Marital rape (also called “wife rape” or “spousal rape”) is forced, nonconsensual sex in which the perpetrator is the victim’s spouse. Marital rape was criminalized in all U.S. states by 1993 with the deletion of the “spousal exemption” that had defined rape as forced intercourse without the consent of the woman other than one’s wife. However, the spousal exemption remains in effect in most non-Western countries. Marital rape is the form of violence against women with the greatest cultural and legal support, and it is not recognized as a social problem in most of the world.
Marital rape prevalence rates indicate a global epidemic of sexual violence within intimate relationships. Researchers estimate that 10-14 percent of married women in the United States have been raped by their husbands. One-third to one-half of women in battered women’s shelters report being sexually abused by their partners as well. A 2005 WHO (World Health Organization) study documented rates of sexual violence by a partner that ranged from under 10 percent in urban Japan to over 50 percent in rural Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
Research indicates that women who are raped by their intimate partners are usually assaulted numerous times and, at least in the United States, experience forced oral and anal as well as vaginal sex. Researchers have identified three basic types of marital rape. Force-only rape involves only as much physical force as necessary to coerce compliance. Women report having arms pinned down, faces smothered by pillows, and overall differences in body weight as means by which their resistance is overcome. Battering rapes take place in the context of more severe physical assaults. Sexual assault may occur during or after a beating as a means of inflicting more harm. Subsequently, threats of such violence may be used to force sexual compliance. Finally, obsessive/ sadistic rapes are those in which physical violence is sexually arousing to the perpetrator and may involve pornography, perverse acts, and torture.
Evidence from interviews with marital rape survivors indicates that these assaults have serious immediate and long-term consequences that can be more traumatic than sexual assault by a stranger. Physical injuries include genital or rectal tearing and hemorrhaging, sexually transmitted disease (STD) or HIV infection, miscarriage, and unwanted pregnancy. Emotional consequences include shock and disbelief, intense fear, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, marital rape is experienced as a betrayal and a violation of trust, effects that are felt for years as women try to build new relationships.
Despite the high rate of marital rape, specific services for wife rape victims are virtually nonexistent, and rape crisis shelters or battered women’s shelters do not fully meet victims’ needs. Attention to forced sex in marriage is increasing with wider recognition of its relation to the spread of HIV/AIDS. The UN Declaration on HIV/AIDS calls for women’s sexual autonomy as a key to stemming the global pandemic.
- Bergen, Raquel K. 1996. Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Finkelhor, David and Kersti Yllo. 1985. License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives. New York: Free Press.
- Russell, Diana E. H. 1990. Rape in Marriage. New York: Macmillan.
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