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Intimate Violence and Sexual Abuse: Lived Experiences Essay

Abraham Maslow’s (1970) Hierarchy of Needs listed love and belongingness as the third level of human need (Kozier et al., 2006). Indeed, among the most basic needs of human beings is “belongingness.” Thus, humans go into intimate relationships to fulfill that need for love.

Intimate relationships cover a wide range of interactions. It may include marital relationships, but it is not confined to these. It may also include formerly married partners, dating partners, and live-in partners (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2006).

Unfortunately, though, instead of fulfilling the need for love and belonging, some of these intimate relationships cause more harm than good. Sadly, a lot of abuse and violence occur within the supposed “shelter” of these relationships. In US alone, 4.8 million cases of physical assaults and rapes recorded each year occurred within intimate relationships (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

With this, the study aims to examine the lived experiences of individuals in an abusive intimate relationship, focusing on its perceived cause, and its effect on the abused individual. However, it is the study’s ultimate hope that with the data gathered; it may provide and serve as a basis for preventive and curative interventions for intimate relationship violence.

More specifically, this study aims to answer the following questions:

1. What are the most common reasons and risk factors for abuse as perceived by individuals experiencing intimate violence?

2. What are the perceived physical and emotional/psychological health consequences of intimate relationship violence and sexual abuse on the abused individual?

Literature Review

Intimate partner abuse or violence, in its most basic sense, is defined as a maltreatment occuring between two non-blood-related individuals interacting in an intimate relationship (CDC, 2006).

The term “intimate relationship” is most commonly associated with marriage. However, it can also refer to any relationship between individuals not related by blood or consanguinity. Therefore, intimate relationships also cover “dating or courtship relationships, relationships where partners live together, relationships where two people have children in common but are no longer formally involved with one another, and marital relationships (Mouradin, 2000).” And in all these relations, intimate violence or sexual abuse can occur.

Intimate partner violence manifests itself in different forms. Physical abuse involves the actual use of force to inflict physical harm. It may include hitting, cutting, slapping, choking, spanking, kicking, hair pulling, pushing, and others (Mouradin, 2000). Emotional abuse, on the other hand, involves verbal and non-verbal acts that inflict harm on the other, without the actual use of physical force. It can include threats, yelling, swearing, insulting or belittling, and other treatments that lack the respect deserved by the other partner (Mouradin, 2000).

However, although physical and emotional abuse are most common, there are also other forms of abuse that exist. Economic abuse entails the deprivation of a partner’s right for financial independence. This type of abuse achieves the same result as emotional abuse by inflicting fear and dependence in the abused individual (Mouradin, 2000). Another type of intimate partner abuse includes social isolation. Social isolation refers to prohibiting a partner to go out, socialize and maintain social support networks (Mouradin, 2000). Still, perhaps among the worst kind of intimate partner violence is sexual abuse.

Intimate sexual violence includes a “range of coercive behaviors from suggestive comments to forced intercourse (Allen, Raimer, & Rothman, 2004).” Although research studies on intimate partner violence are limited, surveys have shown that this problem has increased in prevalence over the years.

In a national survey conducted by the National Violence Against Women, it was revealed that 0.3% of males and 7.7% of females experience in their lifetime an attempted or consumated rape by an intimate partner (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). In addition, statistics suggest that Hispanic and Native American women are at a greater risk for intimate partner sexual abuse (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

Further, a study conducted by Campbell et al. (2002), revealed that out of 2,005 women participating in an organization for health maintenance, around 361 reported that they were forced into sexual activities at least once in their lifetime (Campbell et al., 2002).

Overall, an estimated number of five women and one man out of 1,000 individuals, are documented as new cases of intimate sexual abuse cases per year (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

Survey organizations point out a lot of factors causing intimate sexual abuse. Among these factors include unemployment, drug or alcohol use, low educational attainment, early onset of sexual experience, and a lot others. Also, another cause of intimate sexual abuse is the existence of myths on rape (i.e. some people deserve or benefit from rape), and the idea that rape can serve as a proof of power or dominance (Allen, Raimer, & Rothman, 2004).

In all these, women respond to sexual abuse in different manners. However, most commonly, victims of intimate sexual violence sustain psychological trauma and negative effects, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (Allen, Raimer, & Rothman, 2004).


Primarily, this study utilized a qualitative research design. Qualitattive research focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of a human experience. This study design gives emphasis on the “inherent depth of humans, and the ability of humans to shape and create their own experiences (Polit & Beck, 2006).”

This study follows the phenomenological qualitataive research tradition, by attempting to understand the social context in which intimate partner abuse occur (Polit & Beck, 2006).

Twenty individuals experiencing intimate violence and sexual abuse were chosen for this study through snowball or network sampling. All respondents were aged 18 y/o and above, with mixed genders: 17 females and three males. Race was not expressly considered among the respondents, but some cultural variations were noted. After being ensured of confidentiality and anonimity, the respondents gave their consent to participate in the study.


