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Women, Domestic Violence and HIV

May 2013

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Table of Contents


Domestic violence can happen to anyone. It affects people regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, education level, financial situation, or marital status. It is important to learn about how abuse happens, how to identify it, and how to end it or get away from it. If you are feeling threatened right now, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence hotline in the US at 800-799-SAFE [1-800-799-7233; or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

It is important to remember that, if someone threatens you, it is NOT your fault. You deserve to be treated with respect and to be safe. Often, women who have been abused have been humiliated to the point that they believe that they deserve whatever abuse comes their way. This is NEVER true.

What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence occurs when a person you are dating, living with, or married to is repeatedly harmful or threatening to you -- physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally, or financially. The person doing these things will often do them to gain or keep power and control. "Intimate partner violence" is another term used to describe violence in which a current or former partner or spouse physically, sexually, or psychologically harms you.

Domestic violence can take many forms. These include:

  • Verbal abuse (using words to put someone down or make them feel bad), threats, constant blame or criticism; all of these are emotionally abusive
  • Mild physical harm -- like pulling hair or twisting flesh
  • Violent actions that leave marks -- like hitting, slapping, pushing, beating, or throwing things
  • Extreme violence using knives or guns
  • Rape or sexual assault (being forced into sexual acts without your consent)

Domestic violence often begins with threats or emotional abuse. While these harmful words or actions may or may not lead to actual physical harm, they can still be very upsetting and scary, and leave long-term emotional scars.

While most domestic violence involves men assaulting women, it can also involve men assaulting their male partners, or women assaulting their male or female partners. Studies have shown that domestic violence can happen as often in same sex couples as it can in heterosexual couples.

Women, HIV, and Domestic Violence


Domestic violence occurs more often in relationships in which there is a difference in power. Women living with someone who is larger or stronger than they are may feel physically afraid. Also, women usually earn less than men and are more likely to be financially dependent on others. If the person a woman lives with is the one who pays the bills and provides her with a home, the woman may feel afraid, less independent, and in less control.

There are several ways in which domestic violence and HIV are connected for women. Women who are abused may not be comfortable asking their partner to use protection during sex. Similarly, women in abusive relationships may not be comfortable saying no to sex if their abusive partner refuses to use protection when asked. Lastly, forced sex acts can cause cuts or scrapes that make it easier for HIV to enter the body. All of these can put women at higher risk for HIV, and make living with HIV (being HIV+) more difficult.

Many women with HIV have a history of being physically or sexually abused before they found out about their HIV status. Several studies have shown that women with a history of physical and/or sexual abuse are more likely to become HIV+, especially if that abuse first started during childhood years. Childhood abuse is closely linked with later drug use, having multiple sexual partners, being with a male partner who is at a higher risk of HIV infection, and exchanging sex for drugs, money, or shelter. If a woman uses drugs, alcohol, or sex to escape the pain of prior abuse, she may be at increased risk of getting infected due to sharing needles and having unprotected sex. All of these factors place a woman who has been abused at a higher risk for getting HIV.

Many women may be at risk of abuse or violence because they tell their partner or the person they live with about their HIV status. One study revealed that over one in four women with HIV had been physically harmed since their HIV diagnosis. Therefore, it is important to disclose your HIV status safely (see below).

Questions to Ask Yourself or Someone Who May Have Been Abused

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know if you or someone you know has been abused, because victims may confuse their partner’s actions with a form of love or caring.

This list of questions might help you or someone you know identify the abusive actions of a partner or someone else in the home:

  • Do you ever feel unsafe at home?
  • Have you ever felt threatened by your partner, ex-partner, or other person in your home?
  • Are you in a relationship where you have been physically hurt?
  • Has a partner, ex-partner, or person you lived with ever:
    • Pushed, grabbed, slapped, choked, or kicked you?
    • Forced you to have sex or made you do sexual things you did not want to do?
    • Threatened to hurt you, your children, or someone close to you?
    • Stalked, followed, or monitored you (this includes checking your daily movements, emails, phone calls, and texts)?
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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.
See Also
More on Sexual Abuse, Violence and HIV/AIDS

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