Forms of Abuse

Information compiled from Women’s Law at

Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse, can come in many different forms. At the root of all forms of abuse, however, is the need for the abusive partner to keep power and control over the victim. We hope that reading about all of the different forms of abuse will help you to recognize some abusive behaviors that you may not have considered to be abusive.

What is domestic violence/dating violence?

Domestic violence/dating violence is about one person getting and keeping power and control over another person in an intimate relationship. It is a pattern of behavior in which one intimate partner uses physical violence, coercion, threats, intimidation, isolation and emotional, sexual, economic, or other forms of abuse to control and change the behavior of the other partner. The abusive person might be your current or former spouse, live-in lover, dating partner, or some other person with whom you have a relationship. When the abusive person is a dating partner, the pattern of abusive behaviors may be called dating violence rather than domestic violence. To better understand the ways that an abuser can use power and control over a victim, you can check out what is called the “Power and Control Wheel.”

Domestic violence/dating violence happens to people of all ages, races, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, and religions. It occurs in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships. A person’s gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation does not determine whether s/he can be a victim of domestic violence or an abuser. Economic or professional status does not affect whether someone can commit domestic violence/dating violence or be the victim of domestic violence/dating violence – abusers and victims can be laborers or college professors, judges or janitors, doctors or orderlies, teachers, truck drivers, homemakers or store clerks. Domestic violence/dating violence occurs in the poorest neighborhoods, the fanciest mansions and white-picket-fence neighborhoods.

Here are some examples of the different forms of abuse, as explained by The Network La Red:

PHYSICAL ABUSE: Grabbing, pinching, shoving, slapping, hitting, hair pulling, biting, etc.; denying medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.

SEXUAL ABUSE: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact without consent, e.g., marital rape; forcing sex after physical beating; attacks on sexual parts of the body or treating another in a sexually demeaning manner; forcing the victim to perform sexual acts on another person, perform sexual acts via the Internet, or forcing the victim to pose for sexually explicit photographs against his/her will.

ECONOMIC ABUSE: Making or attempting to make a person financially dependent, e.g., maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding access to money, forbidding attendance at school or employment.

EMOTIONAL ABUSE: Undermining a person’s sense of self-worth, e.g., constant criticism, belittling one’s abilities, name calling, damaging a partner’s relationship with the children. An abuser may also use his/her or your HIV-positive status or sexual orientation as a means to control you. For example, an abuser may threaten to reveal your HIV status or your sexual identity. .

PSYCHOLOGICAL ABUSE: Causing fear by intimidation, threatening physical harm to himself/herself, you, your family member, or your children; destruction of pets and property; stalking you or cyberstalking you, playing “mind games” to make you doubt your sanity (gaslighting); forcing isolation from friends, family, school and/or work; humiliating you; and demeaning you.

SEXUAL COERCION AND REPRODUCTIVE CONTROL: When a partner sabotages your birth control efforts by demanding unprotected sex, lying about “pulling out,” hiding or destroying birth control (i.e., flushing pills down the toilet or poking a hole in a condom), preventing you from getting an abortion or forcing you to get an abortion.

CULTURAL AND IDENTITY ABUSE: Threatening to “out” your sexual orientation or gender identity, your participation in S & M or polyamory, your HIV status, your immigration status, or any other personal information to family, friends, co-workers, landlords, law enforcement, etc. Using your race, class, age, immigration status, religion, size, physical ability, language, and/or ethnicity against you in some way.

Who does domestic violence/dating violence happen to?

Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence or dating violence. Statistics show that 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Further, females ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 generally experienced the highest rates of domestic violence. Nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (48.4% and 48.8%, respectively). Additionally, 43% of college women who date report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, verbal or controlling abuse and abuse involving technology.1

1 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline compiled statistics

What are the laws against domestic violence/dating violence and can they help me?

The law defines domestic violence and dating violence in very specific ways. Every state and U.S. territory has laws that allow its courts to issue protection orders, as do many tribal lands. Each state, territory or tribe decides for itself how to define domestic violence and how its laws will help and protect victims, so the laws are different from one state to another. Most states include dating violence in their restraining order laws. In Georgia and South Carolina, the dating couple must have a child together or live together at some point.1 Although you may be a victim of domestic violence or dating violence, the laws in your state may be written in a way that does not include or protect you (for example, emotional or psychological abuse may not qualify you for a restraining order in some states and may not be illegal under your state’s criminal laws). This does not mean that you are not a victim, and it does not mean that you should not seek help.

Emotional Abuse

Is emotional abuse the same as psychological abuse?
There is no clear agreement among experts in the field whether there is a meaningful difference between emotional and psychological abuse. There is some research that suggests that there are slight differences between the two. Emotional abuse is believed to be broader and so psychological abuse is often considered to be one form of emotional abuse. Also, psychological abuse involves the use of verbal and social tactics to control someone’s way of thinking, such as “gaslighting,” which is not necessarily the same as other forms of emotional abuse.

What is emotional and psychological abuse?
Abuse comes in many different forms. Even when there is no physical violence, abusive language can be very damaging to you and your children. Emotional and psychological abuse are include mostly non-physical behaviors that the abuser uses to control, isolate, or frighten you. Often, the abuser uses it to break down your self-esteem and self-worth in order to create a psychological dependency on him/her. Emotional and psychological abuse are hard forms of abuse to recognize because the abuse is spread throughout your everyday interactions. Unlike physical abuse, there are often no isolated incidents or clear physical evidence to reference.1

1 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Emotional Abuse page

What are the signs of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse may begin suddenly or it may slowly start to enter into your relationship. Some abusers behave like a good partner in the beginning and start the abuse after the relationship is established. When this shift in behavior occurs, it can leave you feeling shocked, confused, and even embarrassed. However, abuse is never your fault even if the abuser tells you it is or if your family members or friends blame you for “allowing” the abuse. It is often difficult to decide whether or not certain behaviors are emotionally or psychologically abusive, especially if you grew up witnessing abuse. However, as with all other types of domestic violence, the behavior is intended to gain and keep power and control over you. Some signs that a partner is being emotionally and psychologically abusive include:

  • humiliating you in front of others;
  • calling you insulting names, such as “stupid,” “disgusting,” or “worthless”;
  • getting angry in a way that is frightening to you;
  • threatening to hurt you, people you care about, or pets;
  • the abuser threatening to harm him/herself when upset with you;
  • saying things like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can;”
  • deciding things for you that you should decide, like what you wear or eat;
  • acting jealous, including constantly accusing you of cheating;
  • continually pretending to not to understand what you are saying, making you feel stupid, or refusing to listen to your thoughts and opinions;
  • questioning your memory of events or denying that an event happened the way you said it did, even when the abuser knows that you are right;
  • changing the subject whenever you try to start conversations with the abuser and others and questioning your thoughts in a way that makes you feel unworthy; and
  • making your needs or feelings seem unimportant or less important than those of the abuser.1

See U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page

What are some forms of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse can involve behaviors or acts towards you or towards others.

