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Understanding the Common Territory Between Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence

By: Mary-Margaret Sweeney, director of community engagement, DVN

Many of my colleagues in the community are finalizing their plans for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in April. While domestic violence and sexual assault are two different problems, they do share a lot of territory. Sexual assault is often a tool of domestic violence and anyone working in the domestic violence field needs to understand both issues to effectively serve clients.

The way I learned about domestic violence was in this very overlap. As a sexuality educator for over a decade, many of the unhealthy relationships described to me had to do with a lack of consent around sexual activity. This comes up more often than not when I facilitate a sexuality education workshop. As our culture begins to listen to the stories of women who have experienced assault and harassment through the #metoo and #timesup movements, the intersection of sexual assault and domestic violence has never been more on display.

The first training request I responded to in my job at DVN was around the topic of reproductive coercion. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines that as “a form of power and control where one partner strips the other of the ability to control their own reproductive system.” My training includes the ways this may manifest:

  • Refusing to use contraception
  • Damaging/tampering/removing or lying about use of contraception
  • Withholding finances needed to purchase birth control
  • Purposefully trying to pass on a sexually transmitted disease
  • Forcing pregnancy and/or not supporting their partner’s decision about when or if they want to have a child
  • Forcing their partner to get an abortion, or preventing them from getting one

I also include the ways health care providers may assist a patient who is experiencing a violent relationship. As an advocate, I know that it takes victims an average of five to seven times to leave an abusive relationship. Until they are ready, we need to think of risk reduction methods to keep them as safe as possible. Some forms of contraception recommended to people who remain in a violent relationship fall under the “LARC” category: Long Acting Reversible Contraception. These methods include Intrauterine Devices (IUDs), the implant (Nexplanon), and the shot (Depo-Provera). These methods are, for the most part, invisible to the controlling partner and cannot be thrown away like a pack of birth control pills or tampered with like condoms. Unfortunately, as you may realize, these forms all protect against pregnancy but not against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and are for those with uteruses. For people assigned male at birth, aside from permanent sterilization, there are not the same discreet options available.

We know that both sexual assault and domestic violence are under-reported to authorities and service providers. Because reproductive coercion can continue without the victim knowing it for some time, my educated guess is that it is very under-reported. As domestic violence advocates enter Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I hope we can reflect on the intersection of sexual violence with our own work, and empower our clients to live lives of self determination in every regard.

Want more information on these topics? Contact Training Services Coordinator Cecily Johnson to schedule a training!
Want more on Sexual Assault Awareness Month? Visit our friends at Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault!

Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney, DVN’s Director of Community Engagement