For this study, data was collected through secondary data analysis and surveys.

In secondary data analysis, previously existing data related to the study is examined. Data may come from journals, books, records, magazines, documents, previous studies, and others. This is done to establish a baseline and support for the study (Polit & Beck, 2006).

Surveys, on the other hand, are nonexperimental studies involving polls. In here, researchers use questionnaires, inteviews, and checklists to gather data (Polit & Beck, 2006).

For this study, after the analysis of secondary data, a simple questionaire was constructed. The questionnaire focused on the causes and perceived health consequences of intimate violence and sexual abuse on the abused individual. It was administered among the respondents and then was followed by an interviewed to expound on each specific topic.


This study aims to prove the following hypotheses:

1. The commonly perceived causes/risk factors for intimate abuse are drug and alcohol use, unemployment, childhood abuse history, conflicts, and stressful life events.

2. The perceived physical health consequences of intimate violence and sexual abuse on abused individuals are wounds and lacerations, fracture, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, bleeding, emaciated body state, eye/facial damage, and abdominal injuries.

3. The perceived emotional/psychological health consequences of intimate relationship violence and sexual abuse include post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, trust issues, depression, eating and sleeping disorders, and unsafe sexual behavior.

Discussion and Interpretation

This chapter deals with the discussion of the data gathered from the survey and analysis.

Perceived Causes/Risk Factors of Intimate Abuse

After the data was tallied and analyzed, it was revealed that most of the causes of abuse among intimate relationships are personal and situational, although some societal factors may also come into play. It must also be remembered that abuse is the effect of the interaction of multiple factors, and not just the effect of a single event or factor.

In the survey, 80% of the respondents said that their partners abuse them due to the influences of alcohol, while 55% responded that the abuse was due to the partner’s drug use. This was supported by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Report on Violence and Health that there is a direct relationship between a man’s drinking frequency, and a woman’s increased risk for being a victim of violence (World Health Organization (WHO), 2005).

Respondents also confirmed that unemployment was another factor for intimate violence. Nine out of 20 respondents said that their partners abused them because he/she has no job or is having a hard time finding one. This was verified by Allen, Raimer & Rothman (2004), who listed unemployement as a cause or factor for intimate abuse (Allen, Raimer, & Rothman, 2004).

Another reason agreed on by respondents are marital or relationship conflicts. Ten respondents claimed that they fight about a lot of things. Indeed, the WHO enumerated the following as parts of conflict that cause intimate abuse: lack of obedience on wife’s part, arguing back to the partner, questioning the man’s actions, refusing sex and the woman’s suspected infidelity (WHO, 2005).

Further, five respondents added that their partners beat them due to a sexual compulsion/ dysfunction. These dysfunctions may also be attributed to personality disorders that affect a person’s sexual behavior. Although research on this topic is limited, it was included as a risk factor for abuse by the WHO (WHO, 2005).

However, a most serious cause and risk factor for intimate abuse pointed out by respondents was the presence of a history of chilhood abuse. Ninety percent of the respondents reported that their abusive partners were abused emotionally, physically, and sexually as children. According to the WHO, history of violence in the family of origin is a powerful risk factor for intimate violence and sexual abuse. Studies all over the world showed that “rates of abuse were higher among women whose husbands had either been beaten as children or had witnessed their mothers beaten (WHO, 2005).” In addition to this, victims of intimate abuse themselves presented a history of abuse as children. Sixteen respondents claimed that they were abused as children. In an interview, a respondent revealed that this history of abuse made her feel “like abuse was a normal thing, since [she] grew up with it.”

Other factors pointed out was lack of education, lack of information on rights as a wife or partner, and the acceptability of intimate violence as a social norm. Among the respondents, abuse was greater among individuals who did not finish high school and among those with low self-esteem. Around 45% of the respondents did not finish high school, while 70% claimed that “they were ugly and worthless.” Abuse was also higher in those that experienced a recent stressful life event, and in some cultures that considered the wife as a “property” of the husband.

Perceived Physical Effects of Intimate Abuse

Depending on the prevalence of these causes, the severity of abuse can vary. However, the effects are all the same. Among the respondents, 100% of them reported that after each abuse, there were cuts, wounds, bruises and tears in their body, especially in the vagina or anus.

Seventy-five percent of the respondents reported abdominal or chest injuries and disorders, 60% reported the presence of fracture, 55% reported vaginal/anal bleeding, 50% reported fatigue or tiredness, 35% reported nausea, vomiting and eye/facial damage, and around 25% claimed that the abuse led to an emaciated body state.Still, some added that the sexual abuse led to unwanted pregnancies and that the intimate violence caused miscarriage or stillbirths in some pregnant women.

This finding was validate by the WHO’s report which enumerated physical effects of abuse very much similar to those found in the study (WHO, 2005).

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