Acts towards others:
Abuse of pets

Pets are commonly viewed as family members and treasured companions. The abuser may use the emotional and psychological connection you have with your pets to gain power and control over you by harming or threatening to harm your pet in any of the following ways:

  • harming your pet to get back at you for actions that you may have taken that show self-determination or independence;
  • harming your pet as “punishment” for something that you or your children did;
  • threatening or harming your pet in an attempt to force (coerce) you into doing something; or
  • forcing you or your children to harm or kill your pet or to watch the abuser do it.1

Threats to self-harm
When your partner regularly threatens self-harm when you don’t do what the abuser wants you to do or when you decide to leave the relationship, this is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. The abuser is using your love for him/her to manipulate and control you. When your partner makes these threats, steps you can take to protect yourself include:

  • telling your partner you care about him/her, but sticking to your boundaries – in other words, not necessarily doing whatever the abuser tells you is necessary to do to “prevent” self-harm;
  • not taking responsibility for the abuser’s actions if the abuser does decide to self-harm; and
  • remembering that it is not your responsibility to “make” the abuser not self-harm. For example, the abuser may say, “If you really loved me, you’d stop me from killing myself” but this is part of the manipulation that often comes with emotional abuse.2

Acts towards you:

In an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, the abuser will do many things in an attempt to cut all of the emotional ties you have with other people so that the only one left is the one to the abuser. Some signs of this type of isolation include:

  • preventing or discouraging you from seeing family or friends and making you feel guilty when you do;
  • wanting to know what you’re doing all the time and making you be in constant contact;
  • restricting access to transportation so you can’t leave the home;
  • acting jealous of time spent with your family or friends, often to the point where you will “choose” not to see them anymore so you don’t have to put up with the abuser’s jealousy; and
  • wanting you to ask for permission before doing something or spending time with other people.3

Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that tends to happen gradually in a relationship. The term “gaslighting” is used to describe a pattern of behavior in which the abuser intentionally denies that acts or events happened in the way that you know that they happened. An abuser will often twist your emotions, words, and experiences and use them against you, which causes you to question your reality, to doubt your own judgment and memory, and to make you feel that you are “going crazy.” Signs that you are experiencing gaslighting include:

  • feeling confused, “crazy,” and constantly second-guessing yourself;
  • constantly questioning if you are being “too sensitive”;
  • having trouble making simple decisions;
  • constantly apologizing to your partner;
  • frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior;
  • finding yourself withholding information from loved ones;
  • starting to lie to avoid the put-downs or reality twists;
  • feeling as though you can’t do anything right; and
  • wondering if you are a “good enough” partner.4

Ultimately, these behaviors are meant to control, isolate, or frighten you, and while they do not leave physical scars, they can leave long-lasting trauma.5

This information was adapted from Pets and Domestic Violence
2 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, When Your Partner Threatens Suicide page
3 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Emotional Abuse page
4 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Gaslighting page
5 See U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page

What are the effects of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse can have severe short- and long-term effects. This type of abuse can affect both your physical and your mental health. You may experience feelings of confusion, anxiety, shame, guilt, frequent crying, over-compliance, powerlessness, and more. You may stay in the relationship and try to bargain with the abuser or try to change the abuser’s behavior, often placing blame on yourself, even though you are not at fault.

If you’re dealing with severe and ongoing emotional abuse, it’s possible to lose your entire sense of self and begin to doubt your self-worth or your abilities, which may make it even harder to leave the relationship. Long-term emotional abuse can also result in several health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain, and more.1 It’s important to get emotional support to help you deal with the trauma of emotional and psychological abuse.

1 This information was adapted from U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page and Effects of Violence Against Women page.

What can I do if I am a victim of emotional and psychological abuse?
If you are the victim of emotional and psychological abuse, you may be hesitant to seek help or tell your friends and family because you fear they will not believe you or take you seriously. You may feel shame or confusion as to what is happening. However, seeking help and support is essential to ending an emotionally or psychologically abusive relationship. The effects of these types of abuse are serious and it is common for emotional and psychological abuse to escalate to physical violence. You can go to our National Organizations. Local domestic violence programs often offer free counseling, support groups, and the advocates in these organizations could point you to other local help and support options.

In addition, depending on how domestic violence is defined in your state, the abuser’s behavior can fall under certain crimes or you may qualify for a restraining order. A few states specifically allow someone to get a restraining order based on “coercive control,” which is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. Even in states where emotional abuse is not considered as a reason for a restraining order, it’s possible that certain emotionally abusive acts may, in fact, qualify you for an order. For example, if an abuser threatens you or continually texts or calls you repeatedly without reason to do so, this could be considered enough to grant an order. Some states also recognize emotionally abusive acts as crimes, such as threats or public disturbances, for example. 

What is financial abuse? What are the signs to look out for?

Financial abuse is one form of domestic abuse. Withholding money, stealing money, and restricting the use of finances are some examples of financial abuse. To figure out if your partner is financially abusing you, think about how you are being treated by answering the following questions.

