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Marital Rape

Updated on August 3, 2009

Marital rape is far more common than many people realize and sadly, it often goes unreported and unprosecuted.

History of Marital Rape Law and Custom

One reason for the silence about marital rape (also known as spousal rape and conjugal rape) is because throughout much of history in many countries and cultures around the world, marital rape was seen as an impossibility. People spoke of "conjugal rights," as if spouses (especially husbands) had the "right" to demand sex whenever they wanted.

In the Bible, for example, Paul wrote "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self control." (1 Corinthians 7:3-5) Although modern interpretation differs, this passage and others like it was used for centuries to justify marital rape. Many other religions and cultures have taken similar attitudes.

Even today, some cultures still look the other way over marital rape. Afghan president Hamid Karzai recently came under intense criticism from Western countries when he signed a bill into law that effectively made it illegal for Shiite women in Afghanistan to refuse their husbands sex, except in cases of illness.

Western countries arguably have little right to act so outraged, however. In many North American and Western European countries, marital rape was not recognized as a crime until the 1980's or 90's. In fact, as of 1997, only 17 countries named marital rape a crime! Fortunately, publication of the United Nation's Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women has raised awareness of the problem and increased the number of countries that outlaw marital rape to more than 100.

Photo by ghetto_guera29
Photo by ghetto_guera29

Marital Rape Today

Even though understanding of the problem of marital rape has risen, it remains tragically common. Studies estimate that 10-14% of all married women in the United States have been raped by their husband.

The majority of marital rape cases occur in relationships that are physically or emotionally abusive in other ways as well, and because it often occurs as part of a pattern of abuse, it can lead to even more severe and long-lasting consequences for the victim than stranger rape.

Unfortunately, even in countries where marital rape is a crime, prosecuting it can be difficult. In the United States, some states require marital rape to be prosecuted in the same way as any other rape, while others make it a separate crime.

In states where it is treated as a separate crime, procedures may differ substantially from those of a general rape case. For example, in California, non-spousal rapists are not eligible for probation, but spousal rapists are. In West Virginia, spousal rapists can be sentenced to terms of only 2-10 years, while non-spousal rapists are sentenced to 10-35. Marital rape laws also typically allow shorter reporting periods (typically one month to one year, as opposed to up to three years for non-spousal rapes) and require a "threat of force," rather than simple non-consent. Some states prosecute only forced penetration, and do not include oral sex or other forced non-penetrative sexual activity.

Not only that, but because many people view marital rape as somehow "less harmful" than stranger rape, victims may not receive the emotional support they need. Survivors of marital rape tend to report much higher rates of anger and depression than victims of stranger rape, in part because they are more likely to have been the victim of multiple assaults - sometimes even years of brutalization - and in part because they have been victims of the ultimate betrayal of trust - that of the bond between husband and wife.

Domestic Violence PSA


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