What is Sexual Abuse in Relationships?

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There can be a misconception that being in a relationship means that one party can do anything they want to the other party. This is simply not true. Both parties have the right to decline sexual activity whenever they choose.

When this right is stripped away, it can lead to sexual abuse. Learning more about what constitutes sexual abuse in relationships is important and can lead to some eye-opening revelations that others may not have been aware of.

What Is Sexual Abuse in a Relationship?

Technically speaking, sexual abuse in a relationship is unwanted sexual activity. Also known as intimate partner sexual violence, sexual abuse can be the act of forcing a partner to perform unwanted sexual activity against their will or manipulating them into accepting through things like blackmail, sulking, or threats.

Sexual abuse is not exclusively limited to rape. Coercing someone to do things of a sexual nature that they do not want to do is considered to be sexual abuse as well. Even those who have been married for years or decades can experience sexual abuse within the relationship.

The most obvious case is if one partner says no or that they were unsure, but the other partner went forward with the sexual act anyway. That is sexual abuse in its clearest form.

What Are Examples of Sexual Violence in Relationships?

There are more than a few examples of sexual abuse within a relationship. Being held down without consent is a clear example. Purposely causing pain during sex or making your partner have sex is sexual abuse.

Forcing someone to look at sexual imagery or watch porn also qualifies. Telling the other person to simply accept their involvement is sexual abuse. Being forced to dress a certain way or to lower inhibitions via drugs/alcohol counts too.

Sexual violence is a lot narrower in its scope. Sexual violence includes unwanted choking, hitting, hair pulling, or anything else that causes pain and is not mutually agreed upon. It is important to note that there are plenty of people who enjoy some physicality in their sexual activity.

Should one partner state that they are not comfortable with the physicality in the relationship, this is sexual violence. These requests should be adhered to and respected; sexual violence can have devastating consequences, especially if allowed to persist over time.

What Is Sexual Coercion?

Part of sexual abuse in relationships involves coercion. There may not be physical violence involved but there can be control and manipulation involved. This is a little more difficult to spot as many forms of sexual coercion can be glanced over.

It can include things like pressuring even after the other person has said no. Perhaps it involves insisting that what is about to happen will stay a secret or not be told to others. It can involve pushing to do things even when one party has made it clear that they are afraid.

Sexual coercion can involve insulting someone, name calling, insinuating bad things will happen, or even getting angry if there is a disagreement about what will happen. In relationships in particularly, sexual coercion includes sulking, refusal to talk, or otherwise making the other party feel guilty.

Being in an Open or Alternative Relationship

There can become even greater confusion when it comes to open or alternative relationships. But the simple fact of the matter is if there is a refusal of any kind yet the sexual act moves forward, it is abuse or assault.

It doesn’t matter what kind of things both parties are into. Even if the relationship is sexually adventurous, open, involves S&M, or is an LBGTQ relationship, “no” means no. There is a misconception that the other partner has a “right” to sex when that is not true in the least.

Sexual abuse in an adult relationship can happen to anyone. Not only that, but it can happen across any race, gender, class, sexual orientation, culture, or religion.

Sometimes, victims of sexual abuse in a relationship will say something to the effect of, “I didn’t mind it” or “I kind of liked it.” The fact is that, if “no” was said, it is clear that it wasn’t fully consensual. Something was done to make it feel like it had to happen. That is abusive.

Regardless of whether the other party’s body responds, a refusal to take “no” for an answer is coercion. Intimate partner sexual violence can be difficult to determine and quite confusing. There are feelings of love involved in some cases, which only serves to muddy the waters further. It can even result in self-blame from the victim.

It is important to note that a partner who is sexually abusive is also more likely to be abusive in other ways, particularly psychologically and emotionally. Though this isn’t always the case, they may be manipulating in order to get what they want or because they like it.

Recognizing the signs can be difficult because of the feelings involved. Talking to a professional can be crucial for not only recognizing the signs but taking action. The severity depends on the situation and not all forms of sexual abuse are intentional, which required discussion and action.


Recognizing the signs of sexual abuse in a relationship can be difficult. After all, where there are feelings of compassion and love, it can be confusing. When someone is persistent about performing a sexual act even in the face of resistance, that is sexual abuse.

Though it does not necessarily mean that the person in question is doing it on purpose or that they have nefarious intentions, it is something that requires addressing. Discussion between partners is important, and may sometimes require professional intervention.


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