Does your partner:

  • Steal money from you or your family?
  • Force you to give him/her access to your bank accounts to make transactions without your input?
  • Make you feel as though you don’t have a right to know any details about money or household resources?
  • Put you on an “allowance” even if you object to this?
  • Force to you to account for all money you spend by, for example, asking for receipts?
  • Overuse your credit cards or refuse to pay the bills (thus ruining your credit)?
  • Prevent you from working or attending school or skill-training sessions?
  • Withhold physical resources from you including food, clothes, necessary medications, or shelter?
  • Force you to turn over your paychecks or public benefit payments?
  • Force you to cash in, sell or sign over any financial assets you own (e.g., bonds, stock or property)?
  • Force you to agree to power-of-attorney so s/he can sign legal documents?
  • Force you to work in a family business for little or no pay?
  • Prevent you from obtaining or using credit cards or bankcards?
  • Refuse to work to help support the family?
  • Interfere with your performance at work, by calling you non-stop, visiting your workplace unannounced, etc.?
  • Threaten to falsely report you for “cheating” on your public benefits so they will be cut off?
  • Force you to cash in, sell or sign over any financial assets or inheritance you own?
  • Force you to agree to a power of attorney that would enable your partner to legally sign documents without your knowledge or consent?1

If you have answered “yes” to more than one of these questions, your partner may be financially abusing you. Where there is financial abuse, there may also likely be other forms of abuse in your relationship.

The abuser has access to all my financial and identity information. What can I do?

1 Information adapted from The Allstate Foundation’s & NNEDV’s “Moving Ahead Through Financial Empowerment Curriculum”

If the abuser has access to your credit card statements, Social Security number, or other identifying information, this can make it easier for him/her to open up accounts in your name or access current accounts. If s/he has your children’s Social Security numbers, s/he can even try to open accounts in your children’s names. You might want to consider taking proactive measures to keep your personal information safe. Some actions you can take are to call your bank and credit card companies and ask that they change your account numbers, PIN numbers, passwords, and other access codes. Try to create passwords that would be hard for someone to guess. If you access your bank account through your personal computer or if you store your financial information on your personal computer, make sure you are using a safe computer that the abuser cannot access and has not installed spyware on. If appropriate and possible, you may want to consider enrolling in a reputable credit protection program through your current credit card company or bank although that may cost money.

The abuser has asked me to co-sign on a loan or credit card. Is that a good idea?

Generally, it is not a good idea to co-sign any financial contracts, including credit cards or a car loan, with someone you do not trust completely to be honest and responsible about paying it off. If something happens, such as the other person disappears or refuses to make payments, you can be held responsible for paying off the entire debt and your credit can be ruined if you don’t make timely payments.

Reproductive Abuse and Coercion

Reproductive abuse is when a person tries to control your reproductive choices in order to control your life. Reproductive abuse is also often called “reproductive coercion.” Coercion is when a person tries to persuade someone to do something by using force or threats. Reproductive abuse can be a single act, or it can be part of a larger pattern of abusive behaviors. Reproductive abuse can include sexual assault, rape, and other abusive actions concerning your sexual and reproductive health, such as:

  • Sexually-coercive behaviors, like when a person:
    • pressures or forces a sexual partner to have sex when s/he doesn’t want to have sex;
    • threatens to end a relationship if a person doesn’t have sex;
    • forces a sexual partner to not use birth control, including a condom, contraceptive pills, or other available options;
    • intentionally exposes a sexual partner to a sexually-transmitted infection (STI); or
    • retaliates against a sexual partner when told about a positive (STI) result.
  • Birth control sabotage, like when a person:
    • hides, withholds, or destroys a sexual partner’s birth control pills;
    • replaces or tampers with a sexual partner’s birth control pills without the partner’s knowledge or consent;
    • breaks or pokes holes in a condom on purpose;
    • removes a condom during sex without telling his/her sexual partner;
    • refuses to withdraw during sex, even if s/he previous agreed to do so;
    • pulls out a sexual partner’s vaginal contraceptive ring; or
    • tears off a sexual partner’s contraceptive patch.
  • Pregnancy pressure, which is when a person pressures a sexual partner to:
    • get pregnant when s/he doesn’t want to be pregnant;
    • continue a pregnancy when s/he wants an abortion; or
    • end a pregnancy s/he wants to continue.

Even if your sexual partner has not done any of the specific things listed above but is controlling your reproductive choices in other ways, you may still be experiencing reproductive abuse or coercion. If you think your partner is trying to control your reproductive choices, you may want to contact a domestic violence advocate for

  • buying birth control or condoms on your own, instead of allowing your partner to buy it;
  • keeping birth control or condoms in a hidden or private location;
  • inspecting birth control pills to make sure they are the correct pills;
  • inspecting condoms and condom wrappers for signs of tampering, such as holes or tears;
  • switching to a form of birth control that cannot be tampered, such as an IUD, injection, vasectomy, or other forms a medical professional may recommend;
  • and other methods an advocate or doctor could recommend.

Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

Sexual Assault / Rape

What is sexual assault? How common is it?

The term “sexual assault” generally means unwanted sexual contact, often committed by force, including rape. Sexual assault or rape can happen to anyone regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation.

According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 44% of women (52.2 million) and almost 25% of men (27.6 million) experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. Sometimes, people are sexually assaulted or raped by strangers, but often, people are sexually assaulted by current or former intimate partners. Approximately thirty-six percent of women (43.6 million) and almost 11% of men (12.1 million) experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.1

Legal definitions for crimes related to sexual assault vary by state.

1The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What is rape? How common is it?

Rape is a form of sexual assault. Again, legal definitions are different in every state, but generally, rape is forced sexual intercourse. Force doesn’t always have to be physical force where the perpetrator physically overpowers the victim; force could include psychological coercion (being “talked into it”), threats to cause harm to the person or a loved one if the person doesn’t submit to the sexual intercourse, or other circumstances in which the victim feels that there is no other option than to submit to the unwanted sexual activity. Rape can also include situations where the victim may be drunk, drugged, asleep, unconscious, or for any reason unable to consent. Approximately 21% of women (25.5 million) in the U.S. reported completed or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime. Almost 3% of U.S. men (2.8 million) experienced completed or attempted rape victimization in their lifetime.1

Most legal definitions of rape include vaginal, anal or oral penetration by a body part or an object. In every state, spousal rape is also a crime, so even if you are married, it is illegal for your spouse to have sexual intercourse with you without your consent.

Legal definitions for crimes related to rape vary by state.

1The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What is statutory rape?

