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Summary Article: Intimate Partner Violence
from Sexual Violence and Abuse: An Encyclopedia of Prevention, Impacts, and Recovery

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is abusive or violent acts that are defined by the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. The specifics required to define an “intimate” relationship vary. For example, an intimate might be defined as a current or former household member, a current or former spouse, someone you are dating, or someone with whom you have a child in common, who is pregnant by you, or who is carrying your child. It includes opposite-sex or same-sex partners. Regardless, there is some type of close relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.

IPV encompasses many behaviors including sexual abuse, verbal or emotional abuse, isolation, harassment, intimidation, economic abuse, threatening behavior, and, most often noted, physical abuse. Although IPV includes sexual abuse as one of the strategies used by abuser, most service providers or law enforcement officers focus on the physical and possible the psychological strategies, ignoring sexual assault in the relationship. Additionally, the term “intimate” makes identifying sexual assault in the relationship difficult. We need to keep in mind that intimate refers to a close personal relationship, meaning the degree to which one person knows the other. It does not necessarily mean a romantic or sexual relationship. Therefore IPV does not limit itself to people who are married, dating, or in a committed relationship.

The impact of sexual assault in an intimate relationship may be far reaching. Although there is great variety as to how a victim reacts to trauma, there are some generalities. Some common responses after a sexual assault are anxiety; fear; depression; disorientation and trouble concentrating; hypervigilance, i.e., the “fight or flight” mode; anger; self-blame; guilt; shame; numbing, isolating, and shutting down of emotions; health and safety concerns; and a worldview change—the victim may no longer look at the world as a safe place. Response to a sexual assault may be affected by such things as the nature of the assault itself; it may have been painful or particularly violent. Sometimes the location can play a role; for example, the victim may have been assaulted in her or his own home. The victim's own history of trauma will also affect her or his reaction to an assault.

There can be a cumulative effect of trauma on a person. The identity of the assailant is a major factor of course. Given that the overwhelming majority of victims know their attacker, there is often a strong sense of betrayal along with the feelings of violation. “How could he or she do this to me?” is a refrain often heard from victims. It is impossible not to take the abuse personally. And indeed, IPV by definition means that there is a relationship between the victim and perpetrator. This is different with stranger abuse. A victim of theft may still ask “Why me?,” but in a more general way. Why did something bad happen to me as opposed to I cannot believe my partner is abusing me.

Victims of IPV may not see themselves as such, particularly if they are in a romantic relationship and/or married to the perpetrator. For years, there were exceptions to state sexual assault laws exempting perpetrators from being prosecuted if he or she was married to the victim. The last of these exemptions was removed in 1993. However, there are still some differences for how some states deal with the sexual assault of a spouse. Some states have different reporting requirements for spouses or still exempt some particular offenses if the victim and perpetrator are married.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, another way that some states treat rape of a spouse differently than nonspousal rape is the requirement that force or threat of force must be used by the spouse. For instance, in Tennessee a person commits rape or sexual battery of a spouse only when the person is armed with a weapon or credible decoy, the person causes serious bodily injury to the victim, or the spouses live apart and one of them has filed for a divorce or separation (Tennessee Code § 39-13-507). In contrast, many nonspousal sexual assault laws refer to lack of consent rather than the use of force.

Still, in many states there are some offenses that are unavailable to victims who are married to the offender. In some, offenses that involve sexual acts other than penetration are precluded for spouses. For example, in Kansas sexual battery consists of “the intentional touching of the person of another who is 16 or more years of age, who is not the spouse of the offender and who does not consent thereto, with the intent to arouse or satisfy the sexual desires of the offender or another” (Kansas Code §21-3517). In Ohio the offense of “sexual battery” does not apply to a spouse, and the offense of “rape” by the use of a drug or intoxicant that impairs the victim's ability to resist applies only to a spouse who is living apart from the victim (Ohio Code § 2907.02 and 2907.03).

Further, if the victim and perpetrator are in a romantic relationship and/or married, the victim must see his or her assailant on a daily basis. This can have a devastating effect on the victim and can certainly affect the healing process.

See also Date Rape; Marital Rape; Sexual Coercion; Stalking; Theory, Coercive Control

Further Reading
  • Ahrens, C. E. (2006). Being silenced: The impact of negative social reactions on the disclosure of rape. American Journal of Community Psychology, 38, 263-274.
  • Bergen, R. (2006). Marital rape: New research and directions. VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition against Domestic Violence Harrisburg PA. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from
  • Macy, R. J. (2007). Sexual revictimization: Implications for social work practice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 88(4), 627-636.
  • Outlaw, M. (2009). No one type of intimate partner abuse: Exploring physical and non-physical abuse among intimate partners. Journal of Family Violence, 24, 263-272.
  • Selected Websites
  • National Alliance to End Sexual Violence: Retrieved from
  • National Center for Victims of Crimes: Retrieved from
  • Orange County North Carolina Rape Crisis Center: Retrieved from
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Retrieved from
  • Lisa J. Smith
    Copyright 2012 by Judy L. Postmus

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