The many facets of shame in intimate partner sexual violence

ACSSA Research Summary No. 1 – January 2012

Shame as a tool used by perpetrators

The literature paints a picture of shame being sufficiently overwhelming to render a person powerless and diminish their sense of self and status (Wilson et al., 2006). This makes shame an effective tool for perpetrators to exploit the vulnerability of their victim and enhance their own power in the relationship dynamic. Logan, Cole, and Shannon (2007) studied the used of sexual degradation of women in violent relationships and interpreted this dimension of sexual abuse as closely resembling psychological abuse. The women in this study often perceived the humiliation and degradation they experienced as being designed for that purpose by the perpetrators. Forcing the victim to submit to particular sexual acts that degrade and humiliate them is an example of the use of shame as a tool. Forced anal sex for example has been noted to have such a use (Easteal & McOrmond-Plummer, 2006; Stark, 2007; Weiss, 2010). This method of shaming can have the double-barrelled effect of ensuring the victim doesn't report or talk about the assault to others as well as eroding their self-esteem and sense of worth, which ensure the perpetrator's position of power is enhanced.

The way he treated me was so shameful and humiliating, it made it less and less likely that I would speak. I'm sure he was very conscious of that. He did such horrendous things. If he just punched me it would have been so much easier … (Amanda - victim/survivor; quoted in Clark & Quadara, 2010, p.35)

Logan et al. (2007) examined the relationship between the physical and psychological aspects of sexual abuse, finding that degradation tactics included psychological coercion and control as well as physical force. Women in the study who did not identify themselves as being forced into sex, had in fact experienced psychological coercion to have sex with their partner. Because physical force wasn't used, however, they didn't identify the experience as forced sex. This points to the need for health professionals to consider a wide range of sexual behaviours when inquiring about partner sexual abuse, as the victims may not identify the abuse as such when physical force is not used.

When women live with the intimate partner perpetrator, there is a constant reminder of the assault/s and the shameful feelings involved in having been part of a degrading sexual experience and not being able to prevent it (Howard, Riger, Campbell, & Wasco, 2003).