Experts study what happens when a wife refuses sex 1

KARACHI: Sexual coercion and nonconsensual sex are common and not limited to abusive relationships in Karachi, deduced experts in an article ‘Women’s Perceptions and Experiences of Sexual Violence in Marital Relationships and Its Effect on Reproductive Health’ that appeared in Health Care for Women International, Volume 29, Issue 5 May 2008.

The experts, Rafat Hussain and Adeel Khan of the School of Health, University of New England, Armidale, Australia, conducted a study in two low- to middle-income areas of Karachi. In all, the Pakistani study yielded approximately 40 hours of taped interviews, which included eight key informant interviews, three focus groups with 24 participants, and 10 in-depth interviews.

A woman’s refusal to have sex could lead to varied responses—resentment, suspicion, anger, physical violence, and forced sex. For some women, the ongoing psychological trauma due to repeated physical violence made them want to avoid sexual contact. As one young participant put it, “My husband is often physically violent, never apologizes but expects me to have sex even though he may have beaten me up a few hours earlier. How can he expect me to be intimate and loving?”

In group discussions, however, many of the participants spoke about the “hidden” nature of sexual violence especially in relationships where there was no outward sign of physical or psychological violence. In such relationships, sexual coercion rather than forced sex was seen as a problem, and participants described sexual coercion by husbands through verbal taunts such as “Why did you get married” or “You should have stayed in your parents’ house.” Older participants were more accepting, as illustrated by comments made by a 54-year-old woman in one of the focus groups: “This is part of marriage—many men behave like this, but young women these days think only of themselves.”

Young women talked about excessive fatigue related to long hours of work involving childrearing and doing household chores, which created a situation where sex on demand was seen as another task rather than as an intimate and pleasurable experience. For some of the older women, the reasons for declining sex were somewhat different—they wanted to avoid what they termed as “excessive sex” as they were concerned about privacy and embarrassment as their own daughters were becoming sexually mature:

Women also feel embarrassed, especially as their daughters are growing old. Not everyone has the space for a separate bedroom. For some middle-aged women, refusing sex led to desertion. One participant had seven children, and over time her husband became more and more sexually demanding. When her daughters reached a “marriageable age,” she started feeling overtly embarrassed by her husband’s daily demand for sex, especially when it was in the middle of the day and the children were all at home. The refusal led to physical violence and forced sex. When she tried to be more assertive and started saying no to sex on demand, her husband abandoned her for another woman.

Another strong theme was the link between nonconsensual sex and unwanted pregnancy. Most young women felt that they could not openly discuss sexual health issues with their husbands, partly due to sex and sexuality being a taboo and partly because of the fear that their motives may be misunderstood and they might even be accused of adultery:

My husband still wants to have more children and wants to keep on having unprotected sex. I told him, “When you are not providing for these children, then you should not want more children,” but the argument has little effect. I have no recourse but to stop having sex with him. This makes him very angry, and he resorts to insults and physical violence. (35-year-old informant, victim of domestic violence)

Participants in focus groups showed some ambivalence in discussing abortions other than to acknowledge that abortions are commonplace and could lead to complications when “a dai [traditional midwife] and even a ‘lady doctor’ may not handle them properly, resulting in bigger problems.” Some of the women in abusive relationships pointed out that the decision to abort or continue with an unwanted pregnancy involved consideration of religious beliefs, opportunity costs, the opinion of the mother-in-law, and, most importantly, the sex composition of the children. Since the status of women was inextricably linked to their ability to bear sons, a pregnancy despite being a product of nonconsensual sex could be seen as another opportunity to have a son. On the other hand, women who already had a large number of children including sons viewed an unwanted pregnancy as an additional burden:

I have had sterilization. My husband opposed it and did not want me to stop having children. I told him we have four sons and four daughters—how am I supposed to take care of them? When he went to Lahore for 2 weeks, I got the operation done. He came back and said,” You have done this without my permission, I will not forgive you. “I told him at one point he had agreed; even his sisters had given him the same advice. So irrespective of what he says now, I did seek his permission earlier. (38-year-old informant, victim of domestic violence)

Even in situations where a husband agreed to sterilization, the responsibility of getting the procedure rested primarily with the woman. National figures for vasectomy are around 2% compared with 36% for women’s sterilization. In this study they found only one couple where the husband underwent a vasectomy to limit family size. While vasectomy provided a reprieve from further unwanted pregnancies, however, the participant experienced an escalation in both physical and sexual violence due to her husband’s increased demands for sex:

Now that my husband has had a vasectomy, he has become more aggressive in his demands for sex— almost on a daily basis and sometimes more than once. Often he forces me to have sex, and if I refuse, he at times hits me badly and at other times he rips off my clothes and forces himself on me. (34-year-old)

While some participants in focus groups felt that many men tend to become more caring during pregnancy, the experiences of women in abusive relationships were mixed. For some women, physical and sexual violence started a few years after their marriage, and their earlier pregnancies were free from physical violence. Once the relationship turned violent, however, there was little difference in patterns of violence before and during a pregnancy. For other women, especially some of the younger participants who experienced frequent violence from early days of their marriage, violence intensified during pregnancy. A young woman described how she lost her 6-month-old unborn child when her husband repeatedly kicked her in the stomach. She did not receive any medical help for 3 days. Upon seeing a doctor only after a concerned neighbor called for one, the woman was told her unborn child had died and she needed immediate hospitalization. Her husband agreed to hospitalization, but he threatened her with divorce if she divulged any information to hospital staff. A year later, she was pregnant again as her husband refused to use contraception and forbade her to use it on “religious grounds.”

Source: Daily Times, 23/7/2008


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    however, there was little difference in patterns of violence before and during a pregnancy. For other women, especially some of the younger participants who experienced frequent violence from early days of their marriage, violence intensified during pregnancy.