What is domestic and sexual abuse?

Want to understand more about domestic abuse? Perhaps you think you have experienced abuse but you’re not sure. Our team have answered some common questions to help you understand more about what abuse is.

If you feel that your partner is intimidating you, if you’re afraid that your partner’s reaction will be aggressive or if you have been affected by sexual abuse then pick up the phone and call us for advice on our free helpline 0808 802 5565. 

If you have been affected by any form of sexual violence at any time in your life and would like to speak with someone call our Solace rape crisis service 0808 801 0305.

Domestic abuse can be physical, emotional, psychological, financial, or sexual which takes place within close relationship, usually by partners, ex-partners or family members.

As well as physical violence, domestic abuse can involve a wide range of abusive and controlling behaviour, including threats, harassment, financial control and emotional abuse.

Physical violence is only one aspect of domestic abuse and an abuser’s behaviour can vary, from being very brutal and degrading to small actions that leave you humiliated. Those living with domestic abuse are often left feeling isolated and exhausted. Domestic abuse also includes cultural issues such as honour based violence

We understand sexual violence to include rape, child sexual abuse, sexual assault, prostitution, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, sexual bullying and sexual abuse within partnerships.

The majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men against women which is why our rape crisis service at Solace is for women only. We acknowledge that sexual violence also occurs in same sex relationships and can affect all women regardless of age, class, ethnicity, ability or sexuality.

Sexual violence impacts everyone in different ways. However you are coping right now, this will be a natural response for you. There is not a right or wrong way to cope.

Some women tell us they feel unable to sleep due to nightmares or have trouble trusting other people around them.

Some survivors feel shame, blame and self-hatred. Others may feel angry, tearful or suicidal. Some feelings may come up months or years later or something that happens in our life will 'trigger' or remind us of the abuse. We encourage you to seek support however you are feeling.

Find out more about Solace rape crisis service 


There are many ways that women can be abused and the main goal of domestic abuse is to gain power and control over you in order to ensure compliance with the abusers needs.

It can often start off small, with lots of different events that gradually chip away or erode your confidence. It can sometimes make you feel that you are losing your “sense of self” and that you can’t trust your own judgement or feel you don’t have the right to make decisions.
Women have often described being made to see, think or do things the perpetrators way or changing their behaviour to avoid making their abuser angry.

Here are some examples of what you may be experiencing

Physical abuse

  • Hitting
  • Slapping
  • Punching
  • Throwing/smashing objects
  • Shoving
  • Kicking
  • Burning
  • Choking
  • Using weapons and other objects to cause injury.

Financial abuse

  • Requiring you to account for every penny of household or other funds
  • Withholding/taking money
  • Putting you on an impossible ‘budget’
  • Taking money/controlling access to money
  • Having own accounts unknown to you
  • Not letting you work or undermining efforts to find work/study
  • Making you beg for money
  • Not paying bills
  • Having loans and debts in the victim’s name
  • Checking milometer

Emotional abuse

  • Blaming you for their problems
  • Withholding affection as a form of punishment
  • Calling you names
  • Telling you that you can’t cope without them
  • Putting you down
  • Demanding constant attention

Psychological abuse

  • Blaming you
  • Intimidating you
  • Making you feel like you are going crazy
  • Threatening to harm self
  • Putting you down
  • Denying/minimising the abuse
  • Threats to harm others (incl. Children and pets)
  • Stalking
  • Using threatening looks and gestures

Sexual abuse

  • Forcing you to engage in unwanted sexual acts
  • Refusing to practice safe sex
  • Treating you like a sex object
  • Withholding sex and affection
  • Demanding sex
  • Criticising/discounting feelings regarding sex
  • Making you wear clothes you haven’t chosen
  • Sexual name-calling

An abusive person is rarely abusive at the beginning of a relationship, as very few women will get involved with someone who is abusive from the very start. In this way, some abusers need to charm their victim in order to ensnare them. There has to be a hook.

Healthy excitement at a new potential partner is good. However, here are some warning signs of an abusive relationship that you can look out for: 

  • abusive relationships often very quickly become intense and fast paced
  • early, premature commitment
  • abusive partners often try to “take over” the woman’s life, for example by offering to solve her accommodation, child or work-related problems
  • abusers often try to disable women through the support that they offer, stepping into the decision making process and encouraging reliance on him/her very early on  

These gradual attempt to isolate women and gain control over them by using charm and jealousy/possession disguised as care sets the picture for an abuser to begin using behaviours in order to keep the woman under his/her control.

