Marital Rape: Justice Denied or Delayed
Can a Husband Rape His Wife?
Women are taught about rape from an early age. We're taught that anytime we say "no" to a man, and he forces himself upon us, it's rape. We're told that if we are drunk or mentally ill, we're not capable of giving consent to have sex, so a man who has sex with us when we're intoxicated might have raped us. Finally, we've learned about date rape and the drugs used to enable men to commit these crimes. We heard about statutory rape when we were teens. What doesn't get talked about is sexual assault in marriage, even though about 10-14% of all women have been raped by their spouse, and as many as 75% of women in domestic shelters have been, according to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center.
When I was counseling, I had an alcoholic patient whose marriage was in shambles. At his appointment one afternoon, he described the latest argument he'd had with his wife, and said he wanted to have sex afterward to try putting their fight behind them. They were on the sofa, and as their argument cooled, he laid above her and tried to fool around. She didn't want to. He kept "joking" and showing her that they should have sex. "She finally gave in," he told me, "but she just laid there like she didn't want me at all and then she started to cry."
It quickly became clear after a couple more questions from me that she never agreed to have sex. She had come to realize that he was not letting her stand up, that he was insistent about having sex, and that he refused to listen to her repeated, "I don't want to" answers. He was shocked when I stated that he had raped her.
Many people believe that rape cannot happen within marriage. Women who have been raped by their husbands rarely talk about it, and almost never report it. This article will examine the beliefs that guide the idea that marriage precludes rape, what the law says, and what men and women can do if they've been raped by their spouse. (Men are victimized in approximately ten percent of all the rapes that take place in the U.S.)
Many Men Believe Rape is Permissible
Right up there with the old "You're saying no, but your eyes say yes" cliché is an equally dangerous line of thinking that relies on religious teachings.
What's Your Opinion on Spousal Rape?
Can rape happen within a marriage?
"Sex is one of the Duties of Marriage"
People who believe that rape cannot happen within a marriage justify their belief by claiming that a spouse has a duty to provide sexual pleasure to his or her partner. Although marital rape has been criminalized in the U.S., many people in the states continue to believe that rape within marriage is permissable, as shown in the video at right. (Warning: this video uses R-rated language and should not be watched by people who may be offended by such language.)
In many instances, their perceptions have often been developed through religious teachings. "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands." (Ephesians 5:24)
During a recent online discussion on this topic, a man said, "That's what the bible says, and I answer to God's laws, not man's. My wife agrees with me because in marriage, we are to become one." Upon further questioning, he said the way his marriage works is that he's to consider her opinion in everything, but makes unilateral decisions sometimes that she must comply with. By this time, several people had started being confrontational and felt offended by his comments. He wrote, "By your definitions, I've raped my wife many times over the years."
The Holy Bible is an amazing tome full of history, stories, and legends. Some people take it literally, while others believe parts of it are intended to be figurative stories. For those who take it literally, however, the instructions go both directions. Husbands are to treat their wives with love and care, not violence. If one chooses to say that rape cannot exist because wives are to submit to their husbands, they must also consider the contradictions presented by the Bible. Greg Carey, Professor of the New Testament at Lancaster College, discusses how Bible quotes regarding marriage are used incorrectly.
In his article on the subject, Carey states, "The same values that guide all our relationships apply to marriage: unselfish concern for the other; honesty, integrity and fidelity; and sacrificial -- but not victimized -- love."
Regardless of one's religious beliefs, state laws can put a spouse in prison for using sex as a means of force against their partner. The second video shown here discusses statistics and common rape scenarios that are rarely discussed, and reported still less.
When is it rape and when is it consensual?
view quiz statistics
The Difference Between Rape and Sex
Two adults of legal age, whether they are married or not, can consent to sex without committing a crime. They don't have to be married. They don't have to be Christian. They don't even have to enjoy it!
However, when one party doesn't want to have sex and the other forces them into it through mental coercion, physical force, or a combination of the two, it constitutes rape. When a sex act wouldn't have occurred without the use of threats, physical restraints, or violence, it's rape.
Three decades ago, the law hadn't quite caught up to the reality of sexual assault. The idea that men could be raped was deemed ludicrous, and no laws protected men and women from unwanted sex acts perpetrated by their spouses.
Just a decade ago, in 1993, sexual assaults against spouses were criminalized by 100% of American's states. The laws finally reocgnized that rape is not about attraction and passion, but are attempts to control others. Every state in the U.S. now has laws that offer protection to spouses who are subjected to sexual assaults from their husbands or wives.
Laws on Marital Rape
Each state has its own set of laws, which can vary quite a bit from each other. Some states, for instance, have a limited time for reporting spouse rape compared to longer times for non-marital rapes, or treat marital rape as a different kind of crime than other sexual assaults. Others require spouses to prove that physical force or a weapon was used.
