I mostly serve domestic violence survivors in my work, but I’m wondering if should I be screening or asking about sexual assault as well?
This is a great question – and timely too – since we just finished up Sexual Assault Awareness Month!
First, I’d recommend checking out our 2 blog posts on Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (IPSV) for a primer on what IPSV is:
- April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)
- Connecting the Dots: Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault
The Prevalence of IPSV
We know that sexual and domestic violence overlap – that intimate partner violence victims are often also being sexually abused or assaulted by their partners as part of power and control dynamics. Below are some statistics underlining the prevalence:
- Nearly 1 in 10 women in the United States (9.4%) have been raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime. An estimated 16.9% of women have experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime (NISVS 2010).
- More than half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by a current or former intimate partner (NISVS 2010).
- An estimated 8% of men have experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime (NISVS 2010).
- More than one third (38%) of male victims of sexual violence other than rape reported that the perpetrator was a current or former intimate partner (NISVS 2010).
- 53% of men in an Abuse Intervention Program admitted to engaging in at least one behavior constituting IPSV, yet only 8% considered the behavior to be sexual abuse (Bergen & Bukovec, Men and Intimate Partner Rape, 2006).
The Impact of IPSV
Knowing the prevalence of IPSV, we do a disservice to survivors when we don’t address the special issues that rape and other forms of sexual violence by an intimate partner may carry. We also need to be sure that we’re not unintentionally promoting the false assumption that rape only happens to strangers, or in physically violent relationships. Finally, many people think that physical violence is the “worst” part of an abusive relationship, but sexual and emotional abuse can be just – if not more – impactful.
“There has been a past trend in domestic violence discourse to view IPSV as simply another abuse. Yet…women who were battered as well as raped by their partners considered rape to be the most significant issue. When treated as battered women, the wounds left by the sexual abuse often go unaddressed” (Real Rape, Real Pain, 2006).
The impact of IPSV is staggering: IPSV is associated with significantly higher levels of PTSD compared with physically abused women who haven’t experienced sexual violence (Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985). Although sexual violence isn’t a question on the Lethality Assessment Program – Maryland Model (LAP) Screen, “forced sex” by a partner is the 5th most predictive item for lethality, ahead other factors such as escalating physical violence and partner’s drug abuse. Additionally, physically-abused women also experiencing forced sex are more than 7x more likely than other abused women to be killed by their partner (Campbell et al, 2003).
While victims may not be calling what’s happening to them rape, sexual assault, or sexual abuse, what they are experiences is sexual violence. To the right are some of the things that survivors may think or say to you:
So what can we do?
Domestic violence service providers should be asking about IPSV. Before doing so, we need to first explain why we are asking – that IPSV is common in abusive relationships. We should tell the survivor that it is okay if they are not comfortable discussing this and want to bring it up at a later time.
Listen for cues when the survivor is talking about their partner or abusive relationship:
- “I am his girlfriend/boyfriend, so I have to do what he wants.”
- “She threatens me if I don’t do what she wants.”
- “He likes to have anal sex all the time, and sometimes it’s very painful.”
- “I take sleeping pills every night just to fall asleep. I just want to fall asleep as soon as I get in bed.”
- “When they want sex, they make me watch porn with them as a way to get me in the mood.
- “I told him that I don’t want to, but eventually I just do it to get it over with.”
- “Sometimes she makes me do things I don’t like.”
You can also ask some motivational interview questions to try and understand the situation better:
- Has your partner ever pressured you or forced you into doing something sexually you didn’t want to do?
- Do you feel you can say “no” to sexual activity with your partner?
- Have you ever been intimate with your partner because you were afraid of her/him/them?
- Have you ever “given in” to a sexual encounter with your partner to avoid fighting or being hurt? (Fribley, C. & Trujilo, O. Sexual Violence Within the Context of DV. Praxis International Audio. Conference Call, September 2006).
Then, you can ask follow-up questions:
- How often does that occur?
- Are there patterns you notice?
- Have you ever told anyone this? Who did you tell? What was their response?
- Have you noticed any physical or medical changes with your body?
- How can I help you?
- When you say ______, what do you mean by that?
- Can you tell me more about that?
- What would happen if you told him/her you did not want to watch porn?
- Can you tell me some of the things your partner forces you to do?
- What do you think would happen if you told him/her you were in pain? (Center for Court Innovation)
It’s important that domestic violence service providers learn how the experience of sexualized violence impacts efforts to build safety for survivors of domestic violence, just as it’s important for sexual assault service providers to learn how the risk for ongoing physical and emotional violence impacts efforts to seek justice and address healing.
Only by recognizing the intersecting forms of violence can we effectively serve the whole survivor and help promote their healing.
As always, you can reach out to us if you have more questions about intimate partner sexual violence.