Statutory rape is the crime of sex with a minor when the sex is agreed to by both parties, not forced.  The reason why it is considered rape is because the minor is considered to be too young to legally consent to have sex or sexual contact.  The age at which a person is too young to consent to have sex or sexual contact varies by state, and often varies by different crimes.  For example, if an adult has “consensual sex” with a person under the age of 12, that might be rape in the first degree, carrying a heavy sentence.  If an adult has “consensual sex” with a person who is 16 years old, then that might be rape in the third degree and carry a lighter sentence.  Also, for a 16-year-old or 17-year-old victim, the adult may have to be more than 5 or 10 years older than the victim, depending on the state.  However, these are just examples; the rules are very different for every state.

Every state also has laws against sexual acts with minors, aside from sexual intercourse (including physical sexual contact, oral sex, exposing one’s genitals, etc.). 

What can I do if I have been sexually assaulted recently?

Many people in society do not understand the extent of trauma endured by rape and sexual assault victims. If you do not have visible physical injuries from the assault, friends and family may think you are okay. However, there may be physical and psychological injuries that you (and others) can’t see.

These are some suggestions you may want to consider to get the practical and emotional support you may need. Depending on what you think is best in your situation, you may do any or all of the following:

  • Get to a safe place (for example, the nearest hospital, police precinct, or someone’s home).
  • You can call 911 or go to your local police precinct to report the assault and to ask for a criminal investigation to begin. The police should investigate and may arrest the offender. (If the offender is charged with a crime, you may be issued a criminal court order of protection automatically.)
  • You may be able to file for a civil protection order and receive an immediate, ex parte temporary protection order to keep the offender away from you. There are specific requirements that must be met to file for a civil protection order – you can read about the orders available in your state on our Restraining Orders page.
  • Call the nearest rape crisis program for crisis intervention, hospital accompaniment, counseling, courtroom advocacy, support groups for you or your partner, information and referral. There are also 24-hour hotlines that you can call at any time for support and to discuss your options for reporting the assault.
  • Go to your local hospital emergency room for immediate medical care to check for injury, prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, get counseling and collect evidence. Evidence collection does not require you to place a report with the police or press charges; it just preserves these options for the future. For the purposes of evidence collection, you might want to avoid showering, combing your hair or changing your clothes before going to the hospital. Many states have a crime victim compensation program that can assist you with ongoing medical and counseling expenses and other expenses related to the assault. Your local rape crisis program can provide more information about this process and your rights as a crime victim. You will find sexual assault organizations listed here on the RAINN website. You can also find advocates at local domestic violence and sexual assault programs on our Advocates and Shelters page.
  • Tell someone you trust who can support and assist you.1
  • If you are a student, you may be able to file a complaint with your school’s administration and/or receive counseling services. .

1 See NYC Alliance against Sexual Assault

What can I do if I was sexually assaulted in the past?

Even if the sexual assault happened in the past, you may still be able to report the abuse to law enforcement if you want the offender to be held criminally liable. Although an investigation that takes place months or years after the assault may have its legal challenges, police still can investigate past sexual assault if the statute of limitations on the criminal act has not already expired. A statute of limitations is a legal time period for which a person can be prosecuted for committing a crime – each state has its own statute of limitations for each crime. After the statute of limitations has run (expired), a prosecution is no longer possible, though you may still be able to take civil action. However, depending on how long ago the assault happened and the age of the victim at the time of the assault, the statute of limitations for sexual assault may last many years. RAINN has a link to each state’s statute of limitations on their website if you want to check out the statute of limitations for the state in which the sexual assault took place. If you are interested in pressing charges for a sexual assault that occurred in the past, you can read more on the RAINN website.

You can also seek support and counseling for yourself for the trauma that the assault has caused. Sexual assault, no matter when it happens can change your life. It can change your view of yourself and others and influence your intimate relationships. You may experience changes in your eating and sleeping patterns. You may have nightmares or flashbacks about the assault or rape. Certain sounds, smells, or other sensory experiences may trigger these feelings and fears. You may be afraid of being alone, or you may fear being in crowds. You also may experience ongoing fear that the offender may have infected you with a sexually transmitted disease that may not have been detected initially after the assault.

Whether you were abused by someone you knew or were assaulted by a stranger, you may have a difficult time dealing with the assault for many years afterwards. As time passes, you may have a variety of feelings, thoughts, and reactions to what has happened that may not have occurred right after the assault –many rape and sexual assault victims do. Whatever the circumstances, whatever your reactions or fears may be, support and help are available for you. Local rape crisis or sexual assault program staff may be able to assist you, regardless of whether you decide to report the assault to the police.1

If you feel like you need support, you may consider:

  • talking to someone who you trust;
  • calling a local rape crisis program or a national hotline;
  • finding programs and resources in your community. You can also visit RAINN’s state resources page.

1 See NYC Alliance against Sexual Assault

Who can I call for help?

There are several places you may call for help if you have been sexually assaulted or fear you might be sexually assaulted:

  • Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) – this hotline is free, confidential, and open 24 hours/day.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3244 (TTY) for support, shelter, safety planning, or referrals to other services – it is free, confidential, and open 24 hours/day.
  • If you know a child who you worry is being sexually abused, you may want to call Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline for advice and information. This is not the same as reporting the abuse – the purpose is to give you information on options. 1-800-4-A-CHILD (422-4453) – it is free, confidential, and open 24 hours/day.
  • Most states have local rape crisis centers that can assist you with things like counseling and navigating the criminal justice system.  Visit RAINN’s state resources page for a list of centers.
  • For sexual assault related to the military, you can find resources from the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.

Note:  Depending on to whom you report the abuse, if it involves a minor, there may be mandatory reporting requirements for minor victims.  Many states require that health professionals, school officials, and counselors report any accusations of sexual assault, rape, or unlawful sexual contact to child protective services and/or to the police if the victim is a minor.  Mandatory reporting requirements vary by state.  You can look up your states specific laws on mandatory reporting requirements for minors in RAINN’s State Law Database.  If you are a minor and you want to talk to an adult about sexual assault or abuse without having it be reported to the police or child protective services, it may be a good idea to ask the adult if s/he is a mandatory reporter before you talk to him/her.  If s/he says “yes,” you can ask if s/he can refer you to someone who you can talk to confidentially (who is not a mandatory reporter).  Alternatively, you may want to call a national or state hotline anonymously without giving any identifying information about yourself. 

