Between experience and social ‘norms’, identification and compliance: economic and sexual intimate partner violence against women in Lithuania

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  • 1 Human Rights Monitoring Institute, , Lithuania
  • | 2 Center for Equality Advancement, , Lithuania
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This article discusses economic and sexual violence against women, which are the two forms of intimate partner violence the least recognised by both Lithuanian society and the survivors of such abuse themselves. The authors of this article analyse the roots of this lack of recognition, and how it is affected and influenced by the patriarchal context and gendered conditioning of Lithuanian society. The article also explores how this conditioning contributes to the reasons why women in contemporary Lithuania still tend not to seek help, regardless of the endemic prevalence of intimate partner violence perpetrated against them. The article is based on a recent study completed in Lithuania. It suggests that a better recognition of economic and sexual coercive control as well as abandonment of ‘victim blaming’ attitudes could be followed by a broader education on gender equality and recognition of gendered stereotypes, in order to more effectively prevent and also respond to this significant social problem.

Abstract

This article discusses economic and sexual violence against women, which are the two forms of intimate partner violence the least recognised by both Lithuanian society and the survivors of such abuse themselves. The authors of this article analyse the roots of this lack of recognition, and how it is affected and influenced by the patriarchal context and gendered conditioning of Lithuanian society. The article also explores how this conditioning contributes to the reasons why women in contemporary Lithuania still tend not to seek help, regardless of the endemic prevalence of intimate partner violence perpetrated against them. The article is based on a recent study completed in Lithuania. It suggests that a better recognition of economic and sexual coercive control as well as abandonment of ‘victim blaming’ attitudes could be followed by a broader education on gender equality and recognition of gendered stereotypes, in order to more effectively prevent and also respond to this significant social problem.

Introduction

The ‘domestic violence revolution’ of the 1970s brought about great changes to the societal and legal perception of domestic violence in western countries, introducing new policies and services (Stark, 2007). The risk of women experiencing violence from their intimate partners was publicly acknowledged and perpetrators were subjected to judicial accountability. Two primary factors were used to measure domestic violence committed against females: the number and severity of acts of physical violence.

Despite its positive outcomes, such as lower rates of femicide and higher numbers of registered offenders, this revolution also presented significant challenges. The term ‘domestic violence’ in itself is neutral with respect to gender and provides little knowledge of the sociodemographic characteristics of offenders and victims (Stark, 2007; Vaigė, 2016; Sotirovič-Pilinkaitė and Vaigė, 2017). Also equating abuse with only physical assault implied that perpetrators must leave visible signs or bruises on women’s bodies for their behaviour to constitute ‘violence’. Therefore, what originally appeared as a progressive system faced its own entrapment and prevented professionals from identifying the full range of equally abusive psychological manipulations and effects of those on many women.

In his typology of ‘intimate partner violence’ (IPV) Johnson (2008) distinguished between violent resistance, situational couple violence, mutual violent control and intimate terrorism. The first two exclusively refer to violent interactions, while the latter two refer to a much more complex and systematic mechanism of power and control in order to govern one’s partner and establish a relationship of ‘the dominant’ and ‘the obedient’ (Stark, 2007; Johnson, 2008; Hayes and Jeffries, 2015). Stark’s (2007) related concept of ‘coercive control’ is defined as a pattern of various controlling behaviours including social isolation, intimidation, threats, humiliation, self-esteem derogation, restriction of personal freedom or gaslighting. The intention to control and/or punish female partners is inherent to this infinite set of actions; consequences to survivors are cumulative, not just single incident or injury based. Moreover, physical or sexual violence is usually invoked to punish women once they start seeking help or try to end the relationship (DAIP, 1993; Stark, 2007). Coercive control is established through acts of suppression and prohibition and makes women dependent on their male partners mentally, emotionally and/or physically, restraining them from participation in society (Stark, 2007; Nussbaum, 2011; Nevala, 2017). In this article, the term ‘violence’ will be supplemented by the term ‘coercion’ in order to highlight the more subtle and complex nature of IPV, which does not only constitute physical abuse but also includes practices of manipulative and controlling coercive conduct.

Scholars define IPV against women as a complex phenomenon consisting of at least four main registers: economic (at times referred to as deprivation), sexual, psychological and physical (Krug et al., 2002; Parkkila and Heikkinen, 2018). Different forms of violence are mostly intermingled and continuous rather than single incidents, constituting ‘systemic violence’ (DAIP, 1993; Wagers, 2012). Due to the extreme sensitivity of this subject, ‘violence is almost universally under-reported. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such violence suggests that globally, millions of women are experiencing violence or living with its consequences’ (Watts and Zimmerman, 2002).

