From 25 November to 10 December 2019, we used our voices to highlight an overlooked issue in domestic abuse interventions: men's sexualised violence against their partners.
Throughout the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, member organisations from Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Italy and Spain organised activities to
- educate the public about misconceptions around sexualised violence in relationships,
- fight the prejudices towards survivors of sexualised violence in relationships and
- shift the focus from women being responsible for their safety to what men can do to ensure a safe and consensual sexual relationship.
Sexualised violence in relationships is a crucial, European-wide concern, which is not taken seriously enough by most media, the justice system or policy makers.
One in five women worldwide will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, while decades of research have shown that her male partner is most likely to be a woman’s rapist. A recent study discovered that this is the case for 64% of European women who experienced sexualised violence since the age of 15. Adding legal impunity, marital rape was legal in many European countries, until quite recently.
Rape myths about dark streets, unknown assailants and victim blaming influence the believability of survivors of sexualised violence in relationships. They keep women from acknowledging they experienced sexualised violence, justify men’s use of sexualised violence, and keep them from being held accountable. The influence of prejudices even discourages victims with close ties to the perpetrator to report the crime. With potentially lethal consequences.
Not only do women victims of intimate partner sexual assault sustain more severe genital injuries, but perpetrators are also more likely to use several types of violence, e.g. strangulation, to subdue their partners – leading to serious and potentially life-threatening harm. In a shocking turn, this evidence of additional injuries after a partner’s death is being used as a criminal defence all over Europe.
Prosecution rates for rape are still abysmally low in almost all European countries (e.g. just 1.5% of all rape cases lead to charge or summons in England & Wales, only 8,4% of reported rape cases lead to a conviction in Germany). Other more subtle types of sexualised violence, such as sexual coercion and exploitation, reproductive violence or unwanted exposure to pornography still often go completely unnoticed – especially, if they are perpetrated in relationships.
Society must start demanding that men hold each other accountable for their violence. Although not all men are violent, they make up the majority of perpetrators of sexualised violence, both against men and women. The good news is: masculinity is a social construct. Accordingly, it can be changed by social action.
A simple step is for women and men to speak up against sexist comments, views and behaviours. This can be in a group of friends or on Twitter, but it must become clear that disrespecting women and their rights has real and concrete social consequences.
Secondly, men must start realising and addressing the harm caused by pornography, its the violent production circumstances and the way it has popularised violent sexual encounters. An entire generation is currently receiving sex education from sources showing women’s consent being ignored or purposefully violated, depicting sex as an act of violence and perpetuating intensely sexist and racist stereotypes.
Lastly, we must make perpetrators visible. The current discourse on sexualised violence involves many questions on the behaviour of the survivor. Instead, questions must focus on the behaviour of the men who choose to violate women and who believe they have the right to force their needs on them.
To ensure that victims of sexualised violence receive the protection and support they need and deserve, all European governments need to sign, ratify and effectively implement the Istanbul Convention. The convention includes a list of recommendations for the protection of survivors of sexualised violence, as well as for the prevention of violence against women.
A list of countries that have already signed or ratified the convention can be found here. Those living in the EU and wanting to support efforts towards ratification of the most comprehensive international treaty on violence against women and girls can get in touch with their Members of the European Parliament and send a message of support for the Istanbul Convention.
For a clear picture of the extent of the problem, all regulations on interventions against domestic violence should explicitly and consistently include addressing and gathering data on sexualised violence. While specialised services, such as rape crisis centres, are a crucial part of the support system, we need to stop thinking of domestic and sexualised abuse as separate. This will improve services offered to survivors, as well as perpetrators.
Lastly, we must work together to dismantle harmful gender stereotypes and misconceptions around sexualised violence that keep women from seeking help and receiving qualitative support. This can be done in a myriad of ways, e.g.
- by getting educated about rape myths
- by calling out sexism in conversations, in advertisements, in political statements, etc.
- by men holding each other accountable
- by using clear language (not forced sex, instead rape) when talking about sexualised violence