In last week’s episode of Big Little Lies, the buildup to the season finale this Sunday, Celeste Wright (played by Nicole Kidman) is forced to explain the sexual dynamics of her abusive marriage. Nervously shifting in her seat during a custody hearing, one initiated by the mother of her now-dead husband, she has trouble describing to family lawyer Ira Farber (Denis O’Hare) how two things could be true: (1) that her husband had physically and emotionally abused her; and (2) that she sometimes enjoyed sex with him, even after a violent outburst. “Did the physical violence ever lead to sex?” Ira asks. Celeste explains that yes, it did, but denies Ira’s assertion that she was aroused by the violence. “You never said that — that incendiary exchanges with your husband, including the physical violence, led to gratifying and passionate sex? Did you ever say that?” Ira pushes. Celeste takes a breath. “My relationship with my husband was very complicated.”
To the judge, she puts it this way: “The violence with Perry would sometimes lead to sex, which would — I mean, it’s just, it’s confusing, so.”
Both this season and last, Big Little Lies has been praised for its accurate and sensitive portrayal of domestic violence, delving into the complex nature of abusive relationships without leaning on stereotypes of what survivors experience. And part of this portrayal has been Celeste and Perry’s sexual relationship — one that, at times, involved encounters that could be perceived as intense and passionate. Sexual violence is a challenging subject to tackle, and one that could easily go wrong; done without care, and the sex could have come off as gratuitous, or worse, created the assumption that violence in and of itself can be a turn-on for women who are being abused.
The idea that a negative, even violent incident could lead to “gratifying and passionate” sex, as Ira puts it in the show, seems contradictory, given that good sex is most often associated with positive emotions. But Zoe D. Peterson, director of the Kinsey Institute Assault Initiative and an associate professor at Indiana University, says that there can be a connection between fear and anxiety and arousal, which may at least partially explain the seemingly intense desire that manifests between Celeste and her abusive husband. “When you’re anxious, you are in this high physiological state that can be the same as sexual arousal — your heart is racing, you’re short of breath, those kinds of things,” she says. “I can imagine a situation where someone is fearful of their partner, their heart is pounding, they are short of breath — and suddenly their partner switches gears and starts touching them sexually. That person might perceive those signs as sexual arousal. And what we know is, if someone anticipates sexual arousal, then sexual arousal often follows.”
While there is research examining physical responses to sexual assault — some survivors report signs of arousal during an attack, which has wrongly been used to try to prove consent in some instances — there isn’t much that looks specifically at sex in the context of violent relationships. However, there have been studies that consider arousal as it relates to various mood states. In Peterson’s work, she and a colleague found that exposing people to a mix of positive and negative stimuli (in one case, erotic film clips and also a scene depicting coercive sex) can lead to arousal. The contrast between the two mood states, they found, may have a particular effect. “In some conditions, it did seem like kind of that ambivalent state, where they reported, ‘Yes, I have all these positive emotions,’ and, ‘Yes, I have all these negative emotions’ — that seemed to be associated with high arousal,” she says. “There is something particularly intense about having both of those states.”
Put these findings within the context of an abusive relationship where there are extreme highs and lows — an abusive partner can be warm and loving in one moment, and violent in another — and add in the known similarities between how the body manifests anxiety and arousal, and Celeste’s confusion is easier to understand. But looking at only the physiological response is too simple, says Peterson. “I think someone in a violent or abusive relationship, even right after a fight, might agree to have sex for a whole variety of reasons that don’t relate to their own sexual arousal. They might agree because they are too afraid to say no and don’t want to incur his anger or violence again. They might agree in order to distract their partner and stop the violence. They might be deeply scared and want to distract from their own emotions. They might want to reestablish that connection and get support from their partners. If someone has sex with their abusive partner after violence, that doesn’t mean they were in any way turned on by the violence.”
Celeste says as much on the stand, adding, “I miss my husband, but I don’t miss getting beat up.” The two things seem at odds with each other — how could someone miss a person who abused her? How could she love him? How could she want to have sex with him? And how could that sex seem, of all things, uncomfortably and yet at times inarguably … hot? Even as a viewer, it can be confusing and uncomfortable.
