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Consent or Coercion? (Was It Sexual Abuse?)

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One of the least discussed aspects of intimate partner violence (IPV) is sexual abuse within the relationship. The term ‘intimate partner violence’ (IPV) generally refers to acts of violence that occur between individuals who have a current or former marital, dating or cohabiting relationship (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

In the United States, an average of 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute. This is about 10 million abuse victims per year (Black et al. 2011).

However, the term violence is not limited to physical violence. Instead, domestic violence is defined as a pattern of abusive behavior designed to gain and maintain power and control over another person( and often does not include physical battering.

By gender, one in three women and one in four men have been abused by an intimate partner (NCADV, 2015). IPV crosses all racial and socioeconomic lines. Additional disparities are met within poor populations and populations of color.

Sexual Abuse - #YouToo?

Sexual abuse may be one of the most effective methods of gaining power and control over another person because it strikes at the heart of what is, for most people, the most intimate expression of who they are. Unfortunately, partners are often not able to identify that they are being sexually abused, possibly due to denial, cognitive dissonance, personal shame or society’s antiquated attitudes about ‘spousal rights.’

Sometimes, thinking of yourself as permitting it (self-blame) gives an illusion of control, enabling you to feel like you have the power to say no in the future. This is a very common reaction to any kind of abuse.

But I Agreed…

Have you ever participated in sexual acts you didn’t want, but thought it wasn’t abuse or rape because you didn’t say no? This is a good definition of what’s called sexual coercion. Many people think that they were concurrent with the sexual acts; they do not see sexual coercion or define it as sexual abuse because they think they permitted it.

In cases of sexual coercion, you may not realize you are being subjected to domestic violence because of the manipulative and coercive behavior of your abuser. The abuse may be so covert that it does not even appear to be harmful or detrimental.

One of the very damaging aspects of Cluster B pathology (narcissists, borderline and anti-social personality disorders) is that their partners are viewed as their property, as someone whose only role is to meet their needs. And in the case of a somatic narcissist, their perceived sexual needs can be enormous.

Combine that with other traits common to toxic partners—such as intelligence, charm, excellent manipulation skills and a lack of empathy—and you have a recipe for tremendous harm. Their sexuality may range from very boring to twisted to non-existent and maybe all of the above at different times. To say it is crazy making is an understatement.

What Can You Do?

Compared to the statistics listed above, only a handful of individuals seek therapy for the psychological and emotional damage that IPV and sexual coercion cause. Therapy can be a great start to the healing process, but for healing and growth to occur requires work and a shift in mindset from victim to survivor. Let’s look at the characteristics of each of those:

A Victim Mindset is characterized by:

• Brokenness: feelings of fragility, vulnerability and constant experiences of hurt

• Loss of control and authority in life: you believe that you have no control over your life and don’t feel a sense of safety. You typically have a difficult time distinguishing dangerous vs non-dangerous circumstances in relationships.

• Feelings of worthlessness and lack of self-love: feelings of low self-esteem; you don’t feel worthy or good enough to deserve happiness or companionship that is loving and respectful.

• Lack of accountability: things that happen are done to you; others are blamed for issues you may experience without viewing your own contribution to the situation. (In IPV relationships, victims are never to blame for the trauma and abuse they experience at the hands of their intimate partners.)

• Hopelessness: state of despair, lack of hope or anything positive for your life

A Survivor Mindset is characterized by:

• Sense of control and safety: you feel a sense of personal safety and control and have confidence in yourself.

• Taking responsibility and accountability: you begin to think about the ways in which you contribute to situations in your life (i.e., addiction to chaos or crisis, drug or alcohol addiction, toxic relationships).

• Self-love and affirmation: high self-esteem; confidence in how you perceive yourself and your relationship to others

• Discernment between toxic and healthy relationships: you know what you need from a relationship. You also have healthy boundaries in relationships and set boundaries to remove toxic relationships out of your life.

• Self-Respect: being aware of your own needs and self-care

Moving Toward Post-Traumatic Growth

In treatment programs, there is often a focus on post-traumatic stress (PTSD or C-PTSD), which is one of the common effects of IPV. However, there are few treatment programs that focus on growth and strengths-based therapy. When addressing the process of going from a victim to a survivor mindset, there is an emerging phenomenon in the field that is called post-traumatic growth (PTG) (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996).

PTG refers to the development of a positive outlook following trauma. It represents a change for the better following adversity (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). It drives the survivor to make positive meaning out of the event or life circumstances.

PTG differs from resiliency based on how the trauma affects the individual. In resiliency, you are stronger despite the traumatic circumstances, whereas in PTG you are stronger because of the circumstances. In China, when pottery begins to crack, they start to line those cracks with gold. That’s what comes to mind when thinking of PTG.

The process that takes place in solidifying Post-Traumatic Growth is as follows:

• You change your view of yourself, which causes more self-reliance, strength and belief that you are a better person because of what happened.

• You have deeper relationships filled with transparency, equality and intimacy.

• You change your views on life and a spiritual foundation, which could aid in regaining control on life and making positive meaning from the traumatic event.

How Can You Start Healing?

To facilitate this process toward post-traumatic growth, it is valuable for you to begin the journey of meaning-making by sharing your story. This is called narrative therapy and it is imperative for processing trauma and starting the experience of healing and transformative growth.

An example of the Black church is often used as a reference point when it relates to sharing testimonies and stories. This is a powerful moment for both the church members and the individual making the testimony. It is powerful because it is the point where you get delivered from your dark situation. It comes about as you share your story aloud in front of others who are a witness to your sharing.

You can also create meaning when you write out your priorities and the ways that you view the world since the trauma. In therapy sessions, one of the first questions to be addressed is your support system, which is an important component of growth. This can also help to distinguish relationships (both romantic and platonic) that are supportive and healthy vs toxic and unhealthy.

As you go through your healing process, it is important to be patient as you begin to share your story and rebuild yourself to become stronger because of the trauma experience.

In future articles we will address what sexual coercion looks like, its effects on those who’ve experienced it, and a lot more about what you can do to help yourself recover and turn that ugly part of your life into something beautiful—you.

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