Support for Women Sexually Assaulted by Male Partners
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"A problem inadequately named cannot be adequately addressed."
~ Carol J. Adams ~



In speaking specifically about marital rape, Carol Adams writes, ‘A problem inadequately named cannot be adequately addressed.’(1) For a long time, partner rape has been demoted to something far less than it is: a crime - and it was not even that until the mid 1980s. And, as will be seen below, there are troubles yet to be overcome in terms of responses to survivors today. When my coauthor Patricia Easteal and I were writing our book, Patricia added the following words:

When we think of a war zone, we may see a picture of greyness and silence with people bustling around the bodies that lie uncovered and alone on the ground. So too the victims of sexual assault by a partner who are too often isolated and ignored.

Also, in the war zone it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. In the turmoil and agony of bombings, mines and automatic weaponry, there’s a blurriness in the picture and without some sound over, it’s unclear who’s doing what to whom or why. So too the sexual assault victim whose family disbelieves her story and attacks her for creating trouble. So too the sexual assault victim who too often finds her truth, her voice, her life, herself the object of examination and attack. It is well past time to bring partner rape out of the closet and recolour the war zone into a society with warmer shades of support and validation (2).

What can we do to create a warmer climate for survivors of partner rape? Naming it is crucial. Naming partner rape and talking about it can achieve the end of denial and with it the end of the violence - both at personal and social levels. I would like to share with the interested reader my thoughts and those of researchers and other survivors.

There has been much written and said about sexual assault for the last thirty or forty years. Yet, judging by the correspondence I get, survivors of partner rape often still feel alone; they don't know that they have a right to call what happened to them rape. A recent study (3) indicates that it is still very much the norm for judges to routinely cast doubt on the veracity of women claiming rape by their husbands; doctors diminish it, priests tell women to go home and pray, community members blame women and even family members doubt them. If I may just vent some personal irritation: When so many people - even "educated" people proclaim that partner rape is not as serious as stranger rape and that it doesn't do victims any real harm, I often feel like asking them just how they know this - have they been through it? Have they bothered to read a bit of research? When they are making pronouncements that seriously affect another person's well-being and safety, they should be obliged to educate themselves first.

Education, I believe, is the key to ending this ignorance. For example, In March 2009, Rape Crisis Scotland held a day-long conference on Intimate Partner Sexual Violence. Two police officers reported to the chairwoman at the end of the day, that it had completely changed the way they view partner rape. Upper Murray Center Against Sexual Assault (UMCASA) has thrown itself behind study, education and support in partner rape. We will benefit from more educational - and revolutionary - initiatives such as these. There are plenty of good studies and a few training programs - including a judicial one - available now, and there's just no excuse for the ignorance anymore. With the lack of validation that exists, It is little wonder women feel alone and that they question the right to call what has happened to them by the name of a crime. Enough is enough of the shocking statements made to women by clergy, doctors, psychiatrists, legal representatives and counsellors. It is addressable. We just need people to be bothered - women's lives depend on it.

Because women raped by partners feel isolated and confused about the nature of what happened to them, they often need somebody to ask the right questions and offer them validation and support. There has been a trend even in domestic violence and rape crisis circles to misname or not name partner rape. Melanie Heenan writes,

While some of the previous analyses might tend to minimize or overlook the genuine difficulties many women face in self-disclosing rape in the context of their partnerships to anyone, including service providers, a corollary might also be that both sexual assault and domestic violence services have been reluctant to name the experience for women in their commitment to ensuring victim/survivors retain maximum “choice and control” over the issues they identify during counselling. However, the importance of balancing a woman’s right to exercise control over the issues that she raises in counselling, and the very real possibility that she will be struggling to find a language or a framework through which to express her broader experience of violence, including rape, is critical (4).

If women have no name to give their experiences, how can they raise it? And is not asking about partner rape or naming it, really affording them maximum choice and control, or is it collusion with the silence, however inadvertent? Again, we hear from the research (5):

Fragmented service responses, between domestic violence and sexual assault services, may also perpetuate women feeling that male partner rape is either so unusual that women’s services aren’t sure how to deal with it, or that it is perhaps not serious enough to warrant a dedicated service response (Finkelhor and Yllö 1985). According to Russell (1990), if counsellors fail to speak to the issue of marital or intimate partner rape specifically, they fail to legitimise it as a serious social problem and effectively collude in “keeping the peace” on violence against women.

The, authors of the Women's Health Goulburn North East study, Raped by a Partner: a Research Report (6), echo the dangers of collusion in not naming. Respondents to this research indicated that they need to "hear the word." There are four steps they recommend in responding constructively to partner rape:

  1. ASK THE QUESTION: "Have you had to do sexual things in your relationship that you didn't want to?" "What does he do when you say no?"
  2. NAME IT: "It sounds like what you are describing is sexual assault" "Yes, that is rape."
  3. RESPOND: "Rape is a crime even if you're in a relationship." "Would you like to know about services that can support you?".
  4. FOLLOW UP: "Last time we saw each other, you spoke about your safety. How are you now?:
Other essential ingredients this study suggests are believing the woman, and holding her`partner accountable for rape. Please see or download this study and it's excellent suggestions for change in full here.