“What I like about Big Little Lies is, they show you the full dynamic of the relationship, not just every time [Perry, Celeste’s husband] hit her,” says Tarsha McCallum, a licensed social worker and senior director at Safe Horizon, a New York–based nonprofit assisting assault and abuse victims. “It shows he’s a good dad, and they have a nice house, and they can sit in the car and laugh. People have to remember, survivors are living the whole 360-degree relationship. They are not just living that abuse.”
McCallum, who runs one of Safe Horizon’s domestic-violence shelters and provides counseling to its residents, adds that it’s common for survivors to have sex with their abusers after a violent incident. For some women, it can be perceived as a way of reconnecting — an acute version of what couples in healthier relationships think of as “makeup sex.”
“It becomes normal when you are in that type of relationship. It’s part of apologizing. You go and you have sex after you have gotten beat up because you want it to be normal again,” says McCallum. She continues, “I have had [domestic-abuse survivors] say to me, ‘Makeup sex is the best sex.’ After an argument or explosion in an abusive relationship, your feelings are so heightened … I had one resident [at the shelter] explain it that way. You are so pent up with energy because you just had this experience, but you love this person and you want to get all of your emotions out through the sex. So I can see how [Celeste] might have seen it as passionate.”
Peterson — a licensed psychologist with a focus in sex therapy, and who researches sexual consent, assault, and coercion, as well as sexual aggression — draws a similar parallel. “Part of the arousal might not be arousal to the violence, but the feelings when they are making up after the fight,” she says. “There might be intense relief after the violence is over, and combined with sudden strong feelings of closeness … You can imagine how, if the fighting was extreme, that that relief and that closeness when they make up might be more intense, and that might contribute to the sense of passion, of now we are back and reconnected.”
Eventually that connection wears off, however, and the cycle of abuse starts over — things feel “normal” again, there’s another explosion, another moment of reconnection (that possibly includes sex), and so on.
McCallum says that it’s important to realize that abuse victims like Celeste are seeing their relationships as neither all good or all bad. They can love their partners, even though there’s abuse. And they might desire their partners, too. In a long-term relationship, there are often years of positive memories to latch onto. “A lot of times, when we sit and talk with survivors, they will bring up the great things about [their partner] before they bring up the poor things,” she says.
McCallum also explains that someone being abused might perceive sex as an opportunity to momentarily shift the imbalance of power and control in the relationship. In the show, “Celeste really enjoys having sex with [Perry], and part of their lovemaking — and I’ll say lovemaking — is that little bit of roughness. On a regular day, he has all the power. He’s abusing her … But she has power when they are having sex.” (This is very different than couples who willingly engage in BDSM or other kinks that can involve the infliction of minor pain. In those instances, Peterson explains that there is typically a great deal of consent and communication, and most crucially, “There is this role-playing of power and control, and role-playing of violence … but everyone has complete and equal control of that situation. The sense of one person having power and control is not real.”)
There are different philosophies on how to break this cycle. The National Domestic Violence Hotline states on its website that it does not recommend couples counseling for partners in an abusive relationship because “abuse is not a ‘relationship problem’” and “couples counseling may imply that both partners contribute to the abusive behavior, when the choice to be abusive lies solely with the abusive partner.” Instead, it recommends Battering Intervention and Prevention Programs, which teach abusers accountability and nonviolent responses. But there is also research that supports including both partners in therapy — which McCallum says can be a good thing, when the abuse isn’t at its height. In her view, “I do believe people can change, and reunification is possible, but both parties need to want that.”
“I have clients who come in petrified of their abuser, and I have others who aren’t petrified and they go back because it’s hopeful; it’s the hopefulness,” says McCallum, adding that, on average, someone who is being abused returns to the relationship seven times before leaving for good. “Don’t forget love lends itself to hope. There are so many relationships, whether they are abusive or not, women stay in those relationships because they hope it’s going to get better. They grasp onto the good things.”
It might be easier for people who haven’t been in an abusive relationship to understand these tangled emotions outside of a violent context. In describing what she thinks Celeste might feel — and to explain some of the confusion — McCallum presents a less intense, but still painful scenario. Imagine, she says, that “your spouse cheats on you, and you find out. You are standing there, you are crying, you are yelling. And at the same time, you want them to hug you because even though they hurt you, you still want them to want you. You want them to make you feel better.”
If you or someone you know is seeking help for abuse, call the 24-hour Safe Horizon domestic-violence hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (an online chat option is available as well).