Rape in a relationship

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Sexual violence
Rape in a relationship is one of the most misunderstood types of rape. And yet it's one of the most common sexual offences according to the British Crime Survey - with just over half of female rape victims reporting that a partner or ex-partner had been the offender.

Relationship rape

Rape in a relationship is just as much a criminal offence as stranger rape. The common misunderstanding about relationship rape is that if you've slept with the man before or you're in a relationship with him, he has every right to expect to have sex with you and this doesn't count as rape. Over a quarter of the women in the Wake Up To Rape report said they don't believe it's rape when a man makes his partner have sex when she doesn't want to.

So when is it rape in a relationship, and what distinguishes it from a couple just having sex?

Elizabeth Harrison says: 'Consent does. Rape happens when one person hasn't consented to sex and the man chooses to ignore this. This can be in the context of a relationship or with a complete stranger. Just because you're in a relationship with someone doesn't mean that you always have to have sex with them whenever they want. Even if you're married, you still have the right to say that you don't want to have sex, and if a husband has sex with his wife when she is saying no, then the law says clearly that is rape.'

She adds, 'A man needs to reasonably believe that the other person consents and that can include steps taken by the man to find out that the person consents.'

Relationship rape and the law

Relationship rape is a serious offence. A woman always has the right to say no even if she's previously consented to sex with the man in the past.

'The law is very clear: consenting to have sex with someone on one occasion does not mean that you have lost the right to refuse sex on another occasion,' says Elizabeth.

Understanding relationship rape

Research suggests that victims of relationship rape are more likely to suffer multiple rapes compared to stranger or acquaintance rapes. But because of the nature of relationship rape, many women might not realise or believe they're being raped. She might see it as a normal part of her relationship, as her partner asserting his sexual 'rights' over her. And because of the deep-rooted psychological nature of relationship rape she may even make excuses for him and deny it's rape.

Different forms of relationship rape

Rape in a relationship can take many different forms. It can be through violence perhaps after some physical abuse has happened as a way of 'apologising' to a woman.

But relationship rape doesn't always occur through physical abuse. It can be about a man asserting power and control over his partner, feeling that he's allowed to have sex with her regardless of her consenting or not. It can be obsessive and possessive - if he feels jealous or threatened by her. Sex then changes from being about love and affection into a way of controlling her.

The impact of relationship rape

A woman who's raped in a relationship is more likely to suffer long-lasting psychological injuries. If she's still with her partner she may feel isolated, afraid and deeply traumatised. She may still love her partner and can be reluctant to call him a rapist. To admit to another person what he's doing to her may feel like she's betraying him or even imagining things. The fear of not being believed or blamed will often stop her from coming forward. The control and power he asserts over her can force her to believe it's her fault or that it's normal, acceptable behaviour. He may make her feel as if she's dependent on him - physically, emotionally and financially.

If there are children involved in the relationship, it can make things even harder. A woman may be scared to leave him for their children's sake or be worried about their safety if she reports him.

What to do if you're being raped

Making the decision to do something about what's happening to you is a very brave step. And with the right support you can provide a safe and happy life for yourself and your children.

Continued below...

  • The first step is to admit it's happening. Speak to someone you know you can trust - it could be a friend or family member or even a helpline - see our sexual violence helplines page. While talking about what's happening to you is a very difficult and painful thing to do it's also an important part of facing up to the reality of your situation and getting help
  • Make a plan. Decide what you're going to do - you may want to discuss this with someone you've confided in.

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