Economic and sexual violence are two forms of systemic coercive control by an intimate partner that are often normalised and may even go unquestioned or unnoticed by both society and survivors of such conduct (RAIT, 2017). Economically-oriented coercion is defined broadly, but the most commonly acknowledged definition is a restraint of women’s income or savings, a demand that she accounts for all of her spending to her partner, making unilateral financial decisions, or banning access to the family’s money or other material goods, such as food, means of transport and even the house, that previously was at her disposal (Stark, 2007; Stylianou et al, 2013). A woman is often assigned the domestic and childcare duties, providing her only with a barely sufficient amount of financial resources, often without any opportunity for developing her professional capabilities, obtaining a job, and/or pursuing a professional career. (Stark, 2007; Stylianou et al, 2013). Post-separation economic coercion is also confirmed to appear as acts of economic sabotage and manipulations by perpetrators (Crossman et al, 2016). According to Dobash and Dobash (1979), experience of such violence deprives women of opportunities to ‘establish a reasonable life or any life at all apart from her violent partner’.

Sexual coercion, similarly to economic control, is an umbrella term for any unwanted sexual gesture or verbal reference to a woman’s looks, body or sexuality, including comments depicting her as a sexualised object; as a form of IPV, it is most often expressed as a sexual intercourse or sexualised intervention performed without women’s consent (Garcia-Moreno et al, 2015). The central component in sexual coercion is the fact that it is committed against the free will of a woman and consequently diminishes her bodily integrity, bodily health and autonomy over her body (Parkkila and Heikkinen, 2018). It is a tool to control the other person by instigating fear, anxiety and compliance (Stark, 2007; Parkkila and Heikkinen, 2018).

Generally, IPV is acknowledged worldwide as a human rights concern with one in three women at risk of experiencing it during her lifetime (UNFPA, 2000; Watts and Zimmerman, 2002; Black et al, 2011; WHO, 2013a; WHO, 2013b; FRA, 2014; Vasiliauskienė et al., 2016). The main reason allowing such violence against women to thrive has been evidenced to be the major imbalance of power and control that exists among men and women within a society which is strongly influenced by its patriarchal worldview (Vasiliauskienė et al, 2016). As much as 75 per cent of women remain in or eventually return to relationships that may be characterised as abusive (Hill, 2009). This may be caused by various individual and environmental factors, as well as barriers that prevent access to help and support, also negative societal attitudes, stigma, ‘victim blaming’ attitudes, internalised fear, shame, self-blame and lack of engagement by the criminal justice system(Hill, 2009; Fugate et al, 2005; Gonzalez-Mendez and Santana-Hernandez, 2012; Grace and Tomas, 2014; Fábián, 2017).

The Lithuanian context

Up until 2011, Lithuania considered IPV to be an internal family matter with the exception of extremely severe injuries or assaults. The progress in terms of protecting women’s rights in intimate relationships in Lithuania came about with the adoption of the Law on Protection against Domestic Violence in Close Relationships (2011) (hereinafter, the Law). Following the adoption of this Law, various services, specialised support centres and women’s crisis centres were developed as a complex support network for survivors of IPV (Acus et al, 2017). Hence, for the first time violence and abuse in domestic life situations was defined as a human rights violation and a crime in Lithuania (Acus et al, 2017; Čaplikienė and Velička, 2017). As pointed out by Fábián (2017), Lithuania was one of the very last countries in Europe to adopt such a law, legally acknowledging this phenomenon’s public significance. The last few years of the Law’s implementation have demonstrated that no different from other countries across the world, the vast majority of survivors of domestic violence in Lithuania are women (Vasiliauskienė et al, 2016). In 2018, 78 per cent of registered victims were women and 90 per cent of the offenders were men (ITCD, 2018; Statistics Department, 2019).

The Law enabled the protection of thousands of women, men and children in Lithuania (Acus et al, 2017). However, the way the problem is addressed in practice remains problematic. The Law is applied in situations concerning a ‘close environment’ or ‘domestic life’, which involves people, who are or were in the past linked through marriage, partnership or other close relationships, as well as people living together and managing a common household. Thus, there is no specific focus on gender-related issues, even though IPV has been widely evidenced to be clearly gendered (UN, 1979; UN, 2009; Michailovič, 2014; Vaigė, 2016; Sotirovič-Pilinkaitė and Vaigė, 2017; Michailovič, 2017). The Law does not provide a comprehensive legal recognition or clear definitions for a variety of types of violent and coercive behaviours, so, therefore, does not acknowledge that continuous coercive actions and psychological manipulations may also constitute elements of crime (HRMI, 2014). Although it is evidenced that women are at a significantly increased risk of secondary victimisation following their active decision to separate from perpetrators, move out or seek external help (Crossman et al, 2016), there is still a lack of protection for survivors during and after separation from their partners in Lithuania. Lithuania is also a step behind in effective interventions due to the lack of consistent prevention programmes aimed at improving the structural gender equality (Andrikienė and Vaičiūnaitė, 2015; Vaigė, 2016).

