by Heather Atkinson
The ins and outs of intimate partner abuse
My attention was caught recently by a CBC news article concerning the case of Rumana Monzur, the B.C. lawyer whose husband bit off chunks of her face 10 days after she asked him for a divorce. Monzur reported that on the day she asked her husband for the divorce, she was relieved to see how calmly he seemed to accept the news. The vicious assault that came 10 days later was evidently a volcanic eruption from an inflamed spouse manifestly out of control. After a healing period, Monsur’s beautiful face is only slightly disfigured, but the stigma associated with the incident remains. In the article, which is well worth reading, she shares her keen insights on the issue of intimate partner abuse including why some women put up with it.
The article was especially interesting to me because it appeared less than a day after a friend confided to me that she “thought” her intimate partner had sexually assaulted her. She wanted to talk it over with me because she wasn’t sure if what had happened between the two of them had constituted a “real” sexual assault.
“He had always been very affectionate and gentle in bed,” she told me. “The physical part of our relationship has been good from the start. But lately I was starting to challenge his statements about a woman’s duty to her partner that I thought were sexist. He made it clear he didn’t appreciate that.”
The first incident happened in the wee hours of the night. My friend’s partner awakened her and initiated sex before she was fully awake. He’d been angry at her, she explained, had barely said two words to her all day. The only reason she could think of was that she had disagreed with something he’d said.
“I found myself lying there awake at 3 a.m. trying to figure out what was going on. I guess I was a little slow trying to decide if I wanted him to keep going. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to me. I felt I was a body he was using. Then all at once he got rough. It hurt. I ended up sore all the next week, with a bladder infection, something I rarely get.”
The second incident happened one week later. My friend was having doubts about the relationship, still trying to make sense of the sexual incident and had taken the week to recover from her bladder infection and the soreness. Her partner invited her to his place on Saturday evening after supper to continue watching a Netflix program they’d been watching together.
“I didn’t intend to stay the night but he talked me into staying over, and I agreed. So far so good. He was initially very sweet and nice, the way he’d usually been with me, and I thought things would end well. But suddenly he got rough. This time hurt more than the first time perhaps because I was still sore. Everything happened so fast I didn’t get a chance to say stop. I just lay there staring up at him, trying to figure out what to say. I told him he was hurting me again. I told him I thought he looked angry, that he’d taken that anger out on me. He replied that he wasn’t the kind of man to take his anger out on a woman in bed. I didn’t know how to respond to that because in my mind that’s exactly what he’d done. So I just rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. I should have gone home. But I chickened out. It was the middle of the night. He always tells me he hates drama in a woman, and I didn’t want to make a scene. I emailed him the next day to say it was over between us.”
So the question we pondered together was this: were these examples of intimate partner sexual assault? We turned to the Canadian Criminal Code for guidance. Section 272 of the Code and the sections immediately following address sexual assault.
The Criminal Code of Canada views sexual assault as an assault that is sexual in nature including sexual contact without consent.
But what precisely does consent mean? That’s the rub in a lot of court cases today. How do you decide if sex was consensual?
Section 273.1(1) of the Code offers a circular definition, not particularly helpful.
“Consent” means….the voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question.
My friend had to admit she’d initially consented to sex so that part was voluntary. “But I did not consent to the roughness and the pain,” she explained.
The Code provides a number of scenarios to help victims understand situations where there is a lack of consent. These include but are not limited to expressing, by words or conduct, a lack of agreement to engage in the activity; or, (and this applies to my friend) having consented to engage in the sexual activity, there is an expression, by words or conduct, of a lack of agreement to continue to engage in the activity.
What exactly does that mean?
I came up with a metaphor. Say you reach for an apple in the produce section intending to buy it, but when you inspect it you find it’s rotten. You decide not to buy that apple. No grocery store owner would make you buy a rotten apple simply because you had originally intended to buy it before you knew it was rotten.
Likewise, changing your mind during sex is something you have a right to do.
No “buts” about it.
The Code also does its best to recognize that people cannot always speak up and say no. They may be disabled or frozen in some way from speaking up; they may be intimidated or coerced into saying yes when they don’t want to; they may be too afraid to say no.
To that I’d add: They may be too embarrassed or self-conscious to say no.
From my time volunteering at Interval House, a women’s shelter located in Carleton Place, and listening to women victims in a sexual assault support group I attended in downtown Ottawa, I learned that sexual assault victims tend to do what the situation calls for. Their reactions to being assaulted are not always what those who have never been assaulted expect. The most common questions sexual assault victims are asked?
Why didn’t you struggle? Run? Call for help? Fight back?
Often, as in the case of my friend, victims are frozen as they think through their options, that long moment while they are being assaulted during which they try to assess the situation. Do I want this? Am I in danger? Am I even being assaulted?
In other words, while they are being assaulted, especially by a partner they know well, victims who have been experiencing pleasure may experience a lag between the first inkling that something has gone wrong and the return to rationality that signals their executive reasoning is back up and running, and that, yes, something is definitely wrong.
What I learned from the sexual assault support group is that victims are faced with one or all of the following strategies, the four “f’s”. Victims will freeze while they assess the situation, then they may fawn i.e. reason with the assaulter to stop, fight back or flee.
In the last decade, as more research is conducted into the neurobiology of trauma, including sexual trauma, we are learning more about these rational responses to assault.
This new information shifts the onus on the assaulter to pay more attention to a partner’s body language. A former partner of mine once remarked that women are hard to read. “No we’re not,” I retorted. “If you’re paying attention, we’re open books.”
And to those who think it’s okay to pretend you didn’t know you were hurting your partner, I say brush up on the Criminal Code of Canada. Pay special attention to section 273.2, which addresses your mistaken belief that it’s okay to hurt your partner as long as you didn’t think you were hurting her.
It is not a defence to a charge of sexual assault that the accused believed that the complainant consented to the activity that forms the subject-matter of the charge if the accused’s belief arose from the accused’s recklessness or wilful blindness.
So listen up, guys: you’re physically stronger than we are so it’s up to you to make sure you don’t hurt us.
Non-consensual violent sex is taboo in our culture and as such it carries with it a special stigma. Who wants a stigma? No one, and so it is passed around like the proverbial hot potato. The stigma more often than not ends up attached to the victim rather than the assaulter. The victim becomes the outcast, not the assaulter.
So the case of Peter Hamer who spoke at the November 20 forum No More Secrets at Almonte Old Town Hall is heartening. Hamer told his story of the personal hell of his sexual assault as a teen by his music teacher, how it has affected his life. Hamer’s accusations led to charges against his assaulter. Hamer refuses to carry the stigma, has successfully assigned it to his assaulter where it rightfully belongs.
Sadly, I have to wonder if Hamer’s being male might have something to do with where the stigma ended up.
Meanwhile, my friend recognizes that if she went public with her accusations of sexual assault she, not her former partner, would likely carry the stigma. In the end, we agreed that pressing charges would be a waste of time although she and I were convinced that she had been sexually assaulted.
A few days after our talk, I saw my friend walking hand-in-hand with that same partner. Apparently they are back together.
Why would an otherwise strong-minded woman take back a man who hurts her?
I know from experience that I could never again trust a man who through his own recklessness or wilful blindness chose not to see he was hurting me during our intimate moments. I would do exactly what my friend did the first time: give him the benefit of the doubt.
But if he violated my trust a second time?
There wouldn’t be a third time.
No “buts” about it.