“If You Leave Me, I’ll Find You”: Separation/Divorce Sexual Assault in Rural Ohio


(CAVNET Member) Walter S. DeKeseredy
Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
Ohio University
Athens, OH
(From 2004)

*The research reported here was supported by National Institute of Justice Grant WGBX0004. Arguments presented in the paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. The author would like to thank Katharine Darke, Marc Dubin, and Carolyn Joseph for their comments. Please send all correspondence to Walter DeKeseredy ().



Those who read postings on or contribute articles, announcements and other written materials to CAVNET probably find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with the mushrooming scholarly and policy-related literature on various types of violence against women. Indeed, the field has moved so fast in a relatively short period of time and now readily available are mountains of books, scientific articles, newsletters and other sources of valuable information on wife beating, incest, sexual assault, stalking, and so on. Further, many voices that were ignored are now moving from the margins to the center of our daily academic and practical efforts to identify and curb woman abuse in intimate contexts. For example, the widely read and cited international journal Violence Against Women frequently includes articles on the plight of women of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds and several special issues on their violent experiences were published since the journal’s inception.

Nevertheless, a review of the extant scientific literature reveals that many abused women, including members of the dominant culture (e.g., those of European descent), still suffer in silence. Consider those harmed by separation/divorce sexual assault. Less than a handful of North American studies have examined this problem and all of them were done in urban areas. Eager to help fill a major research gap, with the support of the National Institute of Justice, Ohio University, and many service providers, I designed an exploratory qualitative study to enhance a social scientific understanding of sexual assaults that occur when rural Ohio women want to leave, are trying to leave, and have left marital/cohabiting partners. The main objective of this article is to briefly describe the preliminary results of my on-going project. A more detailed description of these data and the methods used to uncover them are provided in another paper I co-authored with Carolyn Joseph (see “Understanding Separation/Divorce Sexual Assault in Rural Communities: The Contributions of an Exploratory Ohio Study”).


Since late March of last year, 36 women located in various parts of rural Ohio were interviewed, either face-to-face or by telephone. However, only some key findings gleaned from 20 participants are reported here because it takes a substantial amount of time and effort to analyze the wealth of information respondents offered to the research team. Still, I strongly suspect that the voices of the interviewees excluded from this article will reveal similar trends and concerns. For example, only four (20%) of the 20 respondents did not experience multiple types of sexual assault (e.g., blackmail rape, gang rape, drug-induced sexual assault, etc.). Further, only 20 percent were victimized by just one type of nonsexual abuse, such as a beating. Sometimes, too, sexually abusive ex-partners target their children, with 15 percent of the sample stating that this happened.

Most of the survivors (55%) were sexually attacked when they wanted to leave, which can be interpreted as assaults on separation itself. Many patriarchal men are determined not to let their partners go, and this is also evident during the process of exiting relationships, with 35 percent of the sample reporting that they were victimized at that time. A slightly higher percentage (40%) experienced sexual assaults after they left.

Most offenders regularly consumed alcohol (85%) and drugs (75%), and 45% owned weapons. Some men even threatened to kill their partners when they discovered they wanted to leave them.

For example, one woman said:

“And I mean the one night he’d come home and pull a double barrel and cock both barrels and said he was going to kill me. And it was like, wait a minute here, you know, it was two o’clock in the morning. I was sound asleep and I got up at four and go to work. But he’d always keep pressuring me, ‘If you leave me, I’ll find you. I’ll kill you. If you leave me, I’ll find you, I’ll kill you.’”

Sixty-five percent of perpetrators viewed pornography and 25% used such media to get their ex-partners to have sex with them again. Note the following other major characteristics of offenders uncovered so far:

· 15% forced or attempted to force women to have sex with their male friends.

· 45% have male peers who hit or sexually assault women.

· 70% spend much time their male peers.

· 80% strongly believe that men should be the head of the household.

Every respondent needed help to cope with separation/divorce sexual assault and actively sought social support. Even so, only one interviewee who turned to at least one element of the criminal justice system (e.g., police) stated that it was the best type of assistance. On the other hand, the criminal justice system was ranked the worst form of social support by 20 percent of the women, and most interviewees found their friends to be the best source of help. Moreover, only a few participants knew about existing support services and thus this respondent’s suggestion should be taken seriously:

“Getting some information out. I don’t know if ah, I don’t know if maybe your public health services, ah, I don’t know if they had posters or anything like that, that would advertise their services. Because I know, that you know, quite a few people go to the Health Department or something like that for medical health. And if they’re having problems with the type of situation, maybe a poster or something with information on that particular topic could trigger something inside of that woman, that particular woman. Then maybe she would reach out, you know, talk to somebody.”

An equally, if not more, important recommendation made by another respondent is to train shelter workers and other practitioners to recognize separation/divorce sexual assault and to deliver services directly matching survivors’ needs:

“There’s a big difference between domestic violence and sexual abuse. It’s just not there. I mean you could call the crisis center, you know, and they’re like, they’re dumbfounded. You know cause they’re not used to that kind of crisis call coming in. It just needs to be out there and somebody needs to be trained to take these calls. It’s just like at the shelter. They don’t understand, you know, they don’t live, they’re not trained to deal with it.”


The findings yielded so far by this study strongly suggest that separation/divorce sexual assault is a serious problem in rural Ohio as it probably is throughout the U.S. However, it is extremely difficult to get more women to reveal their experiences to researchers and practitioners because of factors such as geographic and social isolation, poverty, the existence of a powerful “ol’ boys network” consisting of sexist criminal justice officials and some abusive men, and relatively low telephone subscription rates. Further, in rural sections of Ohio and other states, there is widespread acceptance of violence against women, as well as community norms prohibiting survivors from publicly revealing their experiences and from seeking help. For example, one interviewee said, “I don’t sit around and share. I keep it to myself. Um, I believe that’s part of my mental illness. I believe it takes a lot of it. But, I’m not one to sit around and talk about what’s happened.”

Keep in mind, too, that rural service providers need to be more sensitive to the needs of survivors of separation/divorce sexual assault, and policy proposals aimed at reducing the influence of the “ol’ boys network” and other symptoms of rural patriarchy must be part of any coordinated effort to eliminate the atrocities reported here. Consider what one respondent told us:

“Another time, after I finally got away from him and I was having these problems. I was, I was on drugs real heavy um, and I was trying to get away from him. He was still calling me. This was just in the last nine months. Um, I called Victim Awareness in my town and um, told them that I had been abused by him. Oh, they kept telling me that they was going to do something about it and they never did. The one other time I went to Victim Awareness, they told me that um, (her voice started to crack and she began to cry) they were going to question the neighbors and stuff. And the neighbors said that um, you know, they said that the neighbors didn’t, didn’t see or hear anything. So they, I didn’t have enough ah proof, so. Basically, nothing was ever done. He’s a corrections officer in the town that I lived in and he’s friends with the Sheriff and whoever else.”

The social, psychological, and social psychological factors motivating men to sexually assault their estranged partners should also be addressed. However, society must first recognize separation/divorce sexual assault before effective steps can be taken to alleviate it. As one interviewee stated, the typical societal reaction to the abuse uncovered by this study is, “It’s like we see, but we don’t. It’s like three monkeys: don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak.” And, as another respondent correctly points out, “People have to be, you know, listen, and um, be sympathetic in relation to what happened….”


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