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This piece was originally published in 2014. It was updated in 2023.
Marital rape is a serious form of violence and an often-present component of domestic violence. However, it is [finally] illegal in all 50 states.
Marital rape occurs when your spouse forces you to take part in sex acts without your consent. This includes any unwanted intercourse or penetration obtained by force, threat of force or when the spouse is unable to consent. Research from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, found that marital rape is equally, if not more emotionally and physically traumatizing than rape by a stranger and that marital rape victims are more likely to experience multiple rapes. Furthermore, forced sex increases a victim’s chances of being murdered by their abusive partner in the future.
Sex is Never a Woman’s “Wifely Duty”
Juanito Vargas, former vice president of Safe Horizon, a New York domestic violence nonprofit and the largest victims’ services agency in the U.S., says he hears about incidents of marital rape from his clients. Unfortunately, many of them don’t even know it’s rape. RAINN agrees that it remains one of the least reported crimes. Explains Vargas, “It could be due to the culture—this is the expectation of my culture, that I’m supposed to submit to whatever my husband says.” Some survivors believe they’re supposed to have sex with their husbands even when they don’t want to and say no.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the first perpetrator was convicted of raping their spouse in the U.S. Before then, there was a common law presumption that “real rape” could only occur by a stranger and that forced sex was a “wifely duty.” Luckily ideas changed and, in the 1970s and ‘80s, states began adopting laws criminalizing marital rape. Women’s advocate Laura X, who took the name in 1969 at the age of 29 to symbolize her rejection of men's legal ownership of women, can be credited for outlawing marital rape in California in 1979 with her advocacy efforts. She then led campaigns in 45 other states which followed suit. By 1993, every state had made marital rape an illegal offense.
Yet, a legal loophole was found to exist as late as 2019 when Minnesota finally overturned and repealed the state’s marital rape exception that protected rapists who lived with and had an ongoing sexual relationship with their victim. Prior to that, at least one victim saw her rapist ex-husband serve just 29 days in jail because they were married at the time of his assault.
It should be noted that marital rape is just as illegal in same-sex marriages. Statistics show that 44 percent of lesbians and 26 percent of gay men have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, though how many couples were married is unknown.
Why Abusers Choose Rape
Most sexual violence experts would agree that rape has very little to do with sexual gratification and more to do with power, which is something abusers are fixated on having over their victims.
“In relationships, it’s used as a controlling technique – I continue to have power over you,” explains Rachel Stanton, founder and director of Counseling in Boston, LLC, who works with survivors of sexual trauma.
There are different types of marital rape. Some rapists can combine domestic violence tactics, like physical and emotional abuse, with sexual violence. Some abusers use rape as a punishment for a survivor not obeying the “rules.” Sometimes, rape can be less overt and more coercive. If you loved me, you’d do this. Survivors can find themselves in a grey area wondering how they continue to be coerced into sex when they never outright consented. Sexual coercion can be even more difficult to prove as it involves manipulation through non-physical means.
Stealthing can be another type of rape abusers may use. This is when a rapist-abuser removes a condom before or during sex without their partner’s consent. This can lead to an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy, the latter of which is a way some abusers try to trap survivors in a relationship. For more information, see our Guide to Reproductive and Sexual Coercion.
Beyond power and control, at least one study found something else was driving rapists. In a recent study out of South Africa, prisoners behind bars for assault were questioned as to their motives to rape. The majority were behind bars for raping someone they knew—which is also true statistically for rapists in the U.S. Researchers found the most common theme to emerge was “childhood trauma and adverse events.” Participants spoke about witnessing family members being abused and having family members incarcerated for violent crimes.
“The environmental exposure to childhood trauma may have influenced the development and behavior of participants and contributed to the way they perceive rape perpetration and victimization,” the findings read.
While childhood trauma certainly doesn’t cause or excuse rape, the CDC in the U.S. has long-urged individuals to pay more attention to their Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs score, as the ways our childhood trauma can affect us into adulthood are plentiful.
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When Someone You Loves Rapes You
Rape by a stranger is a clear violation of boundaries, but rape by someone we vowed to live our lives with, someone we may have once loved or still love, can be confusing.
Stanton describes it like this: “We can have a stance that’s very black and white— if someone assaults you, they are therefore a bad person. If there’s someone you consider to be a good person whom you love, you either have to change your opinion of that person or that wasn’t assault.”
Stanton says that, unfortunately, some victims who experience chronic rape by a spouse become almost brainwashed into believing they’re the cause of the assaults.
“It’s a lot easier to come to believe bad things about yourself than the other person. These beliefs can become engrained….you begin to question, am I even perceiving myself correctly?”
Stanton says it’s important victims who have been assaulted by a spouse find someone safe they can disclose to, someone who can validate that what’s happening to them is rape and is a type of abuse. This could include reaching out to a friend or family member, a domestic violence advocate or other survivors (there are myriad online support groups) before deciding when and if it’s safe to report the assault to police. Keep in mind that abuse almost always escalates, so it’s unlikely that the violence will stop at rape.
If you’re unsure of what to do after experiencing a sexual assault by your spouse, reach out to your local domestic violence shelter which can walk you through a safety plan and other options, like emergency shelter, legal help support groups and healthcare.
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