If you have any specific questions about mandatory reporting requirements in your state, you can  contact RAINN.

I am not ready to report the assault now but I may be ready in the future. What do I need to know?

If you were sexually assaulted recently, you may feel like you are not ready to pursue any of the options for filing a complaint that are explained in What are my options for filing a complaint?. If, however, you think that at some point in the future you may change your mind, there are steps you can take now to help with any future investigation or lawsuit. Here are some actions that you might want to consider taking to help establish a timeline of when the sexual assault took place.

  • Go to the hospital immediately after the assault to get a sexual assault forensic exam (a “rape kit”). Getting a rape kit done does not require you to press criminal charges (although some state laws may require health professionals to report incidents of violent crime to the police or health department). Organizations like RAINN describe the process of completing a sexual assault forensic exam. After completing a rape kit at the hospital or doctor’s office, make sure you get information from the sexual assault forensic examiner, nurse or doctor about how to follow up to get information about the status of your rape kit. Ask how you can find your rape kit if you change your mind and decide to press criminal charges. Ask them how long you have before your rape kit will be destroyed – some states keep rape kits for only six months, for example. If you would like the rape kit to be kept for longer than the average period, you can ask how to file an extension for your rape kit to be preserved.
  • Consider filing a “blind report” with the police. In some states, you can file a “blind report” with the police department, which is an anonymous complaint in which the police record your account of what happened but do not pursue an investigation. If you ever change your mind and decide you do want to press criminal charges, the “blind report” can be made into an official report and be investigated (assuming that the statute of limitations has not expired). The benefit of a blind report is that you will have immediately reported everything while it is fresh in your memory and there is less risk of leaving out important details than if you were to report it after significant time has passed since the sexual assault. RAINN has a list of tips and advice for reporting and communicating with law enforcement. Note: If you are a university student, you may be able to report the sexual assault to your school’s Title IX coordinator or the administration but ask for no investigation or action to be taken. You should check with your university to find out what your options are.
  • Write out a detailed account of what happened and keep it in a safe place. If your state does not allow the filing of a “blind report” with the police, or if you choose not to get the police involved, write out a detailed account of what you remember happening and save it somewhere safe. Include as much information as you can, including any witnesses who may have been present before, during, or after the assault, the time that the assault took place, what the perpetrator looked like, wore, said, etc., what specific acts the perpetrator did or forced you to do, and anything else you think might be important.
  • Save anything associated with the assault without washing it. Save any clothes that you were wearing, any clothing that the perpetrator may have left at the scene, any towels or sheets that were used during the assault, any cans, bottles or cups that the perpetrator discarded, any discarded condoms, or anything else you think could be used as evidence in a future case. You can put each item in a sealed paper bag and keep them in a closet. Remember not to wash anything that may have bodily fluids or other DNA evidence on it.1

1 Some of this information was adopted from the RAINN website.

What are my options for filing a complaint?

The path to seeking “justice” after a sexual assault can look different for every victim. Some people may choose to pursue criminal charges, file civil lawsuits for money damages, file for civil protection orders, and/or file complaints with their universities or other educational institution. Other victims may choose not to pursue any of these options. In addition to finding a sense of justice, victims of sexual assault may also want information about caring for their own emotional well-being and working towards recovering from the trauma they have experienced. Any of the below options can be pursued independently or possibly at the same time.

Criminal charges:

Some victims of sexual violence may wish to have the prosecutor press criminal charges against the person(s) who victimized them. The criminal process usually begins with a victim reporting the incident to police and the prosecutor will determine whether or not there is enough evidence to start a criminal case. Each state defines crimes of sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault, differently and has different statutes of limitation.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides information on how to report to law enforcement and what to expect from a criminal trial, which may help you decide whether or not to file a report. The organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.

Civil lawsuit for money damages:

Some survivors of sexual violence may choose to file a civil lawsuit for money damages against perpetrator(s) of sexual violence. Unlike a criminal investigation, a civil suit is a private legal action that you initiate. Civil actions generally require a lower standard of proof (preponderance of the evidence) than criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt). You may wish to initiate a civil suit to seek compensatory damages (money for the damages or injuries you sustained as a result of the sexual assault) and possibly punitive damages, which are aimed at punishing the defendant.

Civil suits may take years to resolve, and there is no guarantee you will win. However, some survivors may prefer civil suits over a criminal trial. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs has compiled a survivor’s guide to filing a civil lawsuit, which provides more information on civil lawsuits and their pros and cons. Additionally, the organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.

Civil protection order:

Sexual assault victims may choose to file for a civil protection order as one measure of protection to try to keep the perpetrator away and to prohibit any contact. Usually, an applicant for a protection order can get an immediate, temporary order issued (ex parte) and then there will be a hearing at which the perpetrator has the right to be present to defend against the order being issued.

Complaints at educational institutions:

Numerous federal laws require that educational institutions, including local school districts, post-secondary institutions, charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries and museums take steps to both prevent sexual violence as well as address complaints of sexual violence. If you are enrolled in school and you report an allegation of sexual assault to the school, federal law requires that your school have stated policies and procedures of handling allegations of sexual violence, including a process to investigate and discipline reported perpetrators of sexual violence. An educational institution that you are attending and to which you have reported a sexual assault is also required to provide you with emotional, medical, and academic assistance and accommodations in the wake of a reported instance of sexual violence.

Survivors may choose to file complaints with their educational institutions when they want a relatively fast resolution (compared to a civil or criminal case) or if they do not want to go through the criminal justice system. Educational institutions are required to resolve complaints of sexual violence within months and are required to provide intermediary measures like no-contact orders between the victim and the perpetrator. However, the level of skill and compassion with which the institution handles the allegation of sexual assault, the training provided to those in charge, and the seriousness of the punishment for the perpetrator can vary greatly between schools. The organization Know Your IX may be a helpful resource to help you decide whether to file a complaint with your educational institution. You may also consider talking to an advocate, lawyer or counselor to help you decide whether to file a complaint with your school.

Marital / Partner Rape

Is it rape if my spouse or intimate partner forces me to have sex? How common is this?

