Safety Planning Around Sexual Abuse
All forms of abuse can be really difficult to endure, but we know that survivors of sexual abuse are often hesitant to talk about it even if they have previously opened up to a friend, counselor or Hotline advocate about other forms of abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship and your partner has ever pressured or forced you to do anything sexually that you were not comfortable with or did not actively consent to, that is considered sexual abuse.
Here's what you should know about sexual abuse:
- Yes, it is abuse.
Your body is yours, and whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time, whether it’s a hook up, a committed relationship or even a marriage, you are never obligated to give consent even if you have done so in the past. You get to make your own boundaries. A person can decide to stop any activity at any time, for any reason. If you don’t feel safe saying “no” then you have no room to say “yes.” If your partner pouts and begs until you finally say yes, that’s not consent. If they tell you that you’d have sex (or do any sexual activity) if you “really” loved them, that’s not consent. If your partner pretends not to hear you when you say no or stop, that’s not consent. Any response that disregards or minimizes your wishes when you decline a sexual activity is not okay.
We know that being LGBTQ+ doesn’t protect anyone from abuse so if you have to “prove” anything to your partner by engaging in sexual activities you aren’t comfortable with, that’s abusive. Your sexual orientation and gender identity are yours, and you get to choose whether to disclose them or not, as well as who you tell. If your partner is threatening to out you (or refusing to let you come out) if you don’t have sex, that is abuse.
Are you into kinky sex? There’s nothing wrong with safe and consensual sexual activities that involve an element of bondage, pain or submission, as long as the relationship itself is healthy and respectful. The basis of a healthy BDSM relationship is consent, so if your partner is unwilling to discuss boundaries with you, or ignores your safe word, that is abuse.
- It is super helpful to put together a safety plan.
One of the most helpful things you can do if you are in a relationship that is abusive in any way is to make a safety plan. A safety plan is a living thing, so it’s important to update, change or adapt it whenever necessary. Your safety is our number one priority here at the Hotline, so we believe that no matter what you have to do to stay safe, it’s worth doing. Every individual’s safety plan will look different depending on their relationship. You know your relationship and your partner best, so we trust that you are the expert in your life. The sexual abuse safety tips in this post are meant to be general, so please only use them if you feel safe doing so.
- Consider your physical safety.
If your partner becomes physically violent if you say no to a sexual activity, sometimes ‘giving in’ may be the best way to protect yourself. If you decide to do that, know that giving in doesn’t mean giving up, and it doesn’t mean you consented to anything that’s happening. There’s nothing you could ever do that could make your partner’s behavior your fault or your responsibility. If you are making choices in order to protect your immediate safety, that is not consent – that is survival. Again, consent cannot happen when someone feels unsafe saying no.
Remind yourself that abuse is a choice; we are each only in control of our own words and actions, and everyone deserves a partner who treats them with respect at all times.
We have heard from our callers and chatters that they can sometimes strategize to avoid sexual activity for their safety. Some examples we’ve heard include:
If you do not live with your abusive partner you could:
- make a point to spend time with your partner in public
- avoid going to wherever sexual activity usually occurs
- take a friend with you when visiting your partner
- avoid seeing your partner at the times of day when sexual abuse generally occurs
If you live together you could:
- sleep in another room
- stay over at a friend or family member’s house
- tell your partner you need to go out of town for business
- house-sit for people regularly
- ask friends or family to call you just after bedtime with minor emergencies
- talk to your doctor and see if they can give your partner a medical excuse to avoid intercourse
- say that you’re unable to get aroused or fake ailments like nausea, menstrual cramps, headache/migraine, fever or sore throat, leg cramp, urinary tract infection, yeast infection, hemorrhoids, etc.
- As a last resort some callers and chatters have made themselves sick, for example by using laxatives or taking something that can make them vomit. Definitely consider your own physical health (and any personal history of disordered eating) before trying this, and we strongly recommend you consult with your physician.
In the end, whether you use strategies to avoid sexual activity or not, the person being abusive is the only one who can end the abuse. No one else can prevent someone from being abusive if that’s how they choose to behave. Abuse is NEVER the victim’s fault.
- Consider your emotional safety.
If your partner is gaslighting you and becoming emotionally abusive when you try to assert your boundaries, it might be helpful for you to make an emotional safety plan to go along with your physical safety plan. For survivors of all genders, ages, races, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, immigration statuses and locations, talking to a counselor can be a great way to start to heal from any kind of abuse. Support groups can also be an important tool because they can let you see how others have coped with their own situations, and often let you interact with people at various stages of the healing process. Finding the right counselor or support group can be difficult sometimes, but our advocates are here to support you and put you in touch with the local resources in your community that are on the ground to help.
- Protect yourself from pregnancy or STIs.
Sex can have big consequences, such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy, and you have a right to protect yourself. We know that pregnancy is one of the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship, so if you are pregnant be sure to put your safety first. Male and female condoms can help protect against both STIs and pregnancy, and dental dams can be used for safe oral sex on women and safe oral-anal sex on anyone. PrEP is a daily prescription pill that can help protect people from contracting HIV and the HPV Vaccine can help protect people from common strains of Human Papillomavirus. There are a number of forms of birth control available today, and Planned Parenthood can help you decide what kind is right for you, even if your partner can’t know you’re using it. If your partner refuses to use or let you use birth control, tries to get pregnant or get you pregnant without your consent or tries to force you to have or not have an abortion, those are all forms of reproductive coercion. If you’re concerned about pregnancy, STIs, or HIV/AIDS, talk to your doctor, and do whatever makes you feel safest.
- Consider your digital safety.
Pictures and video are immortal, so if your partner is digitally abusing you by forcing you to pose for or send them explicit photos or video, keeping yourself safe can be a challenge. Note that in every state it is illegal for anyone to have or share sexual photos or videos of people under age 18. If you do pose for or take photos or videos, try to keep your face and any other identifying information like birthmarks, scars or tattoos out of them. Even the background of a picture can be identifying, so be aware of your surroundings when possible.
- Understand the laws.
Know that you have the right to say “slow down,” “no” or “stop” at any time, and even if you got sexual pleasure from an activity, that doesn’t mean you gave consent. If your partner is forcing you to have sex with other people, be aware that it’s possible they are making money from it which is illegal in most places. You have the right to defend yourself and fight back if anyone is trying to coerce, pressure, guilt or force you into any kind of sexual activity. If you are in school, Title IX, a federal mandate in the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs anywhere in the country. Under Title IX, people who attend school and have experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape have the right to support services through their high school, college or university.
There are also state laws regarding sexual assault. The laws in every state are different, so if you want to know how your state handles cases of sexual assault, sexual abuse and rape chat with one of our advocates, who can find contact information for a legal advocate in your area. Here are some helpful tips on how to document the abuse if you choose to pursue legal help, which could include a protective order. If you feel that the abusive person would reduce the level and frequency of threats if the law becomes involved, this may be an effective tool to increase your safety. A protective order does not replace a safety plan, but a legal advocate may be able to help you explore whether getting a protective order could keep your partner from being able to legally contact you.