Clarifying ‘sexual violence’

There are many forms of sexual and gender based violence. Some of them have only come to light in more recent history, and some we still tend, collectively, to fail to understand. However, the University of Michigan’s (otherwise seemingly wonderful) initiative to prevent and more effectively respond to domestic and intimate partner violence, has offered a very worrying example of sexual violence. The site reads:

Examples of sexual violence include: discounting the partner’s feelings regarding sex; criticizing the partner sexually; touching the partner sexually in inappropriate and uncomfortable ways; withholding sex and affection; always demanding sex; forcing partner to strip as a form of humiliation (maybe in front of children), to witness sexual acts, to participate in uncomfortable sex or sex after an episode of violence, to have sex with other people; and using objects and/or weapons to hurt during sex or threats to back up demands for sex.

Withholding sex and affection is not a form of sexual violence. Rather, too often, claims of failing to be sexually available and affectionate enough have historically been used to justify mistreatment of (and sometimes violence towards) partners–just think of the offensive (and mythical) stereotype of the ‘frigid wife,’ and the various ways in which it has been employed.

14 thoughts on “Clarifying ‘sexual violence’

  1. I agree, and frankly several of the other examples also do not constitute “sexual violence” and trivialize real sexual violence.

  2. I also agree, and I find it difficult to understand. Some of what’s violence in the sexual categories has comparable behavior as abuse in another.

  3. DC–What other examples do not constitute sexual violence? All of these involve coercion and attempts at causing the other person pain or humiliation. Any sexual act that is not explicitly and enthusiastically consented to (i.e., based upon mutual desire) is abusive. Consent is not simply a lack of a “no.”

    The only other exception I can see is “criticizing the partner sexually,” but I can see that as being potentially abusive if it is used to attempt to coerce someone into doing something sexually they do not want to do.

  4. Because “violence” is not synonymous with “bad thing”; it requires some dimension of physical act or threat under current cultural and legal norms. Negotiating sexual relationships can be messy and have conflict and I think it’s very dangerous (and frighteningly paternalistic) to have a governmental-run university try to police these negotiations beyond legal boundaries of what constitutes “violence.” As an example, “discounting the partner’s feelings regarding sex” or “criticizing the partner sexually” are immoral but they are not crimes and/or “violence.” Telling a woman or man that they don’t have the right to consent unless the government thinks they’re “enthusiastic” enough intrudes on an individual’s bodily autonomy in a way that feminism has, quite rightly, been fighting for 100 years.

  5. To be clear, insofar as Title IX is good, it is good that universities police these boundaries beyond legal boundaries of “violence”. Harassment can be a form of discrimination, and some of these things may constitute harassment, even if they do not constitute “violence”. (Not to defend the example of withholding sex, which I think is indefensible.)

  6. Good point, Kathryn, and I stand corrected. I certainly agree that Title IX protections are a good thing, and I certainly think that both universities and the criminal justice system should also police things such as harassment. So I was wrong to limit it to violence, but I do still think that some of the things listed (not all) should not be policed. Anything involving force or not-explicitly-consented-to contact should be as well, of course. But communicating about the relationship? Even when it’s done angry, or dismissively? No, it shouldn’t.

  7. I think, DC, though, is that these are delineating forms of coercion. Certainly forcing someone to strip or have sex after violence, or forcing someone into uncomfortable sex, is a form of coercion. This is not about one’s “right to consent”, but whether people (men in particular, since they are most often perpetrators) have a right to extract consent via coercion. The former is a given; the latter is not acceptable. No one is saying what someone has a “right” to consent to, but that one cannot consent in the presence of coercion. Getting a “yes” via emotional or physical coercion doesn’t seem any better to me than not caring if there is a “yes” at all (which is, by the way, why harassment law is not a consent standard, because the consent standard doesn’t differentiate when someone says “yes” because they want to or because they are under the influence of coercion).