There are many myths about domestic abuse. What myths do is create a negative stereotype of survivors. They are harmful to and often they place the blame on the woman and not the perpetrator.

Myths must be dispelled as they can cause additional distress to women seeking support and advice. Myths reinforce that domestic abuse is a private matter and can contribute hugely to isolating women further, and could ultimately prevent her from leaving an abusive relationship.

It can’t be that bad or why does she stay?

Domestic abuse is an extremely complicated issue and women may stay for a number of reasons including: fear, children, security, further abuse, unaware of her rights and options. At the point when a woman decides to leave, this is when she is most at risk.

I fight back, so I am just as bad as he/she is!

Domestic abuse is a power and control issue. Women who fight back may be defending themselves or their children, and many do not for fear of further abuse.

He/she hasn’t hit me, so it’s not domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is not just physical violence- it can also include emotional, sexual, financial, psychological and financial abuse. Many survivors say that the emotional and psychological abuse they experience can be the most difficult to overcome.

It’s just a family argument!

Domestic abuse is never just a family argument. It can include physical, mental, emotional, sexual and financial abuse. If a woman is in fear and feels threatened by her perpetrator and he is in control and has all the power, THIS IS NOT A FAMILY ARGUMENT.

Myths about sexual violence are dangerous, born from a need to find sense in senseless situations, and in the context of sexual violence attempt to explain/justify violent or disturbing acts. 

MYTH 1: Women are most at risk when travelling at home late at night

No. In actual fact, the majority of rapes are committed by persons known to the victim (approximately 90% ). Date or acquaintance rape is very common, and assaults regularly take place in the victim’s home. The outdated notion of scary figures lurking in alleys is not only threatening, but misleading too – as it reinforces the message that home is safe, and rape can be prevented by avoiding certain places (putting blame on the victim). It also assumes a particular victim profile, i.e. women out in the evenings, further entrenching societal prejudices surrounding class and/or race.

MYTH 2: Women provoke rape by the way they act or dress

Let’s get this straight. Wearing a short skirt is not an invitation for unwanted attention. Only the rapist is responsible for rape. This attitude excuses sexual violence, seeks to blame the victim, and perpetuates attitudes like “she was asking for it”. Absolutely no assumptions can or should be made from a person’s dress or behaviour… yet a third of people in the UK believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped .

MYTH 3: Rape is a crime of passion

Perhaps the scariest myth for us, because the chilling facts indicate the very opposite. Research conducted with rapists indicates:
• Most rapes are premeditated and planned;
• Many rapists fail to get an erection or ejaculate;
• Perpetrators rape to feel powerful and in control, not for sexual pleasure.

In stark contrast, the above statement implies that sexual violence is impulsive – an uncontrollable lust, purely about sexual gratification, that perpetrators are incapable of controlling. It also serves to excuse, minimise and romanticise rape, whilst disregarding elements such as power, aggression, violence, control and humiliation. Not only that, but it paints an inaccurate victim profile, assuming that only ‘attractive’ women are raped.

MYTH 4: Women cry rape when they regret having sex, or want revenge

Behold the ‘vindictive woman’: viciously spiting an ex-partner, or perhaps lying to avoid owning up to a drunken mistake. This mythical figure accounts for an estimated 0.6% of rape allegations , whilst the associated stereotyping re-victimises and stigmatises the other 99.4%, undermining their support in seeking justice, and portraying women as altogether untrustworthy.

MYTH 5: You can’t rape a prostitute

The legal definition of rape in England and Wales, as defined in the Sexual Offences Act in 2003, is as follows:

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,

(b) B does not consent to the penetration, and

(c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.

The key word here: consent. Consent is not ongoing; it is something that has to be asked for every time any new form of sexual activity takes place, even it is with a previous sexual partners or a sex worker. Sex workers have the same rights regarding consent as anyone else, and as such the transactions that they negotiate are only for consensual activities. However, the viewpoint that rape somehow does not apply in this context serves to further disempower sex workers, by providing an excuse for abuse and discouraging sex workers to report sexual violence crimes.

