I was in an abusive relationship for two years without knowing it. My partner didn’t hit me or force me into sex with violence. Rather, he exhibited the subtle forms of abuse that are all too common in our culture - the ones abusers get away with because people don’t know they’re abuse.
In my case, this looked like ignoring my discomfort during sex and trying to push my boundaries around safer sex. It might look different for you.
It can be hard to know if you’re in an abusive relationship because the abuser will try to convince you they’ve done nothing wrong, or even that you’ve done something wrong. But there are some hallmark signs of abuse, including: you feel the need to walk on eggshells or be passive to avoid mistreatment, your partner gets mad or calls you “too sensitive” for bringing up things they’ve done to hurt you, or you’re afraid to say “no” to them, says Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D., a licensed mental health counselor specializing in female sexuality.
Here are some sexually and emotionally abusive behaviors people exhibit in their sex lives that you might not be recognizing.
Ignoring Your Discomfort
Sexual abuse doesn’t always mean initiating something your partner’s not OK with. It can mean continuing something they initially consented to after they express discomfort or disinterest.
In my relationship, this happened when I said “ow” during sex and my partner said “I assume that’s a good ow” or just kept going. This made me feel like his pleasure mattered more to him than my pain.
Consent must be continuous - that is, consenting to do something at one point in time is not consent to do it indefinitely. Any desire to stop on your part is a reason to stop. And pain during sex, unless planned, is a sign that something’s wrong and should warrant your partner’s concern. Continuing when you want to stop reflects a prioritization of their desires over your own comfort.
Shaming You for Your Sexual Preferences
Not everybody is into the same things, and it’s always OK to decline what you’re not into. The issue is when your partner makes you feel bad about liking what you like.
“Abusers may try to humiliate their partner when they express their desires,” says Stamoulis. They may do this by “calling someone a derogatory name for trying to get sexual needs met, like ‘slut’ or a gay slur,” she adds.
Anything goes when it comes to fantasy, and pretty much all fantasies are common and normal. So, as long as you’re not doing anything to hurt anyone, your partner has no right to judge you for your fantasies - or for asking to make them a reality.
Your relationship should provide a safe space to open up about your sexual preferences, not pose the threat of judgment. How can you get what you want if you’re scared to say what that is?
Pushing Your Boundaries Regarding Safer Sex
One area where you should never be pressured to compromise is your health. When someone tries to push you into unsafe sex, that shows a lack of concern for your health, and it can certainly be manipulative or abusive.
My ex, for example, repeatedly refused to get tested for STIs. But when I asked him to use a condom, he complained that it reduced the sensation. He once replied, “too late” when I told him to get one.
He made me feel like I was unreasonable for trying to convince him to have safer sex. This is another abusive behavior: deflecting the blame when your partner confronts you. If you express your hurt to your partner and then you end up apologizing, that’s a sign you’re being gaslighted.
Sometimes, pushing boundaries around safer sex is more covert. Stealthing - removing a condom during sex without a partner knowing - is a common form of sexual abuse, says Stamoulis. Consent to sex with a condom does not constitute consent to sex without one, so taking one off without telling your partner is sexual abuse, as is any behavior that violates your boundaries regarding sexual health.
“An abuser often works to lower their partner’s self-esteem so they become easier to control,” Stamoulis explains. “If you believe you’re worthless or no one else will want you, you are less likely to adhere to your boundaries and more likely to submit to your partner.”
In the bedroom, this may mean criticizing your body or telling you how to improve your looks. Your partner should only have nice things to say about your body - they’re attracted to you, after all. If they make you feel anything less than good about yourself, that’s a red flag.
They might also critique your sexual technique or compare you to a past partner. It’s fine for them to give you feedback in bed, but it should be constructive, not belittling, says Stamoulis.
Pressuring You Into Sex
We often think of ”pressuring” as a lesser offense than physically forcing someone into sex. But verbal coercion is a form of assault as well.
If someone talks you into sex by begging you after you say “no,” threatening to withdraw their affections if you don’t do it, or guilting you for not having sex with them, that is abusive. Even if you said “yes,” you have not truly consented if you felt there were no other options.
While all these behaviors are important to identify, whether or not an act qualifies as abuse is not the most important thing. You should have higher standards in your sex life than “not abusive.” More important criteria are whether you’re being respected and valued in your relationship and sex life.
The bottom line? “Ask yourself if your needs are getting met,” says Stamoulis. “If not, think about why not. If only one party is being sexually fulfilled, something is not right.”