The many facets of shame in intimate partner sexual violence

ACSSA Research Summary No. 1 – January 2012

Victim silence and intimate partner sexual violence

A pervasive theme in studies on male partner rape is that most women minimise the violence or struggle to articulate their experiences (Heenan, 2004). Parkinson's (2008) report Silenced by Shame indicated that of the 21 women in her study of women subjected to partner rape who sought help for their husband's violence, most avoided mentioning the sexual aspect of the abuse. Only four of the 21 women sought help for the rapes, while five sought help for the physical violence alone. (This study was based in regional Victoria which may have implications for its broader application, as arguably, feelings of shame may impact more keenly in a small community where victim/survivors would be less anonymous.)

The idea that discussing marital sex and sexual assault openly is somehow taboo and should remain private, has resulted in a lack of public discourse on intimate partner sexual violence which contributed to these women feeling that they were the only ones experiencing this type of abuse (Parkinson, 2008). In Easteal and McOrmond-Plummer's work (2006) domestic violence workers similarly indicated, that in their experiences, sexual violence is the last type of violence to be disclosed.

A UK study that questioned 25 female survivors of adult sexual assault assessed the relationships between shame and the sexual assault experience. The study used the Experience of Shame Scale,a 25-item questionnaire looking at shame in relation to character and body and behaviour. Results suggested that the higher rates of shame, the more likely that the victim concealed the sexual assault from others (Vidal & Petrak, 2007). This study also found that women who knew the assailant were more ashamed of themselves and their bodies (Vidal & Petrak, 2007).

The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women survey also notes that only 14% of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner reported it and that women were more likely to report the physical than the sexual violence (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004). There may have been other barriers inhibiting the women reporting, in these cases - for example, a fear of partner retaliation - however, the findings are consistent with the theme of isolation of victim/survivors suffering intimate partner sexual violence. Shame appears to be a key factor in this lack of reporting and disclosing sexual violence. The underreporting of sexual crimes generally is attributed to a high level of social stigma and shame that is associated with these assaults (Basile, 2002).