A recent video showing professional football player Ray Rice punching his female partner in the head and then dragging her unconscious body from an elevator has put domestic violence back in the spotlight. But domestic abuse doesn’t always need to be physical to be harmful, says Nicole Jeffrey, a Guelph PhD student in psychology.
“I’ve been interested in issues related to violence against women for quite a while now,” she says. “The dominant view of sexual assault is that it’s violent and perpetrated by a stranger in a dark alley, when in reality that’s usually not the case. Women are far more likely to be sexually victimized by men they know, particularly men that they’re in long-standing relationships with, such as a romantic partner.”
Jeffrey began this research as a master’s student with psychology professor Paula Barata after discovering that few studies have been done on less violent forms of sexual coercion such as verbal pressure, continually asking or arguing. Although these forms of coercion don’t leave physical scars, she adds, the psychological scars can be just as harmful.
Her research was motivated by concerns over media coverage of rape on college and university campuses that claimed rape statistics were being exaggerated. Jeffrey says this kind of coverage is an example of “rape culture,” which minimizes sexual assault and perceives some forms of sexual coercion as “normal.” She believes it is important to study sexual coercion from the perspective of women who have experienced it, which is what her research aims to do.
Jeffrey interviewed 12 female U of G students who had experienced sexual coercion in their relationships. “I wanted a better understanding of how women actually experience, view and live with their sexual victimization.”
She found that some women did not recognize their partner’s coercive behaviour as inappropriate if it didn’t involve physical violence, but she says coercion that starts off as verbal pressure can escalate into violence. “Some of the women in my research view their experience as not necessarily problematic,” she says, because they felt that coercion was a “normal” part of their relationship and of male behaviour.
Jeffrey says she found it troubling that some of the women blamed themselves for their partner’s actions. The women in her study also blamed themselves for not being more forceful in turning down their partner’s sexual advances, but they also felt that their partners understood they weren’t interested in having sex even though they continued to pursue them.
“They would be more concerned that there was something wrong with them for not wanting to have sex than they would be about their partner’s coercive behaviour,” says Jeffrey. A man who repeatedly pressures his female partner for sex using words or actions – even after she says no – can cause her to feel guilty for turning him down, she adds.
“I think part of the guilt that a lot of the women were feeling in my study was stemming from almost an obligation to please their partner, to please him sexually and to not hurt his feelings by saying no.” Women may also fear losing the relationship by rejecting their partner. Even when women said no, Jeffrey adds, they often had to follow-up with excuses or apologies.
She says previous research has shown that women feel more resentment and experience longer-term effects from psychological abuse than from physical violence. The women in Jeffrey’s study expressed hurt as a result of verbal pressure from their partners, especially if it was ongoing in the relationship.
Jeffrey says that some women may give in to their partner’s demands simply to avoid their coercive behaviour or pressure tactics. Even if women agreed to engage in sexual activity with their partners, they may have done so to avoid conflict. Is giving in the same as giving consent? “I would say no,” says Jeffrey. “It’s not true consent because you’re essentially being wearied into it.”
When men don’t respect their partners’ wishes, it sets the stage for unhealthy relationships, she adds, because it teaches women that their feelings and needs don’t matter. Empowering women is important, says Jeffrey, but “it’s men’s behaviour that needs to be the focus of change, not women’s.”
That change can start at an early age, she says, by teaching boys and young men about healthy relationships to help counterbalance what they see in the media.
Women also need to be able to communicate their sexual needs to their partners, she adds, and their partners need to respect their needs. Jeffrey recommends that women seek help if they feel sexually victimized.
Social attitudes toward “rape culture” also need to change, she adds. “I think what’s going on here is that women are sort of adopting the views of contemporary rape culture that deny and trivialize sexual assault, blame women for their victimization and justify men’s perpetration.”