Sexual Assault in Abusive Relationships
by Lauren R. Taylor with Nicole Gaskin-Laniyan
About the Authors
Lauren R. Taylor is a freelance writer. Nicole Gaskin-Laniyan,
Ph.D., is a Social Science Analyst in the Violence and
Victimization Research Division of the National Institute
A recent study funded by NIJ on women who had been physically
assaulted by an intimate partner found that two-thirds of
the women had also been sexually assaulted by that partner.
In addition to a victim’s physical
and psychological injuries, her older children were found
to be at increased risk for depression.
Researchers Judith McFarlane and Anne Malecha from Texas
Woman’s University collected data from 148 women who
sought assistance from the judicial system after being physically
assaulted by an intimate partner. The women, who were interviewed first
in 2001, were contacted again in 2003 with questions about
forced sex. Researchers
looked at the incidence and consequences of sexual assault
in intimate relationships and compared the findings with
data collected from women who were physically but not sexually
assaulted by their partners. The researchers identified
risk factors for women in abusive relationships that could
be used to develop referral and safety programs for victims
and their children.
Impact of Reporting on Revictimization
Most research supports the claim that sexual assault is
common in physically abusive relationships. McFarlane and
Malecha found that 68 percent of the abused women reported
having been sexually assaulted by their intimate partners.
Sexual assault occurred repeatedly within these intimate
relationships—almost 80 percent of sexually assaulted
women reported more than one incident of forced sex.
Most of the women in the study did not report the assault
or seek assistance after the first rape—just 6 percent
contacted the police after the first rape, and 8 percent
applied for a protective order. But women assistance from
the courts were less likely to be revictimized. Specifically,
women who contacted the police following the first rape
were 59 percent less likely to be raped by an intimate partner
again, whether or not the abuser was arrested. Women who
applied for a protective order after the first rape were
70 percent less likely to be raped again, whether or not
the order was obtained. Most women waited several years
after the first sexual assault before applying for a protective
order, with Caucasians waiting the longest (on average 8
years), followed by Latina women (5 years), and African
American women (3 years).
Physical and Emotional Tolls of Intimate Partner Sexual
Sexual assault by intimate partners has a profound effect
on victims and their children.
Researchers McFarlane and Malecha also found that the sexually
assaulted women in the study had worse mental and physical
health than women who had been physically but not sexually
abused. The women had more post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) symptoms, more pregnancies resulting from rape, and
more sexually transmitted diseases. Foreign-born women in the study were
found to have a high risk of developing PTSD and also to
have fewer social supports. In addition, 27 percent of the
women surveyed began or increased their use of alcohol,
illicit drugs (usually cocaine), or nicotine after they
were sexually assaulted by an intimate partner.
Women who had been sexually assaulted by an intimate partner
were also more likely to threaten or attempt suicide than
women who were physically but not sexually abused. Twenty-two
percent of sexually assaulted women said they had threatened
or attempted suicide within 90 days of applying for a protection
order, compared with 4 percent of women who were physically
Sexually abused women in the study were also more likely
to have had their abusers harass them at work and threaten
them with murder. Researchers did not find significant differences
in these risk factors across ethnicity or race of the women.
What Children Witness
The effect of sexual assault in an abusive relationship
permeates a household. Almost 90 percent of children of
women in the study who were physically assaulted or both
physically and sexually assaulted were exposed to these
incidents against their mothers. By the age of 3, 64 percent
of the children had witnessed the abuse; 30 percent of them
received counseling. Older children (aged 12 to 18 years)
of sexually abused mothers showed more depression and had
appreciably more behavioral problems than children of mothers
who had not been sexually assaulted.
Steps for Change
When a woman is sexually assaulted by an intimate partner,
her health—mental and physical—is compromised.
Her children’s risk for depression is also heightened.
Workers in the justice, health, and social service fields
can take steps to help victims of intimate partner sexual
assault. The researchers recommend that these professionals:
- Receive training on the frequency and health and safety
consequences of intimate partner sexual assault.
- Assess clients for type and frequency of sexual assault.
- Assess victims to determine if they are at risk for
PTSD, substance use, and suicide.
- Inform women who have been sexually assaulted by their
partner about their higher risk of being murdered by that
- Inform sexually abused immigrant women about their potential
increased risk for PTSD.
- Instruct mothers about the potential effects of partner
abuse on their children.
This information, delivered with the appropriate referrals
and safety planning information, could lead to greater protection
for abused women and their children.
For More Information
McFarlane, J., and A. Malecha, Sexual Assault Among
Intimates: Frequency, Consequences, and Treatments,
final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice,
2005 (NCJ 211678), available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/211678.pdf.
Sexual assault is
defined as forced vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
All sought protective
orders from the courts. Thirty-three percent were African
American, 26 percent were Caucasian, and 41 percent
were Latina. Twenty-eight percent were also immigrants.
There were no significant demographic differences between
the women who had been raped and those who had been
physically abused but not raped.
 Researchers initially
interviewed 150 women in 2001. Because 2 of the women
died in the interim, only 148 were interviewed in 2003.
 Twenty percent of
the women in the sample had rape-related pregnancies,
and 15 percent contracted sexually transmitted diseases.