Intimate partner violence (also known as domestic violence or abuse) can happen to any of us. Right now, while people are under shelter-in-place and quarantine orders, domestic abuse is becoming an even bigger problem. It’s important for sex coaches to recognize the signs, both in our clients and in our own relationships. It’s also important to know the difference between IPV/domestic violence and consensual BDSM.

What is intimate partner violence (IPV)?

IPV encompasses mental, emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence perpetrated between current or former intimate/romantic partners or spouses. It can include things like stalking, coercion, verbal abuse, or physical and financial control. 

IPV happens in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Abusers and victims can be any gender, although globally, the most common scenario is that of a man committing violence against a woman with whom he has a current or former relationship. However, it’s important to realize that abuse definitely happens between people of all genders and relationship orientations. For example, we at Sex Coach U were deeply saddened to learn of the recent death of a fellow sexologist. Dr. Amie Harwick was allegedly killed by an ex-boyfriend against whom she had taken out a restraining order. This can happen to anyone. 

This form of violence is actually more widespread than you may realize. In the United States, the CDC states that 25% of women and 10% of men report experiencing some form of IPV in a relationship. Many more likely go unreported.

How to recognize IPV

A woman wears a drawn smile to hide sadness about IPV

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

IPV can be subtle to detect, because it doesn’t always manifest as physical violence that leaves observable bruises or wounds. Here are some things to watch for in couples sessions:

  • Physical aggression
  • Unpredictable moods that change suddenly
  • Unwarranted jealous, suspicious, or angry reactions
  • Speaking for a partner or discouraging them from speaking freely
  • Controlling partner’s time and/or money
  • Verbal threats
  • One partner is isolating the other from their family and friends
  • Minimizing partner’s feeling
  • Blaming behaviors
  • Forced/coerced sex

If you’re meeting with someone individually, here are just some of the signs that may indicate they are in an abusive relationship:

  • Physical bruising, such as marks on the arms, neck, or black eyes
  • Visible damage to lips
  • Sprained wrists
  • Wearing scarves, sunglasses, and long sleeves inconsistent with current environmental needs
  • Constant alertness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Overly apologetic
  • Agitated or anxious
  • Symptoms of depression
  • A sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or despair
  • Thoughts or talk of suicide
  • Behavioral or personality change from cheerful and energetic to fearful, withdrawn, low energy.
  • Needing to ask permission of partner to do anything out of the norm
  • Receiving constant phone calls and texts from partner who is constantly checking up on them
  • Indications of being overly controlled or manipulated

Detecting the difference between IPV and BDSM

BDSM or kinky play sometimes involves expressions of physical intensity between partners. In other words, one person will strike their partner in various ways, using a variety of body parts or implements. Some people also play with restraint (with ropes, handcuffs, and other materials) and suspension (with ropes or flesh hooks).

Other kinky people negotiate scenes (play sessions) that involve a variety of power and control fantasies, humiliation play, and other forms of emotional intensity, with or without a physical or sexual component. 

These scenes only take place after a thorough negotiation between the parties resulting in an agreement about the kinds of activities each partner will engage in and the desired level of intensity for any particular play session.

To the uninformed, BDSM and IPV can look very similar. However, the most important difference between these behaviors can be summed up in a single word: CONSENT

Those in abusive situations haven’t asked for or agreed to the pain, humiliation, or control they’re being subjected to, while kinksters have negotiated and agreed to everything that happens in their consensual scenes. And in BDSM, either party can call a stop to the activities at any time and that boundary will be accepted and respected.

How a sex coach can help

A woman looks down, reflecting on IPV

Photo by Pawel Szvmanski on Unsplash

If you observe any of the red flags above when meeting with a client (and determine that the situation is IPV and not BDSM), it’s important to know what to do. 

Sex coaching is an unregulated profession. There is no governmental or agency control over our training and education, no oversight of our practices, and no requirement to meet anyone’s criteria for practicing. 

While this can offer a sense of freedom, one of the issues of working in an unregulated profession is that we’re not mandated to report anything. Other mental health practitioners are mandated reporters in the U.S.; meaning, they’re obligated to report suspicions of abuse to the authorities. Part of mental health is gatekeeping. 

We founded Sex Coach U to protect consumers, which is why we believe in competence. We have to be ethical and we have to know when to refer out. But we’re not held accountable to report. 

Since we’re not under anyone’s jurisdiction, it becomes an ethical question on how to handle abusive behavior. At SCU, we train sex coaches to either refer someone to a therapy professional in his/her network and/or to empower their client to take appropriate action. 

“I’m concerned about you.” 

Using empowerment-based messaging can help move your client in the direction of taking care of themselves by taking actions to remove themselves from the abusive situation. 

“You deserve to never be hit or emotionally abused/threatened.” 

Many IPV victims struggle with this one. Part of the abuse cycle is a breaking down of the victim’s sense of self, their self-confidence, and self-esteem, to the point that the abuser can convince them they DO deserve all the abuse they’re receiving. As their coach, it’s important to refer them to a qualified therapist or other mental health professional, and to encourage your client to make that connection.

“You are always free to give or revoke consent.”

IPV victims in committed and/or long-term relationships may feel a sense of obligation to engage in sexual activity with a partner. This can be fueled by some abusers insisting that participation in a relationship entitles them to sex at any given time. Remind your clients that they never “owe” a partner sex and urge them to seek out safety if they’re in a situation where their boundaries are being disrespected. 

“You’re entitled to safety.” 

Be sure to share resources with your client that can help them feel safe, such as information on shelters, local organizations that help victims escape and reclaim their lives, and helplines (such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233). Work with them to develop a safety or escape plan. You may also encourage them to consult with an attorney about their legal rights and status. See if you can connect with other professionals in your area who are qualified to work with abuse victims, as your favorable recommendation might make it easier for your client to trust a new ally.

The current health crisis and the shelter-in-place orders are making life even more difficult and dangerous for survivors. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides some tips and suggestions for people who are in this situation or know someone who is. Click here to review how COVID-19 presents some unique risks for those experiencing intimate partner violence and the options available for help.

Things to remember when coaching IPV victims or survivors

It’s not easy for a victim to leave their abuser and there might be a number of factors keeping them there. People get caught up in an abuse cycle. They get out, find help, make plans to leave, and then reconcile with their abuser and go right back to where they were. This can happen over and over and it is not a failure on your part or on the part of your client.

Once victims do escape, some abusers find it impossible to let go and keep pursuing their ex. You may wind up coaching a survivor—someone who did get themselves out—and discover they’re still struggling to break free of someone who refuses to let go. It’s vital that you involve the police at this point. 

Finally, be sure to take care of yourself. Working with these types of situations can be triggering and draining. You must practice self-care and, if necessary, get your own mental/emotional support from one of your peers or a therapy professional.

Continue the Conversation

Have you worked with clients who survived IPV? Do you have suggestions for how others could learn how to see the often-subtle signs of IPV? This is an important topic, and we’d love to discuss it more in our Facebook group, Sex Matters. We’d appreciate any insight, experience, or support you can contribute to this conversation.