Travis Sky Ingersoll, PH.D., MSW, M.ED. - Social Work & Sexual Health Education/Consulting/Research
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How do you prevent sexual violence in relationships?


Healthy relationships are consensual, non-exploitive, mutually pleasurable, safe, developmentally appropriate, based on mutual expectations, caring and respectful. Any sexual relationship that cannot be described in those terms should probably be carefully examined; something may be wrong, possible very wrong!  On US college campuses, approximately 20-25% of college females become victims of an attempted or completed rape at some point during their college career (American College Health Association, 2008). The overwhelming majority of acts of attempted or completed rape will be perpetrated by an acquaintance or a boyfriend of the victim, and not some shadowy stranger lurking in a dark alleyway.  

Feminist theory interprets rape as a cultural phenomenon in which a “rape culture” is created and maintained through a complex system of beliefs encouraging males to be sexually aggressive and supports violence against women (Buchwald et al., 1993).  Rape cultures are found anywhere in the world where masculinity is narrowly defined with an emphasis on aggression, accumulating possessions (including women), a devaluation of femininity, homophobia, and the belief that women are innately inferior to men.  In such a culture, young men learn violence, and young women learn to accept it.  

Acquaintance rape, also known as date rape, is forced oral, anal or vaginal sexual intercourse by someone the person knows and may even have a romantic relationship with.  When a person is forced to have intercourse against her or his will, regardless of whether it’s through physical force, emotional manipulation or other forms of coercion, it is always considered rape or sexual assault.  

Rape, whether perpetrated by a stranger, an acquaintance, or a romantic partner, is an act of aggression that uses sex to show the victim that the rapist has power over them.  One of the prevailing myths about rape and sexual assault is that it’s about sexual desire.  The belief is that sometimes men just can’t control themselves.  Men tend to let the head on their penis do more thinking than the head on their necks right?  Wrong!  Rape and sexual assault, or any other kind of relationship violence has nothing to do with sex or a man’s hormones, and everything to do with a need for power and control over one’s victim(s).  

The media, through magazines, books, music and movies, often suggests that women are turned on by the power and force of rape, and may even fall in love with the rapist.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  A victim of rape never experiences the act in a positive way, even in a dating situation in which the beginnings of a sexual relationship was pleasant (Advocates for Youth, 2011).  

In the majority of cases, alcohol and/or drugs are involved when acquaintance or relationship rape occurs.  Being drunk or high makes women less able to set clear sexual boundaries and men less inclined to listen to and/or abide by those boundaries.  Nothing a women does – wearing certain clothing, using drugs or alcohol, going to “risky” places, kissing and sexually touching or even having a sexual history with someone, gives a person the right to force her to have sexual intercourse against her will (Advocates for Youth, 2011).  No one ever deserves to be sexually assaulted or raped.  Sexual violence is never justified.  

So how do we protect ourselves from sexual violence in our relationships?  One of the first things we can do is be aware of the warning signs that an intimate partner may be capable of being abusive, sexual and otherwise.  The facts are that abusive romantic partners are possessive, controlling, feel entitled, disrespect and feel superior to their partners, confuse love with abuse, are manipulative, are always striving to have a good public image, feel justified abusing others, and love to deny and minimize their abusive behaviors.  Intimate partner violence grows from attitudes and values, not from feelings. “The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control” (Bancroft, 2006).   Fortunately abusers are rather easy to identify since they tend to exhibit very predictable, cyclical behaviors. 

Abusers often initially present themselves as knights in shining armor, as saviors and/or protectors dedicated to rescuing their “victims.”  After the initial “honeymoon phase,” in which the abuser devotes a lot of energy into being romantic, buying gifts, and establishing themselves as an all around “good-guy” to their partner and their partner’s friends and family, they begin to engage in what is known as the Cycle of Violence.  

The cycle of violence has three stages.  The first stage is “Tension Building.”  During tension building, everything the victim does seems to irritate their partner.  What the victim doesn’t realize initially is that no matter what they do, no matter how careful they are not to upset their partner, it will not change anything.  The abuser will become increasingly agitated and irritated at their victim; looking for reasons to explode. In this stage the victim denies what is happening, excuses their partner’s behavior as the result of some outside stress (work, studies, etc.); blames themselves for the abuser’s behavior, and denies that the abuse will worsen.  The abuser also denies being abusive by blaming the tension on the victim, work, the traffic, or anything else, and may get drunk or use drugs to deny any responsibility for the behavior.  

The second stage is “Explosion” in which the abuser physically or emotionally harms their victim.  The victim often denies the seriousness of their injuries, downplays the abuse, and avoids involving the police or seeking medical care.  The victim may blame the abuse on their own actions, on their partner’s drinking or drug habit, try to justify it due to their partner’s past or present emotional problems, and if rape took place, will likely deny that a sexual assault occurred because they and their partner are in an intimate relationship.  At this stage, the abuser blames the victim as the cause of the abuse, citing things their victim has said or done that had angered them, therefore forcing them to act in an abusive way.  