Moreover, according to scholars and NGOs, the withdrawal of pre-trial investigations by judges is common in Lithuania; this is often due to supposed mutual conciliation or testimony alteration by alleged victims, and refusal to witness in their own litigations (HRMI, 2014; HRMI, 2018). As a result, this causes the problem of ‘victim blaming’. Studies suggest that in Lithuania not only police officers tend to blame survivors of IPV (Ruibytė and Velička, 2012), but also judges (Sotirovič-Pilinkaitė and Vaigė, 2017). In blaming the women, they reflect attitudes that are shared by a substantive proportion of Lithuanians: according to Eurobarometer, 42 per cent of the population express agreement toward such statements as ‘women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape’ or that ‘violence against women is often provoked by the victim’ at 45 per cent (EC, 2016). National surveys confirm that one in two Lithuanians think that women are responsible for their victimisation (RAIT, 2017). These blaming attitudes remain one of the key reasons why IPV may last for years or decades without any intention to seek help (Stark, 2007; Yamawaki et al, 2012; Meyer, 2016). Nevala (2017) indicates that in general, 16 per cent of Lithuanian women experience high coercive control by their intimate partners, which is the highest percentage per women’s population among other European countries. According to FRA (2014), up to 47 per cent of women in Lithuania (the EU average being 39 per cent), who had been subjected to domestic violence, did not seek help and mostly tried to solve the problem by themselves.

The aim of this article is to discuss and analyse the two forms of IPV against women, which are the least recognised by both general Lithuanian society and the survivors of such abuse themselves: economic and sexual violence (RAIT, 2017; Grigaitė and Karalius, 2018). The main research question addressed in this article is as follows: how is economic and sexual coercion experienced by women who experience IPV in Lithuania, and how are such experiences affected and/or even constructed by the patriarchal context and predominantly gendered conditioning of Lithuanian society? The article is based on a recent study completed in Lithuania (Grigaitė and Karalius, 2018) based on both the quantitative and qualitative methodologies (Ajzen, 2006a; Braun and Clarke, 2006), and explores the ability of women to recognise different types of violence, as well as how societal and cultural ‘norms’ shape their knowledge and experiences, in turn preventing them from seeking help.

Research methodology

First, survivors of IPV in Lithuania, who had left violent relationships, were asked to fill out the online questionnaire, developed by the research team in accordance with the methodological principles suggested by Ajzen (2006b). The quantitative phase enabled the research team to measure and analyse the declarative ‘what women say’, and the actual experience ‘what they had undergone’ during the acts of economic and/or sexual violence perpetrated against them. For example, first, the following question was proposed: ‘Did you experience economic/sexual violence in your relationship?’. Afterwards, ten additional questions followed, which illustrated different situations portraying economic and/or sexual control (five specific situations for each type of violence). These questions marked various scenarios that are most likely to occur, when women face their partners’ economic coercion (for example, ‘my partner would control my expenses/would deny me from using family’s income/would prohibit me to work’) and sexual control (for example, ‘my partner would make love with me against my will/would force me to do unwanted things during sex/would threaten to leave me, if I did not agree to have sex with him’). Women were asked to note how often they encountered a proposed situation while in their relationship, with the answers ranging from 1 (never) to 7 (very often). The intention behind this block was to understand which coercive behaviours are faced most often and how women perceive them.

The questionnaire was distributed both online on the www.typeform.com platform, and during face-to-face interviews with women. In total 61 respondents filled out the questionnaire (see Table 1). The analysis of data was supported by the data analysing software SPSS.

Table 1:

Sociodemographic characteristics of the study participants (n = 61)

Your ageFor how long were you in a relationship with your partner?For how long did you experience the domestic violence from your partner before you told anyone about it?What was your family status with your partner at the time when domestic violence took place?What is your education?What is your current occupation status?Have you got children?
21–74 yrsLess than 1 yr3Less than 1 yr18Couple (lived separately)5High school13Employment (full-time)39Yes47
1 yr–3 yrs131 yr–3 yrs17Partners (lived together)22Unfinished BA2Employment (part-time)5
3 yrs–7 yrs173 yrs–7 yrs9Engaged1University degree45Self-employed10No14
7 yrs–15 yrs127 yrs–15 yrs9Married32Vocational training1Unemployed7
More than 15 yrs16More than 15 yrs8Divorced1
Total616161616161

The qualitative part of the study consisted of 16 face-to-face semi-structured interviews conducted with women, identified by the research team in five different regions of Lithuania. All women, both in the quantitative and qualitative parts of the study, were selected according to one main criterion, that of having had reported the violence to either their immediate social environment or institutional professionals. Interviewees were mostly identified by using the snowball sampling method with the help of staff from women’s crisis centres and specialised support centres. Women were 29–72 years old (M = 36.6 years). Interviews were conducted in order to specify the underlying meanings of such concepts as economic and sexual violence or coercion and to clarify the dynamics, effects and consequences of such a conduct to women. Each interview took from 40 to 75 minutes. Principles of thematic analysis suggested by Braun and Clarke (2006) were used in order to formulate the separate narrative topics.

The WHO (2001) Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Research on Domestic Violence against Women was adhered to during the study, that is, women’s safety was considered a top priority, while conducting research activities in an ethical and appropriately sensitive manner. For example, the research team members received specialised training and ongoing support, interviews were organised and carried out at places where individual women felt safest and most at ease, and confidentiality and anonymity were ensured at all times.