Yes.  Any time someone forces himself/herself on you sexually without your consent, this can be sexual assault or rape.  Even if you’re married to or in a relationship with the person who is assaulting or raping you, this doesn’t make it any less “real.”1 

Sexual assault within a relationship is not uncommon.  Although statistics vary, one national study from 1997 found that 34% of women were victims of some type of sexual coercion (including rape and other acts) by a husband or intimate partner in their lifetime.2  Another national study from 2010 found that 9.4% of women have been raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and an estimated 16.9% of women and 8.0% of men have experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.3  Other studies reveal that women had unwanted sex with a current spouse or partner because they thought it was their “duty” (43%), after the partner begged and pleaded with them (26%), and after their partner said things to bully them (9%).2  Please know that you have the right to say “no,” even to your spouse or intimate partner, and you have the right to expect that s/he listen to you and not intimidate you or otherwise coerce you into consenting. 

Note: Although the specific legal definitions vary by state, generally most states recognize unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact to be sexual assault and forced sexual intercourse to be rape.  Sexual abuse is a common form of domestic violence and one that many victims are often ashamed or embarrassed to talk about.  For specific information on your state’s sexual assault and rape laws, contact your local rape crisis center, which can be found on RAINN’s website.

1 See Pandora’s Project
2 Kathleen C. Basile, Prevalence of Wife Rape and Other Intimate Partner Sexual Coercion in a Nationally Representative Sample of Women, 17 Violence and Victims 511 (2002) –  abstract available here.
3 Center for Disease Control, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey – Executive Summary (2010)

Are there different requirements to prove sexual assault or rape against a spouse than a stranger?

Possibly – it depends on your state. While marital rape is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it might still be treated differently than non-spousal rape in some ways. For example, in some states, if you’re married to the abuser:

  • You may have a shorter period of time to report the sexual assault and/or rape after it has happened; and/ or
  • You may have to show that your spouse used more force than if you had not been married to him/her (for example, that he/she caused you bodily injury or used some sort of weapon).1

Not all states have these differences. In order to find out more specific information about your state, please call a local rape crisis center, which can be found on the RAINN website. Even if you are unsure about your state’s specific law, you can report it to the police anyway.

1 See The National Center for Victims of Crimes: Spousal Rape Laws: 20 Years Later (published in 2004)

Does marital / partner rape only happen in violent relationships?

Marital rape can happen in any relationship even if there has not been physical violence or other abuse up to that point. The unwanted sexual contact does not necessarily need to be physical or violent. Instead, it can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces you to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. The assault or rape could happen once or many times, and may occur in a non-violent relationship that is otherwise respectful. However, that doesn’t make the behavior okay. If you are forced to have sexual relations against your will, it is still sexual assault or rape.1

Although sexual assault or rape can occur in non-violent relationships, it is more common in relationships that also have other violent and abusive behaviors. One study published by the U.S. Department of Justice found that of the women interviewed for the study, 68% of physically abused women also reported sexual assault within their relationship.2

1Pandora’s Project
2Sexual Assault Among Intimates: Frequency, Consequences and Treatments (2005)

Actions you can take

What can I do if my spouse or partner has sexually assaulted and/or raped me?

The following are some suggestions of how to get the practical and emotional support you need:

  • Get to a safe place (for example, the nearest hospital, police precinct, or someone’s home).
  • You can call 911 for immediate police protection and assistance. You can also call one of a number of hotlines to discuss your options for reporting the assault. You can find national hotlines on our National Organizations – Rape/Sexual Assault page.
  • Go to your local hospital emergency room for immediate medical care to check for injury, prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, get counseling and so that evidence of the rape can be collected for possible future prosecution. Evidence collection does not require you to place a report with the police or press charges; it just preserves these options for the future. For the purposes of evidence collection, it is best to avoid urinating, showering, combing your hair or changing your clothes before going to the hospital. Many states have a crime victim compensation program that can assist you with ongoing medical and counseling expenses and other expenses related to the assault. Your local rape crisis program can provide more information about this process and your rights as a crime victim – for a list of local programs, go to the RAINN website.
  • Tell someone you trust who can support and assist you.
  • Call the nearest rape crisis program for crisis intervention, hospital accompaniment, counseling, courtroom advocacy, support groups, information and referral.1 

1 This information was adapted from the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault website.

Can I file for a restraining order against my spouse or partner?

Maybe – it will depend on whether your state recognizes sexual assault as part of the legal definition of “domestic violence” for the purposes of getting a restraining order, although the majority of states do include sexual assault as a legal reason for granting an order. (If you are not married to the abuser, it will also depend on the rules of your state regarding non-married intimate partners’ ability to file for protective orders). 

As part of a restraining order, you can ask the judge that the abuser be removed from the home that you share with him/her. However, if the judge does not grant this, you may have to be the one who leaves the home to protect yourself. It is a good idea to speak with an attorney that knows the custody laws of your state before leaving.

Some people tell me that marital / partner rape is “not as bad” as being raped by a stranger. Is that true?

If you do not have visible physical injuries from the assault and/or rape, friends and family may think you are okay. Many people do not understand the extent of trauma that is suffered by rape and sexual assault victims, even if the offender is a loved one. As a victim of spousal or relationship sexual assault and/or rape, you will probably have to deal with additional effects and concerns from your experience that are different from the experience had by victims of stranger sexual assault and/or rape.1 Some of these effects are:

  • Having to deal with ongoing contact with the abuser;
  • Being in love with/having romantic feelings for the abuser;
  • Further sexual assault and/or rape by the abuser as well as the possibility of different types of violence (for example, women being sexually assaulted and/or raped by their partners are also statistically more likely to be murdered by them).1

There are also further emotional effects that you may have to face based on the abuse you had to endure from your spouse. Because women who are raped by their partners are raped by someone they loved and trusted, they are more likely to:

  • Be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those who are victims of abuse by someone other than a spouse or partner;
  • Have trouble forming trusting relationships;
  • Have a poor body image which may lead to an eating disorder;
  • Have more negative ideas about themselves and blame themselves for what happened.2

The fact that effects may be different than other types of sexual assault or rape does not mean that they are less serious. You have the same right to assistance as any other survivors of rape or sexual assault.

