Separation,Divorce, and Sexual Assault Essay

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Since the 1970s, social scientists have greatly enhanced an empirical and theoretical understanding of various types of woman abuse in ongoing heterosexual relationships. However, although it is known that breaking up with a violent man is one of the most dangerous events in a woman’s life, relatively little attention has been paid to the victimization of women who want to leave, are in the process of leaving, or who have left their marital or cohabiting partners. The limited work that has been done on this topic has focused on lethal and nonlethal forms of physical violence, such as murders and beatings. Male-to-female abuse is multidimensional in nature, and a few studies show that women are also at high risk of being sexually assaulted during and after separation/divorce. Still, almost all of the research on this problem is found in the small amount of feminist literature on what is variously termed marital rape, spousal rape, wife rape, or sexual assault in marriage. Further, little attention is paid in this literature to the plight of cohabiting women who exit or try to exit relationships, and the bulk of the data reported were gathered from urban samples.

Perhaps the only North American study on this topic was specifically designed to glean rich information on separation/divorce sexual assault. Funded by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by a research team led by DeKeseredy, this exploratory qualitative study was done in three rural Ohio counties, and the sample consists of 43 women. Rather than using a narrow definition of sexual assault limited to only forced penetration, the study focused on a wide range of sexually abusive behaviors, including assaults when women were drunk or high or when they were unable to give consent. Sex out of obligation and what Russell refers to as “blackmail rapes” were also examined.

Many findings were uncovered, but those deemed the most important are briefly described here. First, only a few of the 43 respondents experienced just one of the four types of sexual assault examined, and virtually all experienced rape or attempted rape. Second, 80% of the women were victimized by two or more forms of nonsexual abuse, such as physical violence, harm to animals or prized possessions, and psychological abuse.

Nineteen percent of the sample also reported that their partners abused their children, and one woman believes that her expartner raped her as a means of killing her unborn child.

Other key findings include the fact that 74% of the sample were sexually abused when they expressed a desire to leave a relationship. Forty-nine percent were harmed this way while they were trying to leave or while they were leaving, and 33% were victimized after they left. And 67% of the women reported on a variety of ways in which their partners’ male peers perpetuated and legitimated separation/divorce sexual assault. Three methods in particular stand out: frequently drinking with sexist male friends, informational support, and attachment to abusive peers. Informational support refers to the guidance and advice that influences men to sexually, physically, and psychologically abuse their female partners, and attachment to abusive peers is defined as having male friends who also abuse women. These factors are identical to those found to be highly significant in predicting which men on college campuses will admit to being sexual predators.

Seventy-nine percent of the sample said that their partners strongly believed that men should be in charge and in control of the domestic household setting, and most respondents stated that they were raped during or after separation/divorce because their partners wanted to show them who was in charge. The fact that close to 80% of the men who abused their partners adhered to the ideology of familial and/or societal patriarchy may also partially explain why so many perpetrators had peers who were sexist or abusive. Sixty-five percent of the sample’s estranged partners viewed pornography, and it was reported to be involved in sexually abusive events experienced by 30% of the interviewees.

Data gathered by this exploratory study and relevant data uncovered by marital rape studies strongly suggest that separation/divorce sexual assault is a major problem in the United States, as it probably is elsewhere. Nevertheless, more research on this topic is necessary, and further empirical work needs to elicit qualitative and quantitative data from men because sexual assault, like other types of woman abuse, is best understood by examining the characteristics of men rather than women. This is not to say, however, that researchers cannot learn much about the risk factors associated with separation/divorce sexual assault by asking women about the men who harmed them. In fact, the marital rape research conducted so far has gathered data from victims on the characteristics of perpetrators, and this approach has identified key risk factors, such as power and control, male peer support, alcohol and drug consumption, and the consumption of pornography.

There are many other groups of men and women who need to be included in future research, such as those who are immigrants and/or refugees, living in public housing, have mental disabilities, and so on. Moreover, published reviews of the extant social scientific literature on separation/divorce sexual assault reveals a major need for small and large-scale representative sample surveys. There is also a lack of theoretical work, which is just as important as empirical contributions to the field.

Above all, what are needed are better forms of social support. Too often, separation/divorce does not end sexual assault and other forms of woman abuse, and thus it is necessary to develop policies and practices that meet the unique needs of women who are terrorized by men who will not let them leave and by men who have left. If as Kennedy Bergen found, victims of marital rape do not receive proper assistance, one can assume that victims of separation/divorce sexual assault are given even less.


  1. Bergen, R. K. (1996). Wife rape: Understanding the response of survivors and service providers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. DeKeseredy, W. S., Rogness, M., & Schwartz, M. D. (2004). Separation/divorce sexual assault: The current state of social scientific knowledge. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9, 675–691.
  3. DeKeseredy, W. S., Schwartz, M. D., Fagen, D., & Hall, M. (2006). Separation/divorce sexual assault: The contribution of male peer support. Feminist Criminology, 1, 1–23.

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