Limitations of the methodology and subsequent analysis of the study results include aspects as follows: 1) the relatively small sample size and thus limited amount of data restricted the research team from making a more sophisticated statistical data analysis, therefore, applicability of the results might be limited to the researched population; 2) interview questions could have been more discerning in terms of the experiences of women prior to the national Law being passed and after its adoption, thus, enabling researchers to more clearly identify the dynamics of institutional response to IPV in Lithuania; 3) there is a risk of having interpreted some of the interviewed women’s experiences as coercive control, which might have been the act of another form of IPV (for example, situational couple violence). Despite these limitations, this research and article furthers understanding of the mechanisms of economic and sexual coercive control, while the analysis of qualitative data allows for discussion of the deeper perceptions, meanings and effects of societal and cultural ‘norms’ on women.

Study findings and discussion

Economic coercion and societal ‘norms’

IPV often has a multi-layered dimension. It is expressed through physical and/or emotional harm caused to women. While obvious evidence of physical violence may grant intervention by various institutions (for example, the police), psychological violence on the other hand, is often socially ‘acceptable’ in women’s immediate environment, such as with their friends and relatives. When women experience economic coercion, their opportunities for seeking to change their situation and leave the abusive relationship are restricted and decrease even more (Grigaitė and Karalius, 2018).

When asked directly ‘Did you experience economic violence in your relationship?’, 39 per cent of the study participants indicated that they did experience economic coercion, while the other 61 per cent said they did not. Later women were presented with various scenarios of economic control that are likely to occur in abusive relationships. The results revealed that in fact all respondents experienced at least one situation associated with economic restrictions by their intimate partner (see Table 2).

Table 2:

The respondents’ experience vs recognition of economic coercion perpetrated by their intimate partner (n = 50)

Did not experience any of the indicated situations of sexual violenceExperienced 1–2 indicated situations of sexual violenceExperienced 3–5 indicated situations of sexual violenceTotal
Did you experience economic violence in your relationship?Yes022123
0%17%55%46%
No0101727
0%83%45%54%
Total:0123850
0%100%100%100%

The majority of those who recognised that they had experienced economic violence indicated to have faced more than three violent scenarios in their daily lives. Another pattern found among those who experienced between one to two violent situations, was that when originally asked the question ‘Did you experience economic violence in your relationship?’, the majority of respondents denied it. Therefore, economic control was perceived and acknowledged by the study participants only if it had been experienced severely. Existing research shows that economic coercion tends to provoke feelings of shame in women, and is often a ‘normalised’ social and cultural reality, at the same time being a force of subtle control by the intimate partner (Stark, 2007). Moreover, scholars indicate that the most common type of IPV is of a psychological nature, and that this may often affect women far more significantly than actual physical violence(Crossman et al, 2016); this notion was confirmed by the study participants in various narratives, including their experiences of economic coercion and its emotional and psychological effects on them.

The interviews’ results show that only some women recognise economic coercion as a type of IPV. The data reveals that coercive or violent relationships in general often had started as an unexpected pattern of repetitive psychological harassment, expressed as intimidation, bullying and reproaches. Along with such a behaviour, routine economic control often emerged in order to reinforce the actual subordinate status and powerlessness of the woman. As one study participant put it, she had noticed having less and less money for necessary spending, such as for socks or underwear, as the money was taken away and controlled by her husband, despite the fact that she had a job:

“I realised that I experienced economic abuse, when I started working and he was demanding that I give all my earnings to him. At first, he claimed that I would lose the money, and that he knew better how to manage it. But then soon I noticed that I ended up not having anything, even for buying my underwear, let alone all other stuff. Then I realised that I was in a really bad situation.” (I.16, 38 years)

Another woman, whose work was related to photography, recalls an episode when she was in need of a new camera. Although the situation may be perceived as a one-off incident, when assessed in the context of other previous and ongoing control tactics by her partner, it may be termed as economic coercive control. As the woman had already experienced outbursts of jealousy and repeated humiliation from her partner, she decided not to inform him about her decision to buy new equipment for her work:

“and I didn’t tell him because I had a necessary amount of money myself from my own savings. When he noticed it, it was really bad, it was like ‘You have just spent my money!’ The feeling was that my earnings were perceived as his money. For a long time I did not consider that he was abusing me, only later did I distance myself from the whole situation and realised what he had been doing with my life.” (I.5, 29 years)

Economic coercive control may also be observed in cases when a woman’s decision to leave is constrained by risks to her life conditions, such as being thrown out of her home or deprived of certain resources. For instance, an interviewed mother of six children claimed she experienced coercive control for a certain period of time coupled with physical abuse; however, the conditions under which she and her children were living kept her from seeking help: “children cried. They would say ‘Mum, please, call the police.’ But I was so afraid of him. Because if I did, he would break the phone and then we would not have a phone at all. So I was too afraid” (I.1, 35 years).

Generally, in these examples, economic coercion may be understood as continuous, repeated behaviours performed as a certain routine, rather than a single incident. The narrative extracts above illustrate how these control tactics have a direct impact on women’s financial and economic conditions, leading to deprivation and causing a sense of unworthiness and dependency. This coercive control of a psychological nature tends to keep them locked in the ‘power and control wheel’, with little chances or opportunities for breaking away from it (DAIP, 1993; Stark, 2007). The abusive partner would often express that his salary is sufficient for both and a woman should only take care of the private life of the family.

