Rape is often thought of as forced sexual intercourse by a stranger. So as a crime within marriage, rape is often overlooked.
Worse, many consider it a husband’s right to have intercourse at will.
Rape scenes on television and film are commonplace. Even AMC ‘s award-winning show, Mad Men, known for its poignant showcase of gender issues in the 1950’s tackles the topic of marital rape in graphic difficult-to-watch dramatic scenes.
There’s a Difference
Marital rape is often regarded as less traumatic than stranger rape but studies show this to be false; survivors experience long lasting effects.
Unlike stranger rape, marital rape is often a reoccurring event. Raquel Kennedy Bergen, Professor and Chair of Sociology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, notes that marital rape victims are “more likely to experience multiple assaults and often suffer severe long-term physical and emotional consequences.”
There is also a difference in the type of abuse suffered. Married perpetrators may use verbal and psychological means of control, for example, anal or oral rape to humiliate the spouse.
The psychological trauma can also spread through the family when children become witnesses to sexual abuse. In a study by researchers Jacquelyn Campbell and Peggy Alford, the authors found that five percent of the women indicated that their children had been forced by their partners to participate in sexual violence and 18% of the women indicated that their children had witnessed an incident of marital rape at least once.
Now considered a global problem, findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, University of Minnesota, indicate that an astounding 20 percent of rape survivors were victimized by a spouse or ex-spouse, and four percent were raped by a current or previous cohabitating partner.
Why Don’t They Just Leave?
Believing that the perpetrator might change results in general underreporting of sexual abuse by family members.
Women under misconceptions – rape myths – believe the crime is only committed by strangers. So help-seeking is hindered by their failure to recognize being crime victims at all.
Even if they recognize the husband as abusive, there are barriers to escape. Social and religious shaming can represent obstacles to separation or divorce.
The nature of the spousal relationship can serve to imprison many women. Financial dependence and in some cases photographs and film taken of the sexual abuse are used as blackmail, also limiting options.
Criminalization of marital rape didn’t take place in many countries for decades after the feminist movement brought it to the forefront in the 1960s with countries such as Canada, Israel, and Australia waiting until the early 1980s to create laws against it. In the United States, it wasn’t until 1993 that rape laws in all 50 states had removed a marital rape exemption, which allowed a husband to legally rape his wife.
Even with the removal of the exemption, marital rape is still often dealt with differently in the legal system from other rape crimes. An Illinois Victim’s Services Newsletter describes a case from 2005 in which a wife reported being raped by her husband. Although the average conviction for rape in Illinois is five years, he only served 19 months.
You Don’t Own Me
Misogynistic beliefs, the view that women’s bodies are owned by their husbands, and victim blaming attitudes (“she was asking for it”), serve to slow progress.
Certain religions may encourage the dominance and status of males over females, especially in the context of marriage. This cultivates a sense of ownership and religious right to do with wives as some husbands see fit.
Outrage over a proposal of a marital rape law in the Bahamas had many Bahamian men confused with one stating, “It is ridiculous for them to try to make that a law, because I don’t think a man can rape his own wife. After two people get married, the Bible says that they become one –one flesh. How is it possible to rape what is yours?”
It is just this culture of justified rape that perpetuates silence.
At its core, marital rape needs to be recognized for what it is -a violation of human rights, rooted in misconceptions that must be amended for the sake of our mothers, sisters, and daughters.
Author: Robert T. Muller, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at York University