. We forget that our body belongs to us.
Some people are unfaithful to their partners, it happens. But the abuser will purposely be unfaithful as a form of subtle sexual abuse and control. He will threaten us that he will be unfaithful if we do not comply with his sexual wishes, or if we are pregnant or gain weight. He will go off with other women and then introduce them to us. He will be openly unfaithful and get angry or violent with us if we question him about it or tell him we are unhappy about it. He will tell us how much he fancies our best friend which damages our friendship with her, or he will sleep with our sister and then tell us about it or let us find out.
But our partner can also be unfaithful to us on a more emotional level. He can choose to spend his time with other women rather than ourselves and our children. Or he will discuss our sex life with his mates and brag about what he does to us. Our sexual privacy has been invaded and we end up feeling humiliated, ashamed and betrayed.
If we have been unfaithful to him he will not let us forget it but constantly throw it back in our face, but if he is unfaithful we are meant to just accept it and never mention it. If we are unfaithful he will use it to justify further abuse on us, because we are sluts and whores.
Other Forms of Subtle Sexual Abuse
Other forms of subtle sexual abuse include fondling us in public places or in front of our family and friends when we feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about this, or any other form of repeated touching which we have told him makes us feel uncomfortable or we don’t like.
The abuser will sometimes demand that we walk around the house naked or demand that we strip. He might force us or coerce us into watching pornographic films which we would prefer not to. Another form of subtle sexual abuse is using coercion to ensure we comply with the abusers sexual requests. This is discussed more fully in the following page on sexual abuse.
Quite a number of women have found that subtle sexual abuse can progress into more overt and violent forms of sexual abuse. In much the same way as if the abuser finds that verbal or emotional abuse is no longer sufficient to ensure our compliance, when subtle sexual abuse fails to sufficiently control us, he might well progress to rape or forced sexual acts.