Even though experiences like this were echoed during interviews frequently, when asked if the interviewed women considered it as a type of abuse, some tended to talk about finance-related issues in a form of an open discussion, without any clear-cut opinions or conclusions. They discussed whether or not it can really be considered as a form of violence, or is it rather a way for a partner to demonstrate his responsibility, and express love and care.

The above-mentioned discussion is inevitably related to gender issues and the social constructs or ‘gender roles’ of a man and a woman. Some of the interviewees demonstrated a hetero-normative and patriarchal worldview, where a man is seen as a ‘breadwinner’, whose duty is to sustain the family, while a woman concedes to the role of a ‘housewife’. As a social category, public (men’s) and private (woman’s) spaces are differentiated according to gender, with specific assumed practices and roles. Hence, the interviewed women’s thinking and behaviour is inevitably affected by such socially constructed attitudes, and prevents them from identifying economic coercive control exercised by their intimate partners as violence: “He would break chairs and I would repair them. If he violently broke plates – I would immediately buy new ones. I always felt it was my duty to replace and fix everything after him” (I.9, 35 years). Such a worldview tends to isolate women in various ways, for example, the childcare duties and their domestic work is not in fact valued, and they become significantly economically restricted (Falb et al, 2015).

Additionally, due to the predominant stereotype in Lithuania that the man is responsible for ensuring financial security of the family, this then automatically provides him with a niche for controlling the woman, as well as children. This happens both de facto due to him being the one who earns most of the money, and also symbolically due to the woman starting to actually believe that he indeed has a right to control everything, since he is the one, who provides for the family.

It points to the broader social and cultural context related to patriarchal order, in which, as Dobash and Dobash (1979) state, the subordination of women was historically established in institutional practices of both the church and the state; while at the same time manifesting itself in the micro-unit, that is, ‘a patriarchal family’. The ideological aspect relates to a gender-based rationalisation of inequalities and creates acceptance of such an order by those who are subordinated. As a result, it becomes ‘nature’ to both sides: for those who dictate the rules, and those who comply and play accordingly. Often, men still occupy the higher positions in these hierarchy-based social relations (Bourdieu, 2001; Michau et al, 2015; Garcia-Moreno et al, 2015), partially due to the fact that the possessed financial capital also allows them to.

In addition to the perceived helplessness, normalisation is employed to minimise the effects and deny that difficult routine in which one lives. Some interviewed women perceived the acts of controlling their individual or family’s expenses as personal characteristics of their partners. In some cases, partners were described as only ‘slightly’ controlling, rhetorically suggesting that such a behaviour might be acceptable: “Yes, it is violence if he strictly controls it [expenses]. But previously I was thinking differently, and now 5 years have passed. In our relationship I did not think it was wrong…I thought it was natural, I thought maybe it’s his personality” (I.4, 34 years).

According to the interviewed women, the duty of a ‘good wife’ has to be performed, where such personality traits and emotional problems of the man are assumed: in order to help their men, women presume they must empathise with them and sooth them, due to their perception of him being the one who has problems and needs her help. This points to deeply rooted cultural beliefs, and systemically perceived and reinforced societal and gender ‘norms’ in Lithuania. The motive that women must take care of their ‘psychologically vulnerable’ men was reiterated during the interviews, immediately placing the man’s problems before those of an abused woman. However, subtly stating that men are also vulnerable is a way of subverting the outcome that women were in fact those experiencing violence and coercion. This behaviour might also be seen as a strategy for minimising and hiding the gender dimension of the problem, which the feminist approach considers to be overwhelmingly gendered and power relations-based (Berns, 2001; Falb et al, 2015). If this symbolic perceived duty is not performed well, it tends to provoke feelings of shame and guilt in women, and might even result in inwardly directed ‘victim blaming’. The financial vulnerability of interviewed women and their dependency on men often resulted in an actual restriction of the women’s freedom and their right to choose or decide for themselves. For this reason, it becomes a gender-based restriction, which may then lead to other forms of violence against women, such as physical abuse, especially if attempting to break the cycle of power and coercive control (DAIP, 1993; Stark, 2007; Falb et al, 2015).

When asked if their attitude towards the economic restrictions changed over time, one of the notions that emerged during the interviews was that in some cases women had been aware and did eventually identify the economic violence against them. The main attribute, which then kept women stuck in violent relationships, was poor opportunities for finding jobs and earning a living for themselves:

“Yes, I always knew [that I had experienced economic violence]. It’s just I couldn’t escape it. I was always thinking about how to leave him, how to help myself, but everything depended on finances. I had very little money while I was on maternity leave and that was the only thing that stopped me – I would have left that relationship much sooner otherwise.” (I.6, 41 years)

This woman noted that she finally felt safe not when she eventually left her partner (who was still persecuting her at the time of the interview), not while living in women’s crisis centre, but when she finally found and secured a permanent job, which empowered her to afford to pay her own rent and feel truly independent. This reflection indicates the importance of individual financial resources as a crucial feature for those women to start seeking help, whether reporting on their abusive experiences or leaving the perpetrator.