MYTH 6: If she didn’t scream or fight, it can’t have been rape

The brain responds to threat in different ways, and in states of complete panic our responses are reflexive and under virtually no conscious control . In cases of sexual violence, we refer to the most common physiological responses as ‘the 4 Fs’: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Flop.

As Freeze and Flop suggest, victims of rape will often appear to cooperate, so as to minimise the risk of harm or homicide. It is therefore extremely common for there to be no visible evidence of non-consensual evidence on the body, despite this myth’s assumption that rape is always a violent encounter. This stance discredits, doubts and re-traumatises the victim, invalidating her experience. Consequently, disbelief is one of the biggest barriers to speaking out against sexual violence – and you can understand why.

  • Daily life revolves around what he/she needs/wants 
  • They believe they are the head of the household 
  • They treat me more like a servant than a partner/family member
  • If he/she ever helps around the house, they  think I should thank them (or they never help around the house)
  • When he/she wants something, they want it NOW (including sex) 
  • He/she  talks about him/herself all the time 
  • He/she rarely (or never) asks about me or how I’m feeling 
  • Things were okay until the baby came, then when I had to spend less time with him/her their behaviour changed 
  • He/she is easily bored, especially with things that interest me 
  • If he/she has a problem, everyone has to drop everything to help him/her 
  • He/she believes they are smarter than most other people 
  • He/she is extremely critical of people, even children 
  • He/she makes it clear (or implies) that they are better than I am 
  • He/she  is easily offended or feels “dissed” at minor things 
  • When something goes wrong, it’s never his/her fault 
  • He/she makes fun of me and calls me demeaning names 
  • He/she makes fun of the kids when they make a mistake 
  • He/she can never apologize or say he was wrong about anything 
  • He/she thinks anyone who disagrees with him/her is wrong or see anyone else’s viewpoint if it’s different than his/hers
  • Even when I’m really upset (like somebody close to me died), he/she expects their daily routine will continue
  • If something nice happens for me (e.g., I pass my driving test) he/she can’t be happy for me

Domestic abuse is different for everyone and each experience is individual, but there is often a cycle to abuse. Domestic abuse often become more frequent and severe over time. Do you recognise this cycle?

1. Tensions Building

You might feel like you are 'walking on egg shells', or being given 'the silent treatment'. You might become fearful and feel the need to calm the abuser. You may feel tense, embarased, afraid, angry or humiliated.

2. Incident

Verbal, emotional, physical abuse, blaming, threats, intimidation. You may feel afraid, trapped, hopeless or numb.

3. Reconciliation

The abuser apologises, gives excuses, blames you for their actions, denies the abuse occurred or says that it wasn’t that bad. You may feel relieved, angry, guilty or hopeful.

4. Calm

Incident is "forgotten", no abuse is taking place and it’s like the "honeymoon phase"

When the person who is abusive towards you is also providing you with the basics you need to live (money, safety, peace, happiness etc), trauma bonding can occur.

Trauma bonding is a strong emotional connection that develops between the victim and a perpetrator in an abusive relationship. This develops because in an abusive relationship, an abuser can be frightening and hurtful but he/she may then be intermittently kind, e.g. giving presents and affection, or even stopping the abuse for a period of time. In these moments, the victim feels a rush of gratitude and love for her abuser, and feels relief that the abuse has ended. The rescuer and the tormentor are the very same person, which means the bond becomes deeper than other healthy relationships as she starts to depend on him to survive.

Through trauma bonding, the victim can lose their own beliefs and identity and instead takes on the beliefs of their captor in order to survive. She believes that his/her behaviour is the result of a flaw in herself, and turns inwards to try and resolve this and works harder to please him or her. Often, a victims’ sole goal becomes the abusers approval. Interactions with others become hollow and superficial as a result. A woman will often become less argumentative in order to survive.

Trauma bonding makes it easier for a victim to survive within the relationship, but it can severely undermine the victim’s sense of self, their ability to accurately see danger, and impairs their ability to see alternatives to their situation.

Once a trauma bond is established it can become difficult for the victim to break free of the relationship. 

Breaking Free

A victim must feel safe and out of “survival mode” before they will be able to focus on their own wellbeing. However, the good news is that recovery from a trauma bond is possible. To survive this, the victim would need to stop contact with the perpetrator and focus on putting herself and her recovery first. Getting in touch with an organisation like Solace is an important step forwards in recognizing domestic abuse and understanding that it was not your fault.