It's certainly a legitimate concern that women may maintain denial that what happened was rape in order to survive, or may be distressed to have the word "rape" used in conjunction with partners they may love. Often naming can make the rape seem more real, with pursuant distress (which is often part of healing). But these areas of genuine pain are something that we need to support the survivor in, rather than shying away from giving her violation it's correct name. Ultimately, having somebody name it and offer support aids healing and can also bring about the end of the violence (7) On the other hand, I have known women who were quite forthright in naming their violations as rape, but who have been hurt by the fact that people they told didn't think that partners could be rapists or even if they did think it was rape were slow to condemn it.

Let me share with you the thoughts of partner rape survivors on naming - here is a smattering of quotes from my Guestbook:

  • "I appreciate this site. I think I just realized that what my ex husband did was indeed rape. I was so confused about it, and this has provided some much needed clarity and has aided in starting my healing progress."
  • "A year ago, I was part of a sexually abusive relationship. So many sites don't address the issue of partner sexual abuse. Until I opened this site, I felt like I really didn't have a reason to feel the way I did. The site validated all the pain, confusion, and feelings that I have been going through, and made me realize that something really DID happen that wasn't right, and that what I experienced is NOT the way a relationship should be."
  • "I have been confused for such a long time. I often think that the incidences that happened between me and my ex were not "really" rape. Sometimes I still think that I could have had it so much worse since he never really beat me that bad. I also feel so guilty because sometimes the forced sex made me feel good. I have often wondered if these are some of the reasons I stayed quiet. Thank you so much for helping realize that these feelings are normal for a person who has experienced partner rape."
  • "I would like to say, I think it is great that you have set up this site, It is vital for us to know we are not alone."
  • "Thank you for all your amazing efforts. Denying myself as a victim in my opinion has been my greatest obstacle to healing."
  • "I bought the book you co-authored, and it was as if someone had lifted this huge burden off me. I can FINALLY name what happened to me (in both marriages). I am so amazed how helpful both this site, and the book are. I did not know how much pain I was trying to "stuff", until I realized what had happened to me."
And, naming partner rape can help women save their lives:
  • "Looking forward to your book release date was a beacon of hope, and reading it enabled me to speak up to the right agencies to get help for myself and my five kids. I had no idea that so much damage was being done. I don't think I had a month left to live. He's been charged and removed from our home. Your book saved my life.
I put these comments here not to break my own arm patting myself on the back, but because they are so articulate about the benefits of naming and offering support for partner rape. I feel privileged to have used my own experiences to cut through the silence and offer affirmation to other women. And in my turn, I owe my thanks to the early researchers whose works I studied at University (thank you Ms. Russell, Mr. Finkelhor, Ms. Yllo and of course Ms. Easteal - that last with especial affection) who in their naming, brought me to naming, healing and this, well, passion.

Education, naming and outreach for survivors of partner rape is essential if women's right to be safe is really taken seriously - and in ensuring that crimes against them cannot be committed with impunity by dint of a relationship.

Does it really matter what we call a thing? Yes. Survivors of the Holocaust have rightly raised objection to people saying that Jews "died" in the concentration camps. They did not "die", they were murdered - there was a human agent of responsibility.

When we name rape instead of using language that obscures, we give responsibility back to the perpetrators.

  1. Carol Adams ‘I just raped my wife! What are you going to do about it, Pastor?’ The church and sexual violence’, in Transforming a Rape Culture, eds E Buchwald, P Fletcher and M Roth, Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 1995
  2. Easteal, P, and McOrmond-Plummer, L, Real Rape, Real Pain: Help for women sexually assaulted by male partners, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 1996
  3. Women's Health Goulburn North East study, 'Raped by a Partner: a Research Report' (2008) http://www.whealth.com.au/documents/publications/whp-raped_by_a_partner.pdf
  4. Melanie Heenan ‘Just ‘keeping the peace’: A reluctance to respond to male partner sexual violence’ (2004) 1 Issues Australia Study for the Centre of Sexual Assault at http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/issue/i1.html
  5. Melanie Heenan ‘Just ‘keeping the peace’: A reluctance to respond to male partner sexual violence’ (2004) 1 Issues Australia Study for the Centre of Sexual Assault at http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/issue/i1.html
  6. Women's Health Goulburn North East study, 'Raped by a Partner: a Research Report' (2008) http://www.whealth.com.au/documents/publications/whp-raped_by_a_partner.pdf
  7. Bergen, R, Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers, Sage Publications, California, 1996