Economic empowerment is one of the key features that may prevent women’s dependency and subordination based on resources. As the system tends to keep women in men’s control through sexist ideology, women’s economic background (for example, a well-paid job, university education or higher social status) is one of the ways to neutralise this ideology and abolish their own vulnerability, while demonstrating independence and self-sufficiency. Nevertheless, women’s career choices and subsequent status is again somewhat limited; data shows that IPV against women is also prevalent due to the challenges of symbolic and ‘socially acceptable’ male superiority, when men do not feel ‘masculine enough’, if their partners are more respected and show greater success in the labour market (Rodriguez-Menes and Safranoff, 2012).

It may be summarised that economic violence is a form of IPV against women, which may be hardly recognised, due to it being naturally legitimised as a social, cultural and gendered ‘norm’. A man is socially defined in terms of economic independence, while women are often assigned the role of ‘a dependent’ and ‘helpless’. Some of the interviewed women demonstrated internalisation of this societal ‘norm’, the roots of which can be traced to patriarchy-based contexts, still inherent in various European countries to this day. Even when women do recognise these asymmetric power imbalances and try to establish their independent identity, new potential risks emerge due to men starting to feel symbolically vulnerable and trying to re-establish ‘socially acceptable’ gender roles. Economic coercive control tends to disempower women financially and keep them trapped inside the ‘power and control wheel’ of psychological violence and manipulations (DAIP, 1993). More education to increase critical thinking about the nature of economic coercion and perceived gender roles and stereotypes, as well as awareness-raising about principles of gender equality in addressing this specific topic of deprivation, could be helpful. This could potentially empower women economically, since it is one of the main components that enables women to feel more self-confident and independent as a result.

Sexual coercion and societal ‘norms’

In this study, sexual violence showed itself to be as invisible as economic violence, barely ever recognised, and often socially ‘normalised’ by the interviewed women as an experience. Talking openly about sexually exploitive situations was not easy for the interviewees, they appeared to be ashamed of such experiences, reflecting on those in a generalised manner. The interviewers were faced with mostly rhetorical reflections like “well, yes, some women may face this kind of violence”, when study participants avoided talking about their personal experiences. Sexual abuse was also reflected on verbally in limited ways with short and impassive answers, for example, “I did experience it/I didn’t experience it”.

When asked the direct question, 83 per cent of the study participants denied having experienced sexual coercion from their intimate partners. However, according to the follow-up analysis of their responses to examples of potential specific situations of sexually violent behaviour towards them, in fact only 32 per cent did not face such violence. Out of 20 women, 14, who in fact faced one to two violent behaviours, denied having been subjected to sexual violence, while 16 out of 20 women, who had faced three to five violent situations, denied it all together. These patterns mirror that of experiences of economic coercive control, yet elucidate even more clearly that despite the experienced sexual coercion, only a minority of respondents recognise and accept it as a form of IPV (see Table 3).

Table 3:

The respondents’ experience vs recognition of sexual coercion perpetrated by their intimate partner (n = 59)

Did not experience any of the indicated situations of sexual violenceExperienced 1–2 indicated situations of sexual violenceExperienced 3–5 indicated situations of sexual violenceTotal
Did you experience sexual violence in your relationship?Yes06410
0%30%20%17%
No19141649
100%70%80%83%
Total:19202059
100%100%100%100%

Data obtained through interviews enabled the research team to analyse how marital sex is often internalised by women as ‘a duty of a wife’ and/or even a strategy for mitigating other forms of violence perpetrated by their intimate partners. The study results suggest that sexual violence against women in Lithuania conceals itself under the socially constructed ‘norms’ and/or stereotypical labels, such as ‘men are more sexually active than women’ or that having sex with her partner is ‘a wife’s duty’. Consequently, this study shows that this specific form of IPV often goes unrecognised as such by women, and also that they are less likely to report cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by their partners, while no external help is expected by them. Moreover, there is a likely denial and psychological self-defence mechanism, which may be triggered by the prevalent societal stigma of discussing IPV, also attitudes rooted in ‘victim blaming’, as well as sexist attitudes within Lithuanian society (RAIT, 2017). For example, Eurobarometer shows that approximately one third of Lithuanians do not think that ‘forcing a partner to have sex’ (31%) or ‘sending unwanted sexually explicit emails or messages’ (33%) is against the law, being the highest percentage in Europe; while 8 per cent do not think that ‘making sexually suggestive comments to a strange woman in public’ is inappropriate, and 5 per cent do not believe that ‘touching a colleague in an inappropriate or unwanted way’ should be against the law or is a wrong behaviour at all (European Commission, 2016). Although a common experience in cases of IPV, the official statistics of registered victims of ‘sexual coercion in domestic environment’ in Lithuania is very low: it was 27 cases in 2018, indicating that this crime, in a similar way as economic violence, is latent and under-reported (Parkkila and Heikkinen, 2018; ITCD, 2018).

