The many facets of shame in intimate partner sexual violence

ACSSA Research Summary No. 1 – January 2012


Despite indications of a high prevalence rate of spousal sexual violence, there seems to be more reluctance on the part of victim/survivors to report or discuss spousal sexual violence compared to other types of sexual assaults (Lievore, 2003; Mahoney, 1999). There is also reluctance to disclose sexual violence even when physical violence may be identified. This means that sexual assault may remain a hidden aspect of abuse in relationships, even where physical assaults are disclosed (Parkinson, 2008). The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) personal safety data also indicated that sexual assaults are less likely to be reported to the police than physical assaults, while sexual assaults by a current partner are the least likely of all to be reported, even compared to other types of sexual assaults (ABS, 2006).

Shame is a key aspect of the emotional suffering that results from sexual abuse (Feiring & Taska, 2005; Rahm, Renck, & Ringsberg, 2006; Weiss, 2010). In reviewing the literature on intimate partner sexual violence, shame consistently arises as one of the predominant feelings that victim/survivors describe. Shame has many implications for victim/survivors of intimate partner sexual violence, including being a major barrier to disclosure and help-seeking (Lievore, 2003). Shame contributes to the risk that intimate partner sexual violence won't be detected and that victim/survivors continue to suffer in isolation. It is important that health professionals and others supporting women at risk of intimate partner violence consider the effects of shame on these women and the possible underlying causes.

The research surrounding intimate partner sexual violence touches on shame in various ways, such as how shame creates psychological barriers that effectively cut off victim/survivors, how cultural attitudes about gender perpetuate shame and how intimate partner perpetrators are able to use shame to their advantage.

Shame is a destructive emotion that targets the very centre of a person's sense of identity and may involve feelings of self-disgust, failure, low self-esteem and disgrace (Feiring & Taska, 2005; Rahm et al., 2006; Weiss, 2010; Wilson, Drozdek, & Turkovic, 2006). Shame can also provide a major hurdle to recovery for victim/survivors, not only by damaging self-esteem but also by ensuring they remain silent about their traumatic sexual experiences. It is clear from the literature that shame plays a debilitating part in the victim's experience of intimate partner sexual violence. Understanding the causes and manifestations of "post-traumatic shame" is important in responding appropriately to victim/survivors of intimate partner sexual violence and ensuring they receive the specific support required.

This research summary aims to consider shame in its many guises in the context of intimate partner sexual violence and will summarise the available research on the role and impact of shame. Much of the literature reviewed identifies intimate partner sexual violence as a separate and distinct form of intimate partner violence with its own set of destructive impacts (Bennice & Resick, 2003; Bennice, Resick, Mechanic, & Astin, 2003; Campbell & Soeken, 1999; Cole, Logan, & Shannon, 2005).

Research indicates that shame can be an isolating experience for victims of intimate partner sexual violence, and that it contributes to the likelihood that the sexual violence will go undetected. Health professionals should be aware of the insidious and damaging role shame plays in sexual violence in order to provide supportive, compassionate responses to women who suffer because of it.