  8. This is scary for many reasons, not the least of which is that the most extreme form of what constitutes sexual violence (I unlike others am afraid now to merely mention words like this) seems like an afterthought. The worry about withholding sex or affection can be dealt with pretty easily though simply by adding ‘as a form of punishment’. Yes, that does constitute abuse, and researchers have found that this kind of isolation lights up the same part of the brain that lights up when someone is in physical pain. I also think if they replaced the term ‘violence’ with ‘violation’ then it’s *somewhat* better, but still pretty vague and squishy.

  9. As someone who has had sex and affection withheld by a partner as a form of manipulation, I can say that it’s pretty devastating to one’s sense of self-worth, and it can feel like a kind of emotional violence, and probably is a form of emotional abuse in that sort of case. However, I don’t think that adding “as a punishment” works to fix the problem noted, as it could be used against someone who withholds sex or affection because the partner is in fact doing something that is unacceptable. If you’re angry with your partner for good reason, not consenting to sex should not count as a bad form of withholding, even if it might look like or feel like a form of punishment to them. So there are good reasons to broaden the idea of violence here to withholding (and also to criticism), but it is tricky because there are cases of withholding and criticism that aren’t abusive.

  10. I basically agree with #9.

    I think similar concerns apply to discounting partners feelings about sex. My partner might justifiably discount my feelings about sex if my feelings are wholly repugnant and insulting to him. I might discount my partners feelings by not listening to him or trying to understand his perspective – I could be a jerk about it without necessarily being coercive.

    In general, I think there are ways to be a bad actor without it necessarily rising to violence or even to the level of coercion that would justify policing.

  11. I’m guessing in a true case of abuse the “withholding” probably has to do with an unreasonable demand (“do x [where x is something unreasonable, such as don’t talk to your friends, or don’t ever question my authority] or I won’t give you affection”) and so it is the unreasonable demands that should be delineated as abusive, not the mere fact of refusing to engage in physical intimacy with someone (which, of course, makes it sound as though it is something to which anyone is entitled, and that is false). And in any case, it wouldn’t be a form of sexual abuse but a form of emotional abuse.

  12. CK:

    It’s my understanding and my experience that the abuse of “withholding” frequently has nothing to do with an unreasonable demand. (I would say usually, but I don’t have enough non-anecdotal evidence to feel confident saying that). In fact, that’s part of why it is such a damaging tactic. The partner is left confused as to why it is happening, and is given no way to rectify the situation.

    I do not think this sounds like the claim that everyone entitled to physical intimacy with someone. I do think that such behavior (when entrenched in the right way) defies a reasonable expectation of the partner – i.e. the right to pursue a healthy sex life.

    I remain neutral on it being sexual abuse or emotional abuse.

  13. If this is a guide for students, it is troubling that even feminist philosophers cannot agree on how to interpret it. Do we really want to open the door to the idea that “withholding sex” counts as sexual violence or even ‘abuse’? I would have thought that withholding sex (for any reason whatsoever) should be respected. If interpreted as aggressive withholding, it might call for communication or even exiting the relationship. To accuse someone who withholds sex as being an abuser seems to me to enter a ‘you owe me sex’ territory of rape-legitimisation. Elements of this list, in fact, seem to have been badly written by someone without much of a clue (e.g., ‘maybe in front of children’, ‘always demanding sex’, etc.)

  14. Neither sex nor affection can ever be owed to someone, but they can be withheld. The difference is that the goal of withholding is to cause harm. The Pick-up Artist “freeze-out” is an example of how to abusively withhold sex or affection. Emotional violence is real violence, recognizing its power to harm does not trivialize physical violence. Since emotional violence is a tool used by abusers to terrorize and control their victims the recognition of emotional violence as violence is necessary to stop abuse. Philodaria is completely right that the concept of “owed sex” is used to justify rape, but the fact that rapists can misappropriate our language does not make us wrong.

    I should clarify that to me the purpose of the UM document is so that students who are being abused have some sort of validation for their feeling of mistreatment, which hopefully leads to them reaching out and seeking help. I am not thinking of this as a legal guideline, but as one that people can look at to ask “is my partner abusing me” or “is my friend being abused.” My experience is that such external norm setting is very powerful, particular because increased self-doubt is a common consequence of abuse.

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