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The Link Between Sexual Health and Domestic Violence

By:  Mary-Margaret Sweeney, Director of Community Engagement, Domestic Violence Network

I have worked as a sex educator since the age of 18. Upon my move to Chicago for college, I sought volunteer work in the HIV/AIDS field. What I thought would be stuffing envelopes and answering phones was actually an intense role as a volunteer HIV and STD test counselor, administering tests for HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, and counseling clients through the results. We talked about making sex lives safer while still maintaining spontaneity and fun, and I learned that I was not the only person who had managed to graduate from our nation’s public schools without receiving appropriate sex education. This experience compelled me to change my major and career trajectory, and ever since I’ve been having conversations that most people find extraordinarily uncomfortable either one-on-one with friends or in front of hundreds of people in an auditorium.

Mary-Margaret talking about uncomfortable things in front of a crowd this past May with activist/comedian Sam Killermann


When I transitioned to the domestic violence field last fall to join the DVN team, many of my long-time professional colleagues had questions. However, as I told them, and wrote in a blog at that time, healthy relationships and healthy sexuality are intertwined in ways that cannot be unwound.

On June 28, I attended my regular meeting of Propel Indy, a group of domestic violence survivors who have graduated from services at area providers such as The Julian Center and Coburn Place. This meeting, however, went a little differently. After everyone shared what was new in their life that week, I brought out the props, and we learned about preventing pregnancy and STDs. And, as if I had asked the group to prove my point, our conversation almost immediately moved from the clinical to the emotional. What if a partner doesn’t want to use a condom? What if I am uncomfortable with my body? What if my hormonal birth control method is impacting my mood and libido?

It is my firm belief that healthy, good sex happens in healthy, good relationships. It wasn’t until 1998 that Indiana completely repealed the marital rape exemption, meaning that until then, getting married meant giving your consent for sex for the rest of that legal relationship. These cultural pieces linger even after we have dealt with them in the courts. Empowering people to seek relationships which are free of violence and control in all forms starts with understanding that we have control over our own bodies. Sharing them with others is a gift, and a privilege for our partners.

Want a training regarding sexual health? There are two upcoming opportunities at DVN! Join us for our August advocates group training, August 1 from 9 am-11am for “Sex Ed 101.” I will give you basic information about anatomy and pregnancy and STD prevention. If you work with youth, join us for our September advocates group training, September 12 from 9am-11am for “Cookies, Crafts, and Consent: Facilitating Discussions on Sexuality and Teen Dating Abuse in Diverse Settings.” I’ll be teaming up with Lindsay Hill Stawick, DVN’s Director of Programs, for this presentation. Interested in these opportunities or bringing a sexual health training to your group? I would love to hear from you! Send me an email at!

Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney, DVN’s Training Services Manager