The third stage is the “Honeymoon” stage.  During this stage the abuser returns to the romantic, self-less behaviors that lured in their victim at the beginning of the relationship.  The abuser will typically express how sorry they are, and may cry or appear depressed to demonstrate how remorseful they feel about what they did.  Often the victim will be treated to gifts like flowers and romantic meals as a token of their abuser’s sincerity that the abusive event was an isolated incident, and will not happen again.  Because of the efforts of their abuser, backed by the love and hope of the victim, the victim will likely minimize their injuries (“It could have been worse”) and will believe that their partner is going to change, and that the abuse will not happen again.  

However, the Cycle of Violence is just that… a cycle.  After a “honeymoon” period, which may last weeks or even months, the “tension building” stage begins again.  Again, the abuser becomes increasingly irritated by their victim, and before long they once again “explode” and abuse their victim again, followed by another “honeymoon” stage.  Often, as the abusive relationship continues, the “honeymoon” stage becomes shorter and shorter, leading to a situation in which the victim’s life is ruled by periods of tension building and abusive behavior.  

In order to lessen the incidents of sexual violence and abuse in relationships throughout society, the following are suggestions for interventions at both the micro (individual to individual change) and macro (large societal/structural changes) levels:  

Micro Interventions

  • Educate ourselves and each other about intimate partner violence (i.e., circle of power and control, cycle of violence, abuser characteristics, etc.)

  • Allow our children to express themselves the way they want, without rigidly   enforcing societal gender ideologies.

  • Speak up when friends make sexist and/or hateful comments about the opposite sex.
  • Explore and work through our own programming with regards to gender ideologies/expectations.

  • Help educate others about intimate partner violence, and how our societal dichotomization of gender contributes to abusive mentalities.
  • Volunteer at agencies that combat intimate partner violence.  

Macro Interventions

  • We must look at our society critically and analyze why we have such an immense problem with male-initiated violence, and how we can correct it.
  • Deconstruct gender as we have come to know it, thereby allowing all people to express themselves as they feel, free of rigid gender dichotomization.
  • Endorse, and contribute to policies and legislation that works towards egalitarianism and equality for all people regardless of sex, race, gender identification, sexual orientation, etc. 

It is important to understand that sexual violence is a predictable consequence of a violent masculinity-based rape culture.  Through this lens, sexual violence is seen as a continuum of behaviors instead of an isolated, deviant act. However, such sexual violence is not inevitable, and can be prevented by making significant changes to societal norms regarding sexuality, violence, gender, and oppression (Hooks, 1989).  

It’s obvious that there is not simple answer to the question of “How do you prevent sexual violence in a relationship?”  Major societal changes are needed when sexual violence against women and aggressive forms of masculinity are the norm.  However, at the individual level there are things that you can do to protect yourself from being sexually assaulted/raped by an acquaintance or intimate partner (Advocates for Youth, 2011).  

The following are some of the things that you can do to help prevent date rape and sexual violence within your relationships:  

  1. Remember that no matter what the circumstances are, you have the right to choose when, with whom and how you want to be sexual.  Be assertive, decisive, and non-apologetic about what you want (or don’t want).
  2. Communicate clearly and directly about your limits on sexual behavior.  Say something like “I will do_________________, but I will not____________.”
  3. Avoid sending mixed messages.  It’s ok to want to be intimate with someone and it’s ok not to want to be intimate.  Decide what you want sexually and do not act confused about it.  Don’t say no when you mean yes.
  4. When first dating someone, go out with other people or groups rather than alone.
  5. Pay attention to how your date feels about the roles of men and women, especially in relationships.
  6. Trust your feelings – if you begin to feel nervous or uncomfortable about the way things are going, do something about it right away. Let your date know how you feel and get away from the situations to a place where you feel more comfortable.
  7. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about not having sex with them; you are not responsible for satisfying anyone sexually just because they become sexually aroused in your presence.
  8. Beware of verbal coercion tactics, such as “you led me on,” “if you loved me you’d want to have sex with me,” “I’ll just have to find someone else to satisfy my needs,” “you’re being selfish,” or “aren’t you attracted to me?”
  9. If your date tried to force you to do anything, say no loudly and clearly. Yell, if necessary, and resist in any way you can, including fighting back and running away.

In truth, all victims of abuse should know that whether they have carefully avoided potentially dangerous situations or not, whether the abuse is sexual, physical or psychological, whether it is committed by an acquaintance or a stranger, that they are
the cause of that abuse!  Above all, open communication with one’s romantic partners, coupled with an awareness of the warning signs of potential abusive relationships, will help increase your safety and lessen the likelihood that you’ll become a victim of sexual and/or intimate partner violence.    


Advocates for Youth (2011).  Sexual Violence: Rape and Date Rape. A lesson plan from     
Life planning education: A youth development program. Retrieved from:     

American College Health Association (2008). 
Shifting the paradigm: Primary prevention of sexual violence. Linthicum, MD:
American College Health Association Publications.

Bancroft, L. (2003). 
Why does he do that? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group.

Buchwald, E. et. al. (1993). Transforming a rape culture.Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed      Editions.

Hooks, B. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black.
Boston, MA: South End Press.

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