Finding information on what a particular state's laws are can be tricky for victims. I searched for a simple reference and it took me quite a bit of time to uncover this table. The American Prosecutors Research Institute complied information about every state's marital rape laws. Their data is published by RAINN (Rape, Assault, Incest National Network). The table provides information about each state's limitations, how the crime is classified, and any special reporting requirements.
If you believe you or someone you care about has been raped by a spouse, you'll want to take steps similar to those you would take if a stranger rape had occurred.
In Your Opinion...
How serious is this issue?
- How to Prevent Rape: The Routine Activities Theory
This scholastic report is about rapists - why they rape and how they choose victims.
- Rape and the Law
“Carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will,” is how English common law defined rape (Lyon, 2004), and this definition was adopted in the United States, and many of the elements...
- Marital Rape
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...
What's Your Experience?
Have you ever been sexually assaulted by your spouse or a significant other?
What's Your Experience?
Have you ever stayed in an abusive relationship or marriage when you wanted to leave?
Steps to Take After a Marital Rape
Women and men who have been raped by their husbands or wives experience the same kind of effects as people who are raped by strangers. It erodes their ability to trust, to show vulnerability, to experience intimacy, and to cherish themselves. They may have flashbacks, major depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They may be raped repeatedly over the course of their marriage.
Each individual must determine whether to stay or leave. Sometimes people stay because they don't have the financial means to go anywhere else. Other times, they stay because of loyalty and love. (Yes, people can love their abusers and they are not "wrong" for it.
When People Aren't Ready to Leave
- They can stash a little money at a time, as they're able to, in order to build a fund that they can use later on. If they never do leave, they can use the money five or ten years down the road for something else, but if the situation worsens, they have a small safety net to help them take care of themselves.
- They can identify a safe place where they can go to stay if they decide to leave. If friends and family aren't available, domestic shelters can be found locally or in a nearby town or city. Domestic abuse shelters provide protection from the abuser, and may offer job training, job opportunities, day care, and more.
- They can remind themselves that their spouse's behavior was not a loving way to behave.
- They can keep reminding themselves that there's help out there if they decide to leave.
- They can start keeping a journal (hidden in a secret place) that includes dates, descriptions of what happened, and any other information that they may later need to recall.
- They can get and print text and e-mail message contents to keep with their journals in a safe place. If they miraculously discover that the abuse stops, they don't ever have to use those printouts, but if the abuse worsens or they decide to leave later, these documents will help immensely.
- They can learn about state child and family support requirements if they have children who need support.
- They can get information about their state's TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) standards to see if they would qualify if they leave.
- They can seek individual and/or marital counseling. Even if their partner doesn't attend counseling, they can benefit themselves by discussing their circumstances with a mental health professional.
- They can call the National Sexual Assualt Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE to talk to someone who is sympathetic to what they are going through.
When They Are
When a person has been raped by a spouse (which includes ex-spouses and common-law marriages) and wants to leave the relationship and press charges, the burden of proof still falls upon the accuser - the victim. A prosecutor cannot take a case to trial if there's no evidence of wrongdoing. To successfully prosecute, the victimized person should gather as much documentation as possible:
- Journals, e-mails, text messages, letters, and photographs can be used to record or obtain information about abusive episodes, including rape. Sometimes the abuser will admit their actions in a text message or e-mail.
- Visiting a doctor to complete a rape test that proves intercourse took place provides valuable DNA evidence.
- Hiring an attorney to file a civil suit against their spouse can result in a financial award.
- Contacting the police can lead to criminal charges that can put the offending spouse in prison.
- As above, seeing an individual therapist can benefit the person who has been victimized. It can also provide valuable testimony if and when their civil or criminal case gets to court.
- Finally, if they suspect their spouse may have behaved the same way toward others, such as his or her last spouse, they can inquire and possibly obtain witness testimony that speaks to the offender's character.
When is the Right Time to Leave?
A person who has been abused, including sexual assault, may try to leave several times unsuccessfully before they finally achieve independence from their abuser. Although they hope the abuse will stop and their spouse will change, they often find their hopes disappointed enough times that they reach their own decision that they aren't willing to try again.
Nobody can force the issue upon them. Their friends and family members may feel frustrated and helpless, but until the victim decides to stop being victimized and recognizes that their circumstances won't change unless they take drastic actions and break away altogether, their pleas will fall on deaf ears.
If you are the victim of rape in your marriage, it's no different than the other controlling things you've seen. It's one more power struggle that you're destined to lose. And only you can decide when to say enough is enough. For your sake, I hope it's sooner rather than later.