What is the Connection Between Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 February 2020
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Domestic violence and sexual assault are frequently linked terms. In the United States in 2007, a study released by the Center for Disease Control showed that more than half of all female sexual assault victims, and about a third of male victims, were assaulted by a family member or intimate partner. The relationship between domestic violence and sexual assault is quite complex; in many cases, aggressors use sexual abuse as a means of maintaining control over their victims.

Sexual assault is considered one type of domestic violence. The scope of domestic violence is quite wide, and includes physical attacks such as beating, psychological or mental torment, and sexual crimes. Domestic violence refers to any type of attack conducted within the physical or emotional boundaries of a home; it may include abuse by family members, non-related persons living in the same house, or spousal abuse. In most regions, any type of sexual assault is a crime, regardless of relationship.

Domestic violence and sexual assault are not always linked. There are certainly many instances of physical and mental abuse in domestic relationships where crimes do not veer into the sexual realm. Domestic sexual assault, however, is more likely in situations where other forms of abuse are also present. According to one study, up to three-quarters of battered women in shelters reported sexual assault as well as physical abuse.

Oftentimes, domestic violence and sexual assault are symptomatic of the same problem: an abuser attempting to control victims. Physical and mental abuse are both means by which an abuser can make him or herself feel powerful while causing victims to feel afraid to get help, powerless, or even deserving of the treatment. Some experts suggest that sexual assault is potentially the most psychologically damaging form of domestic violence, since victims may feel shame and guilt over the abuse, and have fears of being ostracized for reporting the crime.

Between spouses or intimate partners, domestic violence and sexual assault share a long history of legal sanctioning. Until the mid-20th century, few regions considered marital rape of a woman to be a crime, based on the idea that marriage was implied consent to sexual activity. Even in the 21st century, some parts of the world still give men the right to beat, abuse, or rape their wives, out of the belief that a wife is technically property of the husband. Though intimate partner domestic violence and sexual abuse occur in same sex relationships and from female partners to males, male to female abuse still remains the most prevalent form.

In terms of children, it is well understood that domestic violence and sexual assault both have lasting and devastating psychological effects. Many studies have shown a correlation between abusers and their own history as abuse victims in childhood. The understanding of the potential for victims to turn into future abusers has lead many experts to strongly emphasize the importance of reporting all instances of suspected abuse, regardless of societal concerns for privacy.

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