Interview data suggest that sexual coercion against women in Lithuania is expressed directly as a form of compulsion without women’s consent. Sexual experiences constitute a major part of intimate relationships and are often seen as dependent on the man’s will but not necessarily on that of the woman’s. Sexual compulsion in relationships was the most commonly articulated form of sexual coercion throughout the interview narratives. It also surfaced as a strategy, which is employed by perpetrators after they are informed about intentions by their partner to end abusive or coercive relationships:

“He constantly manipulated the situation, of course, and he pretended to be offended, when I didn’t agree [to have sex], he’d become very angry. He exercised this manipulative violence. So even if I didn’t want to, I’d just endure it anyway. His actual violent sexual compulsion started after we had a divorce, though we still lived together for some time. I would lock myself [in my bedroom], but he’d break in and then use force. I consider it violence. To be honest, every time I felt like I was being raped.” (I.5, 29 years)

According to the patriarchal context, the ‘wife’s duty’ is to please, satisfy, and submit to her partner. Analysis of the interviews’ results indicates that this perceived ‘duty’ may be interpreted by some as a specific strategy used in order to neutralise the likelihood of an outbreak of other types of violence. The compulsory sexual experiences become ‘something that you endure’:

“On the one hand, I found myself in such situations [in my relationship], where one could assume it was sexual coercion but at the time I thought it was my duty. I didn’t feel any pain. Even if there was some pain, it was something that I just had to endure.” (I.7, 32 years)

The exploitative sex gradually becomes ‘normalised’ in such a relationship, in a similar way to the partner’s control over the financial matters, analysed above. These two notions together constitute male-dominant relationships, in which women may submit to their partners, even though it is against their own will.

A 72-year-old interviewee, who described having suffered from physical, psychological and sexual violence for 50 years until her spouse died, revealed that such behaviour started a couple of years after their marriage. During the Soviet and post-Soviet period, she was not ready to speak openly about her experiences, though her son knew about it and often physically protected his mother from his father. The woman expressed that she had a stable job and had been economically independent her whole life, and this factor, according to her, was crucial in sustaining her self-esteem. Sexual coercion was not even considered by her as a scenario worth speaking about to others and hence it was ‘normalised’ and internalised:

“Yes [sexual violence exists], I experienced this. And I admitted it psychologically [to myself]. It was often done in a way he demanded it, not how I may have wanted it. Well, but I also know one other family – they have 8 children, and he [the abuser] continues to torture her further.” (I.3, 72 years)

On the other hand, one interviewee, who had been subjected to all complex forms of IPV, stated that she did not see the disparity between the violence potentially committed by a stranger on the street and that by her partner in their own home: “If your husband compels you to make love against your will or in any other way that is unacceptable to you…Well, I mean it shouldn’t be justified just because he’s your husband. Or your partner. I mean, if it is against your will – it is against your will” (I.2, 44 years). In other words, some of the interviewed women did recognise that being frightened, humiliated or assaulted by a stranger is a traumatising experience and that it is no less unacceptable for such violence to be exercised by an intimate partner in your own home (Dobash and Dobash, 1979).

A public opinion study on violence against women in Lithuania shows selective attitudes towards sexual violence: the situation where ‘the husband compels his wife to make love to him’ was considered to be violent by 82 per cent of respondents (RAIT, 2017). Even though it is a reasonably high number, when asked to name all forms of violence that come to mind when thinking of violence against women within relationships, only 6 per cent of the respondents named sexual violence. Therefore, the statistics suggest that on the more personal level, when facing the specific situation, people tend to recognise such behaviour as abusive; nevertheless, on the more general level, sexual violence for them is not a form of violence that naturally comes to mind. Therefore, it may be argued that this type of violence operates largely unrecognised and is hidden away in Lithuanian society.

In summary, the interviewed women who in fact faced sexually exploitative relationships, often denied such experiences and did not recognise those as sexual violence committed against them by their partner. Even though sexual coercion was often recognised as such in more generalised terms and described as violence by some of the research participants, it may be concluded that it tends to be either ‘endured’ or becomes a ‘normalised’ continuous reality for Lithuanian women in relationships. It is barely expected that women will publicly speak (for example, to institutional agents) about such issues in Lithuania, often due to internalised feelings of shame, self-blame and gendered stereotypes. Interview data also suggests that sexual coercion may be viewed as a repeated experience of direct sexual compulsion and as a tactic to pull women back into violent or coercive relationships, following their attempted escape from the ‘power and control wheel’ (DAIP, 1993). Social stereotypes and expectations towards women significantly contribute to self-victimisation and tend to entrap them in abusive relationships, despite the fact that their bodily integrity and autonomy in these circumstances are significantly undermined.

More attention could be paid to raising awareness about the human body from the perspective of integrity, human rights and personal choices in intimate relationships, as well as the meaning of consent in sexual relationships. Similarly, there is a significant gap in general sex and relationships education in Lithuania, thus, more education on the social dimension of gender and gender equality could prove to be effective. Finally, a potentially effective source for informally educating adults could be women’s as well as men’s magazines, which is one example of many different types of media that tend to have a major impact on (in)forming societal attitudes and perceived socially constructed ‘norms’ in Lithuania.