1Pandora’s Project
2National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women. Marital Rape: New Research and Directions

Where can I find additional resources for victims of marital / partner rape?

If you have been sexually assaulted and/or raped by your spouse or partner, here are some resources you can look to for help:

Pandora’s Project
Pandora’s Project (specifically the article “For Women Raped by Husbands or Boyfriends”) provides statistics and other information about marital rape and steps to begin dealing with the pain of the experience.

Aphrodite Wounded: Help for Women Sexually Assaulted by Partners
On Aphrodite Wounded, you’ll find survivors’ stories, statistics about partner rape, and information about healing, safety issues, seeking help and much more. If you were raped by a current or past partner, you are not alone. Whether you are still in the relationship or are some years out of it, you may find something informative and validating on this site. The site’s author is Louise McOrmond-Plummer, co-author of the book “Real Rape, Real Pain: help for women sexually assaulted by male partners.”

Pandora’s Aquarium
Pandora’s Aquarium provides sexual assault and rape survivors the opportunity and forum to chat with other survivors and share experiences and comfort one another. They have discussion topics and chats for victims of spousal and partner rape and abuse.

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) Victims Services
RAINN provides support for sexual assault victims and their loved ones through two hotlines at 800.656.HOPE and Whether you are more comfortable on the telephone or online, RAINN has services that can guide you in your recovery.

Forced Prostitution

What is prostitution?

Prostitution is the exchange of sexual acts for money, food, rent, drugs, or something else of value. Prostitution can be a form of sexual exploitation and forcing a person into prostitution can be one way that an abuser commits domestic violence against his/her intimate partner. Sexual exploitation can include forcing someone to participate in any of the following:

  • street prostitution;
  • massage parlors or brothels;
  • escort services;
  • strip clubs;
  • phone sex;
  • pornography; and
  • domestic and international trafficking.

Prostitution is illegal everywhere in the United States except parts of Nevada. However, in more recent years through statutes and case decisions, many states have moved away from putting the focus of punishment on the prostitute and instead focused on the person who makes prostitution an ongoing business.1

In Colorado, for instance, someone who is a prostitute can at most can face up to 6 months of prison time and/or a $50 – $750 fine, depending on the individual case.2 But in the same state, a pimp (the person who arranges for clients for a prostituted woman) or a “john” (the person who hires the prostitute) can face up to 12 years of prison time and a fine of $750,000.3

1 Wharton’s Criminal Law § 266
2 C.R.S. § § 18-7-201; 18-1.3-501
3 C.R.S. § § 18-7-206; 18-1.3-401

What is a pimp?

A pimp is a person, usually male, who has control over one or more prostituted people and the money that they earn.1  Pimps often exert control much in the same way that an abuser may exert control over an intimate partner – through intimidation, fear, physical and sexual abuse, rape, torture, and other abusive methods.   Although some pimps might “protect” the prostitutes who work for them by making sure that the customers pay or don’t abuse them, pimps are often more violent to the prostitutes than the customers are.  In addition, any protection offered by a pimp is generally motivated by the pimp’s own desire for money, not concern for the prostituted person’s safety.  In fact, an early study (from 1994) found that 85% of prostitutes are raped by their pimps2 – although the numbers may be different if this study were done today.  Pimps also often threaten the lives of the prostitutes who work for them or threaten other harm to them or their families, which may prevent a person from leaving prostitution.

1Merriam Webster Dictonary
2 Council on Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, 1994

How is prostitution harmful to women?

Prostitution can be harmful on many levels, posing a threat to a woman’s mental and physical health among many other consequences. One small study of 130 prostitutes found that 68% of the prostituted women interviewed met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was in the same range as combat veterans and victims of torture.1

Even though prostitution itself is illegal, women who are prostituting can still be the victim of a crime; crimes such as rape and physical and sexual abuse are often committed against women in prostitution.  Women in prostitution have the right to report crimes committed against them, though many are afraid to come forward for a variety of reasons: they fear no one will believe them, they fear being arrested, they may feel ashamed, they don’t want anyone to know that they are working as a prostitute, etc.

Prostituted women are often victims of violence characterized by power and control (much like domestic violence) by pimps and customers, often called “johns.”  The methods of control that pimps and johns use are similar to the methods used by abusers.  Some examples include:

  • physical violence;
  • sexual assault;
  • economic abuse or manipulation;
  • isolation;
  • verbal abuse;
  • threats and intimidation; and
  • minimization and denial of physical violence.

Women in prostitution have a death rate that is significantly higher than women who are not involved in prostitution.2

1 Melissa Farley, et al. 2003. “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74 (see page 56).
2Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women, Potterat, Brewer, et. al. Am. J. Epidemiol. (2004) 159 (8): 778-785 (2004)

Traffickers and pimps often target people in vulnerable situations, which could include women and girls experiencing domestic violence. Sometimes, abusers will also prostitute their partners as an extension of the abuse the victims are already experiencing. Some victims of domestic violence may turn to prostitution to escape an abuser, but prostitution is often also used as a form of abuse.

Conversely, people in prostitution are often in situations that make them vulnerable to entering into domestic violence relationships. Lack of financial resources, steady housing, or lawful employment may give abusers leverage, power, and control over a person in prostitution. And if the abuser helps the prostituted person to leave prostitution, s/he may, in turn, come to feel that s/he is dependent on the abuser or owes it to the abuser to stay with him/her even though there is domestic violence taking place in the relationship.1

1 See Dorchen A. Leidholdt, Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence: A Primer for Judges, American Bar Association The Judges’ Journal, Vol. 52 No. 1 (2013)

Can a person in prostitution be raped?

Yes.  When a person says “No,” it means no – it doesn’t matter if s/he is a prostituted person or not.  Even if s/he agrees to do one sexual act, if the john forces him/her to do a different sexual act against his/her will, that is still rape.  Prostituted people are much more likely to be raped than non-prostituted people.  A national study in 2011 found that nearly 1 out of every 5 women in the U.S. has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.1  In comparison, an earlier study (in 1990) found that about 80% of women in prostitution have been the victim of a rape and that prostituted women are raped, on the average, eight to ten times per year2 – although the numbers may be different if this study were done today.

