Please use discretion in reading, as this post addresses sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse can be subtle - so subtle that some women may not realize they’re victims of sexual abuse, or may think that assault in a relationship would be limited to rape.

Sadly, rape can and does happen within committed relationships. And there are resources for women in those situations. There are other forms of sexual abuse, however, and it is crucial that women are aware of them: manipulation, bullying, and subtle sexual coercion.

Verbal and Emotional Pressures

Not giving consent to sexual contact isn’t limited to an overt and obvious, “No.” If a “yes” only comes after coercion, guilt trips, or consistent coaxing and refusal to take “no” for an answer - it’s not really a “yes.” Agreeing to a sexual encounter simply to get a partner to stop applying verbal or emotional pressure isn’t true consent.

With this type of coercion, a partner may:

  • tell their partner that it’s been “too long” and he has normal male needs that she must satisfy
  • guilt-trip their spouse by saying that she must not love him or she must not find him attractive
  • badger and exhaust a partner by asking for sex repeatedly, until the other finally gives in
  • tell his spouse she’s obligated as a wife to satisfy his sexual urges when he demands it
  • compare a girlfriend to past sexual partners by saying she’s “just like” his frigid ex, or by bragging about obliging women who were all over him in the past

Alarm Clock Coercion

One of the most common sexual control tactics used by an abuser is the “alarm clock” method. 

A partner demands sex at certain regular times, always determined by him. For example, every three or four days an internal timer goes off and he expects sex. If the allotted time period goes by and his sexual expectations aren’t met according to his standards, he lashes out. This could mean overt violence.

Or, his tactics could be more covert. If she denies him sex for any reason, no matter how valid, she might be labeled “cold” and “insensitive.” This causes a girlfriend, wife, or partner — the victim of domestic sexual abuse — to feel guilty, and therefore to give into the abuser’s coercion. 

This never makes her a co-partner in his sexual game. It makes her into a forced victim, even though she wasn’t physically forced into having sex.

Internalized Abuse

Sadly, this type of sexual bullying is all too common. Domestic violence expert Lundy Bancroft offers therapy to abused women and has led workshops with many men with patterns of abuse. Bancroft writes that “a majority of [his] clients seem to believe that the woman loses her right to refuse him if the man determines that it has been ‘too long’ since they have had sex […] he watches his internal clock and expects access when the alarm goes off.”

The covert manipulations are exceptionally insidious because their subtlety allows them to fly under the victim’s radar. Aggressors often play the victim and become self-pitying or play up insecurities: “Oh, poor me, you don’t love me, you don’t find me attractive.” 

They may mope, give their partner the silent treatment or a verbal onslaught of abuse, become even more critical and controlling than usual, and even eventually blow up in a rage. They may threaten to find sexual satisfaction elsewhere, or accuse their hesitant partner of having an affair.

With covert abuse, women don’t realize they’re being sexually assaulted.

Counting the days until the next sexual encounter, or anticipating that a partner will “expect it” after a certain number of days have passed is not intimacy. 

Mutuality is a Part of Healthy Sex

Sex without full and free consent and mutual initiation doesn’t make a wife feel wanted, loved, cherished, respected, or part of a relationship. It makes her feel like an object to be used - and that’s exactly the underlying dynamic in sexually coercive situations. As Pope Paul VI said, “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love.”

Men and women both seek to love and be loved. Pressuring and bullying can never facilitate true, mutual love in a sexual encounter.

Women can certainly pressure partners for sex, as well. But statistics show that it’s more common for men to pressure women. Narratives in romance movies, novels, and porn all feed into a sexist and damaging narrative that male dominance in initiating and demanding sex is normal and healthy.

Women can feel confident that, by challenging those narratives in their relationship and by seeking help, they are contributing to a healthier and more authentically loving attitude toward sex for men and women alike.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Create Soul Space: Domestic Abuse Awareness blog.

Jenny duBay

Jenny duBay is a domestic abuse survivor, advocate, and founder of Create Soul Space: A Catholic's Guide to Domestic Violence. She's also a freelance author who writes for various Catholic publications as well as maintaining her own active blog at createsoulspace.substack.com.

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