Conclusion

This article has explored some of the key patterns that lead women in Lithuania to (mis)recognise their intimate partner’s behaviour as coercion or violence against them; their individual perception of economic and sexual coercive control; and the consequences of such experiences. The study participants’ (lack of) recognition of economic and sexual violence demonstrates how gendered societal ‘norms’ shape their knowledge and experiences, in turn preventing them from seeking help, regardless of the endemic prevalence of such experiences. This is very much related to and affected by the predominant socially constructed and clear-cut gender roles of a man and a woman in Lithuania. The social construct of a ‘perfect’ family, where the man earns a living and the woman is merely a ‘housewife’, whose role is to please and satisfy him at all times, is deeply rooted in both the personal experiences and accounts of interviewed women, as well as in the attitudes of those around them. This may also be accompanied by the internalised, as well as publicly prevalent attitudes of ‘victim blaming’. This issue along with widespread stigma, predominant gender roles, and a lack of effective and accessible support services, all have a significant influence on women’s lives, thinking, behaviour, decisions and choices to either seek help or most often – not.

Economic and sexual coercion both have traumatising effects on women, such as mental humiliation and distorted sense of the self, causing limited opportunities and chances for a better quality of life. This research may also illustrate the widely used graphic concept of the ‘power and control wheel’ by DAIP (1993) usually depicting economic coercion as an internal strategy with which women are kept under their partners’ control, while sexual violence is a potential punishment for an attempted escape from such a relationship and as a means to pull women back in.

A recognition of economic and sexual coercive control, as well as abandonment of ‘victim blaming’ attitudes could be followed by a broader education on gender equality and recognition of gendered stereotypes in everyday lives. Integrating the human rights-based approach into school, college and university curriculums may also be a valuable practice. In Lithuanian society women are still doing the majority of unpaid work at home, while their partners tend to hold paid jobs. Economic and/or sexual coercion is a result of a presupposed and widely enforced social expectation on women that they must be obedient and take ‘their place’ in intimate relationships, while remembering ‘their duties’ in their homes in general. Therefore, IPV remains a gendered problem undermining women’s rights and the need remains for it to be addressed as public and societal problem.

More studies are needed into what could aid the development and delivery of targeted awarenessraising actions and the implementation of practical empowerment and education activities, which aim to increase the understanding of different forms of violence against women, especially those of a sexual and economic nature. Activities designed to end the blaming of survivors of IPV for what happened to them could also be included. This could ultimately contribute to promoting zero tolerance to violence against women and strengthening gender equality. The empowerment of women themselves is also of paramount importance, as is addressing women as survivors of violence instead of positioning them as victims.

Funding details

This work was financially supported by the European Union’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme under the Grant number JUST/2016/RGEN/AG/VAWA/9946; project titled STOP Violence against Women: from (A)wareness Raising to (Z)ero Tolerance for Victim Blaming.

Acknowledgements

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all the women who participated in our study and shared their stories. Also we would like to thank Aistė Černiauskaitė, Julija Kulevičiūtė, Mėta Adutavičiūtė, Erika Leonaitė, Kristina Normantaitė, Vilana Pilinkaitė-Sotirovič, the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman’s Office of the Republic of Lithuania, Center for Eqality Advancement, Women’s Crisis Centres, Specialised Support Services and many others, who provided information and support at different stages of our study’s implementation, as well as during the subsequent development of this article.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Crossman, K.A., Hardesty, J.L. and Raffaelli, M. (2016) ‘He could scare me without laying a hand on me’: mothers’ experiences of nonviolent coercive control during marriage and after separation, Violence Against Women, 22: 45473. doi: 10.1177/1077801215604744

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Grace, E. and Tomas, M.J. (2014) Correlates of victim-blaming attitudes regarding partner violence against women among the spanish general population, Violence Against Women, 20(1): 2641. doi: 10.1177/1077801213520577

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hayes, S.L. and Jeffries, S. (2015) Romantic terrorism: An auto-ethnography of domestic violence, victimization and survival, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • HRMI (Human Rights Monitoring Institute) (2014) Interviews with the professionals of the specialised support centres in the victims’ rights directive: a new approach to victims of domestic violence, https://hrmi.lt/nusikaltimu-auku-teisiu-direktyva-naujas-poziuris-i-artimuju-smurto-aukas-2014/

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Krug, E.G., Mercy, J.A., Dahlberg, L.L. and Ziwi, A.B. (2002) The world report on violence and health, The Lancet, 360(9339): 10838, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(02)11133-0

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Meyer, S. (2016) Still blaming the victim of intimate partner violence? Women’s narratives of victim desistance and redemption when seeking support, Theoretical Criminology, 20(1): 7590. doi: 10.1177/1362480615585399

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Michailovič, I. (2014) Kai kurie smurto artimoje aplinkoje aspektai socialinės kultūrinės lyties požiūriu, Kriminologijos studijos, 2: 15572.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Michailovič, I. (2017) Smurtas prieš moteris kaip diskriminacijos dėl lyties ir lyčių nelygybės pasekmė. Informacijos mokslai, 80: 5060.

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  • 1 Human Rights Monitoring Institute, , Lithuania
  • | 2 Center for Equality Advancement, , Lithuania

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