What Does Sexual Dysfunction Have to Do With Domestic Abuse

by: Lisa Twerski, LCSW

What does sexual dysfunction have to do with domestic violence? Well, nothing really. There are, however, many opportunities to detect a case of domestic abuse, and many opportunities to miss it. Domestic violence is comprised of many different abusive tactics, one of which is sexual abuse. Using the arena of sexual intimacy to assert power and control doesn't always look the same. Sometimes the withholding of affection and sexual intimacy is the way that dominance is asserted. At other times, coercion of intimacy during times when a woman is in niddah, coopting her into the breaking of her commitment to family purity laws, is the way that dominance and control is asserted using guilt to make her feel unworthy of better treatment from her spouse.

Another way that the abuser might assert his dominance using the sexual relationship, is by forcing himself on his wife, forcing her to sexual acts she isn't comfortable with, and/or belittling and degrading her performance, competency or interest in this area. After all of this, as one might imagine, the sexual relationship doesn't go so well. And, while some abusers don't much care how things are going as long as she is meeting his needs, willingly or unwillingly, other controlling men want a rich sexual experience and get angry when their spouse is not responsive in the way they imagine she should be, never looking at the context in which this is happening.

The problem is that the abuser never looks at his own actions. He usually blames anything that isn't going right on others and definitely blames anything not going right in the home on his wife. The reality is that the woman who is forced, degraded or belittled, may feel actual physical pain, whether from the forcefulness of her spouse's actions or her own tightening up in response to the threat of his aggressive behavior. Another common consequence to this kind of treatment is that she may avoid or be disinterested in sex due to how he treats her, and, while she may not have a choice in whether she will actually be intimate with her abusive husband, he will notice and complain about her reluctance, lack of interest or enthusiasm.

With the abuser who wants things a certain way in his sexual relationship, who will never look at the role he plays in why things are playing out the way they are, when this lands in the office of the therapist who works with sexual dysfunction it will usually be under the guise of her problem. It might be presented as: perhaps she has pelvic floor dysfunction (this woman who is seizing up all over out of fear); perhaps she has female sexual arousal disorder (this woman who is not excited or avoidant in response to this partner who forces, demeans and certainly doesn't attend to her arousal). What can be confusing and misleading is the fact that these are real issues that impede on the sexual functioning of many women. They occur in the presence of loving and attentive spouses and really do need the recommendations and intervention of this therapist that the couple has come to.

Then along comes a couple with a seemingly similar presentation, because compounding the confusion is the battered woman herself. She will often actively go along with this representation of the problem as being hers. Why? Because the woman who is being abused, and looking to somehow save her marriage, is hoping that this is her problem. She's also hoping that it's true that if he weren't so frustrated sexually, that he wouldn't be so terrible to her in all the other ways that he is terrible to her, a common rationalization of the abusive treatment that happens outside of the bedroom. If it is her problem, she knows that she'll do whatever it takes to fix it. When she goes to see this professional she's thinking, "please, please, please, let this be my problem because I will then be able to do something about what's going on here (and by extension fix all the other problems)". She knows, that if it's his problem, he won't be interested in working to fix it, and that by extension, his other behaviors are not going to be fixed.

In addition to this woman's own survival based desire for the problem to be hers, is her survival based fear of exposing his behaviors to others in his presence, or, to him. Contradicting his 'assessment' that this is her problem, is not only not in her best interest because she wants to be able to fix it, it's scary because of how he reacts when contradicted. Generally though, this does not mean that if spoken to alone, and asked the right questions, that the woman would not describe what has actually been going on in their intimate life. As much as she would like to preserve her marriage, her own self-preservation instincts will likely kick in if the person she is speaking to seems safe and understanding. If asked, not in her spouse's presence, you will likely get candid answers to questions about demanding, demeaning and forceful behavior, in and out of the bedroom. You will also probably get candid answers to questions about her spouse's kindness, consideration and attentiveness to her needs in and out of the bedroom, if in fact these problems are occurring in the context of a healthy marriage.