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The Intersection Between Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

Domestic and sexual violence thrive in isolation, shame, confusion, and silence. We can take away stigma and shame by speaking up, raising awareness, and educating others. These insidious forms of abuse do not discriminate and, whether we realize it or not, we are all impacted by them in some way.

To end domestic and sexual violence, we all need to be part of the solution.

Through my work as an advocate at The Friendship Center, I have learned sexual violence is a hidden yet common and complex aspect of domestic violence. Perpetrators who are physically violent toward their intimate partners are often sexually abusive as well. However, sexual violence is typically not recognized as a tactic used by abusers to gain and maintain power and control in abusive relationships. Often, individuals who are sexually assaulted by a partner don’t identify as victims and suffer from self-blame and confusion enforced by societal myths that deny their experience as one of sexual violence.

Intimate partner sexual violence (IPSV) survivors are sometimes advised by church leaders, family, or friends that it is their “duty” to submit to sex with their spouse or partner. Most individuals experiencing IPSV never report what is happening to them because they fear they won’t be taken seriously by the police, the legal system, or other service providers. As a result, many never get the support, accurate information, and resources they need and deserve.

Approximately two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. In fact, recent studies estimate one in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner. Despite its prevalence, there is a widespread lack of awareness and understanding of IPSV, even compared to other forms of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

IPSV happens in all types of intimate relationships regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. Most survivors are female, and most perpetrators are male. However, anyone can be a victim of sexual assault.

The context of marriage or romantic relationships does not imply consent—a fact reflected by Montana’s rape and sexual assault laws. Even in long-term relationships, each person has the right to refuse sexual activity and can revoke consent at any time. No matter how the relationship is defined, it is never okay to engage in sexual activity with someone without their informed and explicit consent. It’s important to understand and recognize that survivors of IPSV have the same rights as every other survivor of rape and sexual assault.

Sexual assault is never about sex, even within a romantic relationship or marriage. IPSV is usually perpetrated as part of an overall pattern of coercive control and occurs in conjunction with other abusive tactics. Domestic violence begins with an imbalance of power that escalates to emotional, psychological, financial, physical, and/or sexual abuse. Most women who are physically assaulted by an intimate partner have been sexually assaulted by the same partner. Sexual violence in relationships is used to reinforce the abuser’s power and control over their partner. This type of abuse is rarely isolated but also occurs in relationships not characterized by other physical violence, which sometimes makes it even more confusing and difficult to identify.

Many people assume IPSV does not cause as serious of an impact as sexual assault perpetrated by a stranger. However, research indicates that the resulting trauma can be longer-lasting and more severe. IPSV victims commonly deal with additional consequences and concerns including sharing a home and children with their abuser and being continuously violated by someone they care about.

Women who are disabled, pregnant, or attempting to leave their abusers are at the greatest risk for IPSV. While not all sexual assaults result in injury, IPSV survivors face a higher risk of physical harm and ongoing health issues because they are more likely to experience multiple sexual assaults. Likewise, IPSV is associated with serious gynecological conditions, sexually transmitted infections, chronic pain, severe headaches, increased rates of cervical cancer associated with HPV, and maladaptive coping strategies (i.e., drug/alcohol use and smoking). Victims also endure psychological consequences including depression, suicide, PTSD, anxiety, fear, self-blame, low self-esteem, and guilt. It is also crucial to note that when a woman is raped by her partner, she is at higher risk of homicide than domestic violence victims who have not experienced sexual violence in their relationship.


If you or someone you know is struggling with IPSV, our advocates are here to help. The Friendship Center’s services are free, confidential, and available 24/7.


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