The many facets of shame in intimate partner sexual violence

ACSSA Research Summary No. 1 – January 2012

Social constructs of shame and cultural norms

Weiss (2010) argued that shame in relation to sexual crimes should not be considered a "natural" emotion but that shame is the result of social constructions of appropriate gender behaviour and how sexuality is dealt with in that culture.

Societal attitudes to sex within intimate relationships are reflected in the historical treatment of marital sexual assault. In Australia, until the 1980s, sexual assault within a marriage was not legally recognised as crime and consent to sex was considered irrevocable by the agreement to marry (Easteal & Feerick, 2005). Australian jurisdictions no longer make a legal distinction for sexual assault perpetrated by a spouse.2 However, culturally, there is still a perception that sexual violence between intimates is at the low end of severity compared to stranger violence (Lievore, 2003; Easteal & Feerick, 2005).

According to Flood and Pease (2009), society's attitudes about violence towards women impacts in three key areas: the perpetration of violence, women's responses to the violence, and the community's responses. There is a cultural perception of blame on the victim where the society's attitudes perpetuate myths around gender roles such as that the victim is somehow at fault or that men cannot control their sexual behaviour. In a review of marital rape literature, Bennice and Resick (2003) indicated that where the victim/survivor has previously consented to sex with the perpetrator, the sexual assault is considered less serious and increased blame is attributed to the victim/survivor and less to the perpetrator, compared to a stranger rape scenario. These cultural misapprehensions about the causes and experience of intimate partner sexual violence have the potential to increase the feelings of shame a victim experiences. One aspect of non-reporting of sexual crimes may be an attempt to avoid any escalation of the shame and embarrassment that victims feel by revealing the crime publicly to a judgemental society.

Women may internalise the cultural sense of sexual obligation in a marital partnership (Culbertson & Dehle, 2001) due to the perceptions that a woman is obliged to be sexually available to her partner once a past sexual relationship has been established. This creates the potential for another element of shame and self-blame, in having failed to fulfil that duty.

In Parkinson's (2008) report on intimate partner rape, most of the women interviewed indicated that their partner would not consider their actions to be rape although they fitted within a legal definition of such. This reflects research findings that a person's gender may link to their attitudes about violence towards women, and also women and sexuality more broadly (Flood & Pease, 2009). Men are more likely than women to agree with cultural attitudes that support violence against women (Flood & Pease, 2009; Taylor, 2007). These attitudes contribute to the cultural understanding that intimate partner sexual assault is less harmful than other forms of sexual assault.

In many cultures, marriage and the family unit is revered and finding a companion to share one's life is an aspiration that features highly in many people's life goals. The shame surrounding intimate partner sexual violence can have an added dimension in that victims may perceive themselves as failing in the eyes of a society that places great cultural value on the family. Weiss (2010) described the shame of sexual victimisation as a "culturally embedded" social process.


2 For a discussion and complete list of Australian sexual assault legislation see ACSSA Resource Sheet, Sexual Assault Laws in Australia (Fileborn, 2010).