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Home / Articles / Identifying Abuse / Sex and Homicide Risk in Relationships with Domestic Abuse

Sex and Homicide Risk in Relationships with Domestic Abuse

Learn how abusers who use sex to control can indicate later dangerousness—and what to do about it

survivor escapes sexual abuse

Most domestic abusers do not kill their partners. But some do. Psychologist David Adams’ research suggests that how sex happens in a relationship may be related to an abuser’s likelihood of killing his partner. David Adams is the founder of Emerge, the first Batterer Intervention Program in the country, and maybe the world. He was motivated, in part, by his father murdering his mother when he was a child. For his book, Why Do They Kill?, Adams interviewed 31 incarcerated men who had murdered their wives and 20 women who had survived an intimate partner attempted homicide (shootings, stabbings, and strangulation). Among many findings, he discovered that sex in the relationships that ended in homicides often looked different from sex in other domestic abuse relationships. Based on these interviews, Adams determined that these relationships often passed through the same phases. (Please note: because his research concerned cisgender women in heterosexual relationships with cisgender male abusers, we do not know if these findings apply to same-sex couples or women’s violence against men or couples where one or both people are transgender.)

First Phase: Sex Happens Fast and Often

Men who end up killing their partners or ex-partners typically engage them in sex on the first or second meeting, then push them into frequent sex. Most of these men act charming and romantic at first, although 25 percent were violent from the beginning. The victim frequently loves her partner and gives in to his desire for frequent—almost constant—sex. The early sexual involvement seems to make it more difficult for her to step back and question whether this relationship is really what she wants. He seems to take over her life; sex is part of this dynamic. For the abuser, first sex signifies ownership which leads to jealous accusations and monitoring and demands for proof of love and commitment.

Second Phase: Frequent Abuse, Sex and Threats

The first time an abuser uses violence, he usually apologizes and says it will not happen again. Frequent sex continues. The victim may try to refuse sex sometimes, and the abuser is usually violent again. After a while, a pattern emerges of frequent sex and regular episodes of threats and physical violence. In between the violence, the abuser controls his partner. Jealous accusations and monitoring escalate.  Rather than apologizing for his violence, the abuser begins to ignore it. 

Third Phase: The Violence and Control Intensify

The abuser escalates his violence. He may continue to apologize for acts of abuse or ignore them, but he now primarily blames his partner, as in, “If you didn’t do X, I wouldn’t hurt you.” The victim becomes increasingly confused, unhappy, anxious, depressed and sometimes angry or physically ill. She may defy the abuser openly, resist in covert ways or double down on her attempts to appease him. Some victims separate for the first time or seek help. Sensing that he is losing his grip on her, the abuser seeks new ways to control his partner. He may stalk, monitor, rape and abuse her economically. He may begin to abuse and neglect any children in the relationship. The abuser’s increasing domination leads the victim to feel great terror. If she has separated from him, she may return, trying to keep herself safe by staying close.

Fourth Phase: He Blocks Escape and Kills Her

The abuser further increases his violence, threats, and monitoring. Sex becomes increasingly violent and humiliating. The abuser increasingly blames the victim for the violence and demands sex after assaults. Once again, she may try to find a (safe) way to end the relationship. At this point, most victims no longer blame themselves for the violence, and half have ended the relationship. The abuser continues to monitor and stalk the victim and demands sex as a way to (re)claim ownership. When she resists or defies him, he kills her.

What To Do Next

What are the implications of Adams’ work for women who are in relationships with violent and controlling men?

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Hold off on sex. If you are not in a relationship, consider setting a rule for yourself that you will not get involved sexually with someone until after you have gotten to know each other rather well (perhaps after a couple of months or until after you have gone out together in person at least a half-dozen times). If the person you are just getting to know does not accept this boundary—this is a good time to exit the relationship. Do not worry about hurting the feelings of someone who is violating your boundaries immediately—you owe this person nothing.

Assert other boundaries, too. Setting additional boundaries, such as having alone time, or going out with your own friends, or seeing family without him, is a good test of your new partner’s acceptance and respect for your desire to control your own life. Violation of boundaries is a huge red flag for domestic abuse. 

Do not commit before you are ready. Another domestic abuse early warning sign is love bombing. This generally involves lavish and often public displays of affection or acts of self-sacrifice that serve to demonstrate the abuser’s commitment--and push you to prove your own commitment and loyalty. Often, love bombing also follows acts of abuse, serving as a form of damage control. Ask yourself, “does he make me feel guilty for not matching his level of affection or commitment?” (If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it—that’s okay! If he won’t accept it—get away!).

Take a danger assessment. While assessments of domestic violence danger typically acknowledge that “forced sex” is a risk factor, they do not acknowledge these particular patterns of coerced sex, frequent sex, and rushed courtships. They also do not acknowledge that in thirty percent of domestic homicides, the murder was the first act of physical violence—but there was plenty of prior control.

Seek help early. The earlier in the relationship that you can seek the assistance of a domestic violence advocate, the more likely you are to be able to end the relationship safely. Over time, the relationship control will weaken you physically, psychologically, and financially. You are also likely to become isolated. Do not worry that you are imagining or exaggerating things, and do not allow anyone to obligate you to remain in a relationship that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Photo by Alex Green.