The many facets of shame in intimate partner sexual violence

ACSSA Research Summary No. 1 – January 2012


Shame is multi-faceted in the suffering it inflicts on those who experience it, particularly in the context of sexual abuse. Shame and intimate partner sexual violence are inextricably interwoven in three key aspects. The first aspect is the detrimental psychological impact of shame on its victims. The effects of shame for the victim/survivor include post-trauma symptoms and severe risks to self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. The second is the creation and escalation of shame by the social constructs that surround marriage, sex and gender roles and continue to relegate intimate partner sexual violence to the private realm. By continuing to avoid public discussion and acknowledgement of intimate partner sexual violence, these constructs and incorrect beliefs will perpetuate the suffering of victim/survivors.

The third dimension of suffering caused by shame is the use of shame and humiliation by perpetrators to disempower their partners and maintain control over them. The effects of shame benefit perpetrators in the intimate partner context because the power imbalance is further entrenched by the eroding of the victim/survivors self-esteem.

The insidious and eroding effects of shame on victim/survivors mean that it is important that those who work with women in a health or support capacity, be pro-active in recognising and understanding the negative effects of shame in a post-traumatic context. Appropriate, and supportive responses, including referral to specialist services, are key tools for overcoming the barriers that shame can impose.