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Marital Rape: The History, The Details, and The Work To Be Done

Trigger Warning: the following post goes into detail regarding the intricacies of sexual assault, specifically in the context of marital rape. Some details may be extremely disturbing to some readers. Please exercise discretion in deciding whether to read or engage with this post.

In marriage, couples often vow to love, protect, and honor one another. Unfortunately, unhealthy sexual attitudes and behaviors and a lack of knowledge regarding the importance and need for consent lead to the horrific act of marital rape.

Marital rape or "spousal rape" is a term which describes sexual acts committed without a spouse's consent and/or against the spouse by the other spouse. Marital rape constitutes criminal sexual conduct. Between 10 and 14% of women will experience marital rape and those who do will experience it an average of twenty times during their marriage. Spousal rape is a form of domestic violence. It is a criminal act which is not acceptable.

The marital rape exception was the established law stating that rape could not exist within a marriage. This exception was created in the early 1600's, based on an incorrect theory that marital vows implied a wife's (or husband's) ongoing consent. (Yes, really). This inappropriate sexual attitude was perpetuated in American legal theory for nearly four centuries until marital rape slowly became criminalized in the 1970's. At that time, individual states began reexamining marital rape exceptions. Marital rape is now outlawed in every state.

Unfortunately, although marital rape is now illegal, the 1600's theory that consent is always existent in marriage permeates the sexual beliefs of many individuals of our day. In Jacquelyn C. Campbell and Peggy Alford's study surveying attitudes and beliefs of female survivors of marital rape, almost all of the respondents reported that their spouses believed it is a husband's right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants it. Marital rape is often severe. In Campbell and Alford's study they write, "The types of [rape the women surveyed] most frequently reported were vaginal [rape] (82.7%); anal [rape] (52.8%); being hit, kicked, or burned during [rape] (44.1%); and [rape by] objects [being] inserted in the vagina and anus (28.6%). Some women wrote overwhelmingly graphic descriptions of abuse they had endured-being forced into homosexual [rape], [rape involving] animals, prostitution, public exposure, and other acts of extreme degradation. [Some] of the women's husbands had physically involved their children in various sexual [assaults]; another 17.8 percent reported that their children had witnessed sexual attacks. About half of the women (49.6%) had been threatened with beatings for refusing sex, some threats including a weapon. More than one-third (36.7%) had endured beatings after refusing sex, while half (50.9%) had been [raped] immediately after beating."

Now read that again.

Nearly half of the women physically threatened for refusing to have sex with their partner. Nearly all experienced vaginal rape. More than half experienced anal rape and again nearly half endured physical abuse during the rape. Being beat and then raped. All by someone who vowed to love, protect, and honor them. The physical toll these assaults took on the bodies of the women involved in the study was horrific, and male survivors of spousal rape can experience horrific physical results as well, but the trauma and enduring emotional and mental burden a spousal rape survivor carries should not be ignored.

Like survivors of other forms of sexual violence, survivors of marital rape experience anxiety, shock, intense fear, depression, suicidal ideation, disordered sleeping, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Further, "[r]esearchers have [stated that because marital rape survivors are] raped by their partners are likely to experience multiple assaults, completed sexual attacks, and that they are raped by someone whom they once presumably loved and trusted, it is not surprising that marital rape survivors seem to suffer severe and long-term psychological consequences." Those who have experienced marital rape may have a difficult time leaving the relationship and may require additional help and support.

Fortunately, there are resources available for marital rape survivors. Many domestic violence hotlines and shelters have individuals specifically dedicated to survivors of spousal rape. Feeling unsafe physically or sexually in your marriage [or other relationship] is not normal or healthy. You deserve to be loved, protected, and honored by your significant other. If you are experiencing marital rape or another form of violence, contact 1-800-656-HOPE or reach out to We Will for support and further help finding resources in your area. You can support spousal rape survivors by making it clear you believe them, that you are a safe space for them to speak about their experiences, and that you will do your best to support their current needs.

The fight for legal protection for marital rape survivors is not over. Many states still have exceptions and loopholes. Marital rape laws in certain states either explicitly require the use of force, or provide immunity if one spouse is incapacitated meaning that in these states, spousal rape is legal when the victim is drugged, unconscious, or otherwise unable to consent. These loopholes prove painful for survivors who have endured such vile rape from their spouse and now have no legal recourse.

Further, we must prevent individuals from enduring marital rape. We need to educate would-be perpetrators so they develop healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors and understand that others don't belong to them and that they must obtain consent in every intimate interaction and at every step of the interaction. Regardless of their level of sexual education, perpetrators are entirely responsible for the abuse. However, education for would-be perpetrators has been proven to reduce the rate of sexual abuse, so we must dedicate ourselves to preventing individuals from becoming spousal rape perpetrators.

We should also educate would-be survivors regarding what qualifies as abuse and how to seek help so they can more readily recognize abuse when it occurs and seek help if desired. Many individuals go into a marriage knowing very little about healthy sexual relationships and support available to sexual assault survivors. These individuals need to be educated so when unhealthy sexual behaviors are immediately recognized and mitigative steps can be taken. We must educate to protect our fellow people.

You can support survivors and prevent future assault by joining in We Will's fight to end marital rape today.

Thank you for your support!

Note: While the Jacquelyn C. Campbell and Peggy Alford study includes helpful information and insight into the concept of marital rape, the article unfortunately, at times, refers to rape or sexual assault as "forced sex," "sex," "sexual activity" or "intercourse." There is no such thing as "forced sex," or "sexual activity," "sex," or "intercourse" without consent. This is rape or sexual assault, and such vocabulary choices in the article were characteristic of the time in which the article was written, but the vocabulary is nonetheless incorrect and misleading. Therefore, for purposes of this blog post, any reference to such vocabulary was altered to convey the authors' true meaning that such activities were rape. If you choose to further study to this resource, please recognize when the authors refer to "forced sex," or "sex," "sexual activity," or "intercourse" without consent, they should be using the words "rape" or "sexual assault."

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