1National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Center for Disease Control (2011)
2 Susan Kay Hunter and K.C. Reed, July, 1990 “Taking the side of bought and sold rape,” speech at National Coalition against Sexual Assault, Washington, D.C.

Why can’t women in prostitution just leave when they want to?

There are many reasons that women (and men) do not or cannot leave prostitution.  In a 1998 survey of 475 women who were involved in prostitution, ninety-two percent of them said they wanted to leave prostitution but couldn’t because they lack basic human services such as a home, job training, health care, counseling and treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.1  Another reason a prostituted woman might not leave prostitution is that she may be afraid of what her pimp will do to her and afraid for her life if she tries to leave. 

In addition, leaving prostitution may be scary for other reasons.  For many women, prostitution sexual exploitation and sexual abuse might be the only life they know.  Many girls enter prostitution while they are minors2 and various studies reveal that from 60% to 90% of those in prostitution were sexually assaulted in childhood. 3  The thought of leaving prostitution and having to find a new way to support themselves and their family might be overwhelming or scary for some people.  However, there are organizations that can help a person go through the process of leaving prostitution. 

1Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature Melissa Farley and Vanessa Kelly Women & Criminal Justice 2000, Vol 11 (4): 29-64, on page 23, citing Farley, et al. 1998  
2 Polaris Project, Average Age of Entry Myth, January 5, 2016
3 Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature Melissa Farley and Vanessa Kelly Women & Criminal Justice 2000, Vol 11 (4): 29-64 , on page 14, citing Harlan, Rodgers & Slattery, 1981, Murphy, 1993; Silbert & Pines, 1983

Where can I find resources and help?

Because of myths and stereotypes about prostitution, and the fact that prostitution is illegal, prostituted women face many barriers to getting the help they need.  Often times, a prostituted woman will not seek help out of fear of:

  • having her children taken away from her;
  • shame, ridicule and judgment;
  • not being able to get a job once people know she has been in prostitution; and
  • being arrested and other legal consequences.

However, you should know that there are resources out there for women in prostitution. has a list of resources that help adults and children who want to leave prostitution or who are being sexually exploited.


While stalking/cyberstalking can be committed by someone you don’t know, it is most often a crime perpetrated by someone with whom you are familiar. More often than not, stalking/cyberstalking is committed by a current or former intimate partner and the stalking/cyberstalking may begin or get worse when you end the relationship.

What is stalking?

Stalking involves a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that causes fear. It can be carried out in a number of ways, many of which involve technology and online spaces.

The crime of stalking is defined differently by individual states across the country and there is also a federal stalking law, which makes it illegal to travel between states with the intent to commit stalking.1 Sometimes, stalking involves repeated acts that might cause you to be afraid for yourself or for your family or household members. It’s possible that some of the stalker’s actions (such as showing up at your work, leaving a package for you on your doorstep, or calling you multiple times) may not be illegal on their own. However, if these acts are done over and over and make you afraid, it may be considered stalking.

1 See 18 USC § 2261A

What is cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking is a term that refers to the misuse of the Internet or other technology to stalk and harass someone. A stalker may contact you by email, social media sites, a messaging app, or through other online spaces/websites. The person may also post messages about you, share your personal information or pictures of you online to harass or scare you. Some stalkers may use technology to find/track your location and to monitor what you do online (or offline).

Even if your state does not have a criminal law specifically against “cyberstalking,” in most states, the act of repeatedly contacting or harassing a person through the Internet or other technology is still considered a crime under the state’s stalking or harassment laws. It’s important to know that even if you were originally okay with the person contacting you, if his/her behavior begins to scare you, it may be considered stalking/cyberstalking.

Can I get a restraining order based on stalking/cyberstalking?

In many states, you can file for a restraining order against anyone who has stalked or harassed you, even if you do not have a specific relationship with that person. In addition, most states include stalking as a reason to get a domestic violence restraining order.

Even if your state does not have a specific restraining order for stalking and you do not qualify for a domestic violence restraining order, you may be able to get one from the criminal court if the stalker is arrested. Since stalking is a crime, the police may arrest someone who has been stalking or harassing you. Generally, it is a good idea to keep track of any contact a stalker has with you. You may want to keep track of any phone calls, drive-bys, text messages, voicemails, emails (print out what you can, with headers including date and time if possible), or anything the stalker does that harasses you or makes you afraid. The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center has a stalking incident log that you may wish you use to record this information. Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a sample cyberstalking incident log with tips on how to best document evidence of technology abuse.

Litigation Abuse

Once someone separates from an abusive spouse/partner, the abuser may try to keep power and control over the victim by misusing the court system against the victim. For example, filing repeated petitions or motions, requesting many adjournments, appealing the judge’s orders without a legal basis to do so, or taking other actions that make the victim repeatedly come to court. Sometimes this type of behavior is called “litigation abuse.”

Unfortunately, litigation abuse is challenging to deal with because it is hard to limit someone’s right to file in court. If your state has a law that specifically allows for it, such as these laws in Washington State and Tennessee, the judge might be more willing to issue an order restricting a person’s right to file. If you are facing litigation abuse, you may want to try proving to the judge that the cases the abuser keeps bringing are not based on a good reason (“without merit”) and are filed instead to harass you. Sometimes, a judge may issue an order that will help to limit the litigation abuse or its effects by:

  • ordering the party bringing the excessive motions to pay your court costs and attorney’s fees;
  • ordering the party who files meaningless motions to reimburse your lost wages and other expenses caused by having to repeatedly come to court;
  • excusing you from appearing at court hearings or letting you appear by telephone;
  • ordering that no motions or petitions can be filed, or that no court appearances may be scheduled, without the judge’s prior approval; or
  • denying adjournment requests for excessive or unnecessary delay.

Litigation abuse often takes place in divorces or other complex court cases that allow discovery, which is the exchange of documents and information between the parties before trial.

Another possible way that you may prevent an abuser from continuing to take you to court is by filing a motion asking that the abuser be ordered to pay your attorney’s fees each and every time the abuser loses the motion, petition, or other case brought against you. Sometimes, this sort of financial penalty can be enough of an incentive to discourage multiple lawsuits. Hopefully a lawyer can walk you through the process of filing such a motion to the judge to make these sort of requests, if this is something you want to do.

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