“It’s not like he hit me”: Women’s Experiences of Sexual Violence in Dating Relationships

This brief video highlights my research findings on sexual violence and their implications and received an Honourable Mention in the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Storytellers Contest.

By Nicole Jeffrey

Past research has found that when less forceful acts, such as pressure and arguments, are included, most women (as many as three in four) report having experienced sexual violence. And, despite what rape culture would have us believe, most of this sexual violence is committed by men known to women, especially romantic partners. Because of this, for my Master’s thesis at the University of Guelph, I examined university women’s experiences of sexual violence by a male romantic partner, ranging anywhere from verbal pressure to threatened or actual physical force. I focused especially on less physically forceful acts since most research has looked at rape and physical force.

Women do not always label or define their experiences using common terms like “rape,” “sexual assault,” or “sexual violence” so, to identify women to interview for my study, I first used an online screening survey that asks about specific behaviours their partner has used. Of 152 women who answered the survey, 49 (about 32%) had at least one experience of sexual violence in their most recent relationship alone. Twelve of these women participated in an interview to talk about their experiences.

Like many feminist, qualitative researchers, I began this project wanting to give voice to women. It’s a problem that women’s voices and experiences are often left out of conversations about issues like sexual violence that are directly about them and so I wanted to help reclaim and validate their experiences. I also expected that these interviews would help highlight the negative consequences of seemingly minor verbal pressures. To do this, I used a qualitative approach called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (try saying that three times fast!). This approach aims to explore accounts of personal experiences and the meaning people attach to those experiences. It also recognizes the role of the researcher in interpreting and making sense of those accounts.

The women I interviewed described mostly experiences of verbal pressure, such as complimenting and sweet talking (“but you’re just so hot!”); continually asking or trying to convince; guilt or relational pressure (“you must not love me anymore”); and yelling. But they also described some physical tactics like trying to arouse her after she said no, disregarding her declines and initiating sex anyway, and using his body weight to hold her down.

They usually felt more frustrated, angry, hurt, or scared when their partner used more forceful behaviours like yelling and using his body weight to hold them down, but they also highlighted that “words hurt”—physical violence did not need to be used for these experiences to be harmful.

I also looked at how the women interpreted or made sense of their experiences. Many saw their partners’ behaviour as disrespectful, selfish, and controlling, but others made light of their experiences in ways that are consistent with cultural norms that justify sexual violence. For example, some spoke about their experiences as a normal part of relationships; as mild compared to other forms of violence (“it’s not like he hit me”); as owing to (and, therefore, justified because of) their partner’s personality or male sexual needs (“he is a guy, he has his needs”); or as their own fault for not fulfilling their “duty” as a girlfriend or for not being clearer in their decline and “adamantly [putting their] foot down.” Even when the women made light of their partners’ behaviour, these experiences often still had negative consequences for themselves and their relationships. For example, some women broke up with their partner because of his sexual violence, some later gave in to sex they didn’t want because it was easier than “[fighting] him off all night,” and some had later trouble trusting men’s intentions.

Given these findings, I moved beyond a traditional phenomenological analysis to better understand and explain why these women may have experienced and talked about their experiences in the ways that they did. Specifically, women’s interpretations of their partners’ sexual violence reflected the common ways that our culture tends to deny and trivialize sexual violence, blame women for their victimization, and justify men’s perpetration. They also reflect how our culture tends to portray heterosexual sex, where men are the initiators of sex and have uncontrollable (biological) sexual urges.

One woman’s story and labelling of an experience that legally constituted rape as “sex just sort of happening” also reflects the common way that our culture tends to talk about and conceptualize rape as only something that’s physically violent. Her partner was not physically violent—he disregarded her refusal and started having sex with her, likely using no more force than he would have during consensual sex.

My results say a lot about the need for continued social change. We need to expand our common definitions of sexual violence so that we understand more of women’s experiences as problematic. We need to question (and not use as excuses) biological assumptions about men’s sexual behaviour. Encouraging women to view their experiences on a spectrum of sexual victimization may help challenge men’s use of sexual violence and lead to better and more empowered sexual experiences for women. Perhaps victimization is too strong a word in some instances, but there’s still a need in these cases for women to question their partner’s behaviour, to see it as something that interferes with their right to make free decisions about their bodies, and to emphasize the need for their own desire and pleasure in sex.

More importantly, men should question their own behaviour, how they might be undermining their partners’ wishes or consent, and how they might be reinforcing the privileging of men’s sexual wants. We also need to encourage couples to have more open and honest conversations about how they can navigate mutually consensual and pleasurable sexual encounters in their relationships, and we need to teach young people not only that these conversations are important, but how to actually have them.

Learn More

Jeffrey, N. (2014).Women’s Lived Experiences of Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relationships with Men (Unpublished Master’s Thesis). University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Jeffrey, N. K., & Barata, P. C. (2017). “He Didn’t Necessarily Force Himself Upon Me, But . . . ”: Women’s Lived Experiences of Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relationships With Men. Violence Against Women, 23(8), 911–933.

Author Bio

Nicole Jeffrey is a PhD Candidate in Applied Social Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Her research uses primarily qualitative methods and has focused mainly on issues of men’s violence against women, including sexual and intimate partner violence. Her PhD dissertation will examine men’s experiences perpetrating sexual violence in intimate relationships and the ways in which men talk about sex, dating, and sexual violence with other men.