Very often when we think of sexual abuse, we imagine a young girl or boy being taken advantage of by an adult. Most of us get fairly riled up by the idea of an adult, who should know better, seeking sexual gratification through a child or adolescent. What many of us fail to recognize, however, and I’m going to mash toes here, is how abusive many of our sexual relationships are even within the context of marriage. Yes; commitment may be great, but it does not automatically “sanctify” every “type” of sex which may occur in such a relationship. And by “type” I’m not talking here about peripheral things like positions or oral sex. Many of us would be hesitant to admit that we have been victims, or even the perpetrators of abusive sex because very often we don’t recognize abuse even when it’s staring us straight in the face. So what exactly am I talking about?
Any sex that seeks to control, is negatively conditional, dehumanizes or ignores the choice of the other individual is abusive sex. Relationship sexual abuse is not exclusive to the unmarried, under-aged nor is it confined to rape. It occurs in all contexts. But we live in a peculiar society which teaches women, almost exclusively, that keeping their man, means submitting to his sexual advances every time, in spite of the status of the relationship. Of course women are free to do what they choose with their bodies. Nonetheless, within the context of any sexual relationship, even marriage, women must also be cognizant of when the sexual behaviour of their partner begins to cross certain lines.
Sex becomes abusive when a woman must perform sexually to receive money for groceries, bills, to ensure her children are looked after or for her general upkeep. Abusive sex is also indicated when sex is used to override every other relational concern. For instance, if a partner is repeatedly unfaithful, has contracted a sexually transmitted infection, is physically violent or even verbally abusive but refuses to change, seek help or to discuss these concerns and seeks only to maintain sex in the relationship, then such sex is abusive.
In the context of marriage, while Biblical teaching may advance “ownership” of each other’s bodies, it also speaks of the concept of mutual submission. Inherent in this teaching is the value of dialogue and compromise as higher order skills in any marriage relationship. This means that partners are free, whether male or female, to express how they truly feel on an issue and the implication of mutual submission is that such expressions should be met with an attitude of tolerance and negotiation. It does not suggest rail-roading over each other’s feelings to get what he/she wants even when that thing is perceived as the right to sex.
When women or men are objectified sexually, so that they are only acknowledged or valued for their sexual performance, then such individuals are also experiencing some level of sexual abuse. This type of sexual relationship in fact dehumanizes individuals, is extremely genital-focused and reduces the partner to nothing more than an object for sexual gratification. The individual is not valued for his/her core personality, preference or needs.
The problem with sexually abusive behaviour in a relational context is that many individuals have grown to accept such behaviour as the norm. In fact, many of the behaviours mentioned here would not even be perceived as abuse, especially in a marital context or for those in long-term relationships. Abuse, however, is any behaviour which seeks to treat another in a harmful or offensive way. While sex may be important for intimacy, it is not the only aspect of a relationship which requires attention. Honesty, integrity and mutual respect are of an even higher value because they have the power to define the entire relationship.
When spouses look out for the greater good of each other and of the relationship, then this can only enhance the quality of their sexual relationship. If an individual, however, feels powerless, threatened, victimized or dehumanized in the name of sex, then this may be a very dangerous relationship requiring rapid intervention or a quick exit. Ultimately, we must be empowered to make those choices which support our emotional and sexual safety and health.