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Theresa Mcgrath — June 2, 2023

Intimate Partner Sexual Assault. Is it a thing? Yes.

Theresa Mcgrath

Have you ever been to the doctor’s office and were asked if you feel safe at home? Many of us presume this is to report if the person you are living with is physically harming you or threatening to harm you. However, that’s not the only reason. Sexual abuse within a partnership or marriage is a real thing that’s hardly ever talked about. Because it is so rarely talked about, it can often be difficult to recognize, making it severely underreported.

So why is it something rarely mentioned? Well, there could be a variety of reasons. Some choose not to report it due to a sense of loyalty or love for their spouse. Relationships are complicated and often the honeymoon phase of the cycle of abuse can lead people to be unwilling or unable to accept themselves as a victim. In addition, the desire for privacy and fears of scrutiny, retaliation, and of not being believed can cause individuals to not address the harm they may be experiencing sexually. Some people may even try to accept it as just a “normal” part of their relationship. But experiencing sexual harm or coercion in your relationship should not be “normal.” We all deserve health and mutually respectful love and support.

Traditional gender norms and lack of sex and consent education can normalize unhealthy relationship dynamics and deprioritize the pleasure and consent of women. When it is normalized and “expected” to not enjoy sex as a woman, it can lead to challenges identifying things that are causing sexual harm. Many individuals that have been sexually assaulted have a sense that it was a result of something they did—that they deserved it somehow. This can lead to significant feelings of guilt, shame, negative self-worth, and symptoms of depression. But experiencing sexual harm within a relationship is never your fault. You deserve space to grieve and heal.

It can be really challenging for individuals in general to accept they have been sexually assaulted, and this is especially true when it occurs in serious intimate relationships. Marital rape is now illegal in all 50 states, but there are still some states out there that have exemptions which include categorizing marital rape as a less offensive crime than that of rape from a stranger. Even still, many people in America don’t believe sexual assault in marriage is even a thing because traditionally it has been presumed that once you are married, all sexual activities are deemed consentual. This is not true. Sexual assault from a former or current partner, is still sexual assault.

Many don’t even realize they have been sexually assaulted in their relationship until after the fact, despite marital sexual assault hardly ever being an isolated event. For many, it often starts as controlling behavior with or without physical violence. This can make it difficult to detect or recognize at the moment. Just because you did not recognize it at the moment, does not mean it didn’t happen. I can attest because I have experienced this within one of my previous relationships.

It wasn’t until I was divorced and began therapy that I was able to put the pieces together. In my experience, it didn’t happen frequently, but there are at least 3 incidents that jump out at me. Looking back, I remember how I felt in those moments. The first time, it was after a night of drinking. I assumed the behavior was a result of my (then) boyfriend being drunk. My first mistake was to make an excuse for him. Little did I know at the time that it would lead to a mile long road of excuses I made for his behavior toward me. The second time, we were in the middle of intercourse, and he attempted to do a sexual act that I didn’t consent to, nor was I comfortable with. We were married then (and 100% sober), and he knew how I felt about it prior. What was the excuse I made for him that time? I was his wife, and I had a responsibility to keep him satisfied. There were many incidents in our 10+ years together where intimacy would be withheld as a form of punishment for something that I had either done or said. As I have expanded my knowledge of sexual assault through therapy, I have come to the realization that I didn’t ask for any of those things to happen. I didn’t enjoy it when those things happened. I didn’t want those things to happen. It was not my fault… And if you’re experiencing similar events or relating to this blog, it’s not your fault either.

So, how do we end sexual assault between intimate partners? Reporting sexual assaults when they occur, no matter if the person is an intimate partner or not. I know it’s hard. I know there is a stigma around it. I know Intimate partner sexual assault gets brushed under the rug and dismissed. Let’s end that here and now. Let’s not be silent about it anymore. The quieter we are about it, the more they get away with it. Let’s take back our power.

There are many ways you can report sexual assault including to authorities, doctors, and mental health professionals. If reporting isn’t for you, there are also so many resources out there to help you process your trauma and heal. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) have hotlines that you can call anonymously for assistance. You can find more resources in your area at nsvrc.org/find-help.

You are not alone.

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