National Domestic Violence Hotline
Marital Rape Information
A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and Resource Guide
Q. What is Wife Rape?
A. Wife Rape is the term used to describe sexual acts committed without a person's consent and/or against a person's will, when the perpetrator (attacker) is the woman's husband or ex-husband.
Sexual acts may be accomplished against a person's will by physical force, threats of force to her or a third person, or implied harm based on prior assaults causing the woman to fear that physical force will be used if she resists. A wife does not need to be "putting up a good fight" for it to be rape (even according to the law). Some women have been hurt in the past for not cooperating with their husbands. For example, some may have been physically beaten, or had money or other necessities taken or withheld from them, or their husband or partner may have used emotional or psychological abuse, such as threatening to leave her. A woman who has experienced such things in the past when she has not agreed to her husband's sexual advances may choose to minimize the harm to herself by resisting as little as possible. Many battered women have reported that husbands have demanded sex directly following a beating, as proof that the woman "forgives" him for beating her. When a woman submits to sexual acts out of fear or coercion, it is rape.
Sexual acts may be accomplished without a person's consent when the woman is capable of giving consent, but does not give it. Another way sex is accomplished without consent is when a woman is unable to give consent, so that the man doesn't need to use force. For example, if she is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs (including medication), if she is unconscious or asleep, or if she is permanently or temporarily disabled in a way which limits her ability to give consent.
Having sex with a person one time does not "imply" consent to any future sexual acts. According to rape statutes, consent must be a cooperative act of free will.
Sexual acts include but are not limited to penile-vaginal intercourse, the insertion of genitals into the mouth or anus, or the insertion of objects into the vagina or anus.
This section talks about "wife rape," which by definition only includes legally married persons. Experiences of women who have been raped by long-term or live-in partners are likely to be similar to wife rape in many respects. This is true for same-sex couples. Most importantly, all survivors of rapes by intimate partners must realize that they do not deserve to be degraded and used in this manner.
Q. How Common is Wife Rape?
A. Diana Russell (a prominent rape researcher) interviewed over 900 randomly selected women and found that, while 3% had experienced completed rape by a stranger, 8% had experienced completed rape by a husband. Wife rape was the most common type of completed rape reported. These numbers are calculated on all women, including those who haven't ever been married. If you only count women who have been married, 14% - or one in every seven married women - reported either a completed or attempted rape by a husband/ex-husband. David Finkelhor & Kersti Yllo, at the Family Research Laboratory in New Hampshire, surveyed over 300 community women in Boston and found that 10% of women who had been married reported sexual assault by a husband or ex-husband, while 3% reported sexual assaults by strangers (see reference list for these studies). Studies of battered women staying in shelters and women seeking relationship help report from one third to three quarters of those asked reported sexual assaults by their husbands or intimate partners.
A recent national survey found that 10% of all sexual assault cases reported by women involved a husband or ex-husband attacker (Rape in America, 1992, released by the National Victim Center, Arlington, VA). Because many women are less likely to label sexual assaults by a husband as rape (compared with sexual assaults by strangers or acquaintances) and so are less likely to report them, these numbers must be considered to be low estimates.
Q. How are Victims of Wife Rape Different from Other Rape Victims?
A. Women raped by a partner are being violated by someone with whom they share their lives, homes, and possibly children. In addition to the violation of their bodies, they are faced with a betrayal of trust and intimacy. Sadly, victims of wife rape are not likely to see what is being done to them as a violation of their rights. This is no surprise, however, as society has only recently legally recognized wife rape as a crime, and opinion polls show that people still believe that wife rape must be "less harmful" than stranger rape.
Research indicates that wife rape victims are more likely to be raped multiple times when compared with stranger and acquaintance rape victims, and women who experience wife rape suffer long lasting physical and psychological injuries which are as severe or more severe than stranger rape victims.
Q. What Legal Rights do Married Women Have Regarding Wife Rape?
A. Today it is a crime in all 50 states (and federal lands) for a husband to rape his wife. It is difficult to believe that just 20 years ago (in 1976) no husband could be charged with raping his wife, due to a section in the rape laws called the Marital Rape Exemption. This exemption (which was thought to be common law in some states but the result of legislation in others) actually exempted men from prosecution for rape in cases where the woman he raped was his wife!
The Marital Rape Exemption has not yet been completely removed. According to the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape (see Resource List), as of March 1996, only 17 states and the District of Columbia have completely abolished the marital rape exemption. The marital privileges are extended to unmarried cohabitants in 5 states, and to dates in 1 state (Delaware)
It is important to remember that under at least one section of the sexual offense codes (usually those code sections regarding force), marital rape is a crime in all 50 states. Each state has its own sexual offense codes. See the Resource List to order a copy of marital rape laws by state. Although marital rape is now a crime in all 50 states in the U.S., some states still don't consider it as serious as other forms of rape. The only states that have laws that make no distinction between marital rape and stranger rape are Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. These states have no marital rape exemptions.
Women may also sue their husbands in civil court for pain and suffering and medical and other costs incurred as a result of sexual battery. Please see the section on marital rape in the Lehrman book, listed below in the section Resources for Legal Information about Wife Rape.
Q. Why Would a Man Rape His Wife?
A. Our ability to answer this question is limited, as so little research has focused on husband-rapists. It is, however, clear from the reports of the survivors that it is not due to a wife's withholding of sex (the most common myth). Most women who report being raped by their husbands also report having consensual sexual intercourse with them. Researchers who have spoken with husband-rapists conclude that husband-rapists rape to reinforce their power, dominance, or control over their wife or family, or to express anger.
Stereotypes about women and sex - such as: women enjoy forced sex, women say "no" when they really mean "yes," it's a wife's duty to have sex - continue to be reinforced in our culture through both mainstream and pornographic media. Such messages not only mislead men into believing that they should ignore a woman's protests, but also mislead women into believing that they themselves must have "sent the wrong signals," blaming themselves for unwanted sexual encounters, or believing that they are "bad wives" for not enjoying sex against their will.
Q. Why Would a Woman Stay With a Man Who Raped Her?
A. The answers to this question are very complicated. Many women believe it is part of their "wifely duty" to have sex with their husbands, even if it is violent sex against their own will. Many religious doctrines do outline sexual acts as a "duty" for wives. In addition, it is only recently that the law has begun to offer wives protection from their husband's sexual attacks, and many people may be unaware that wife rape is a crime.
Many women cannot leave a relationship because they do not have the financial resources to do so. If she has children, a woman's ability to leave is complicated by the added problem of moving her children with her (taking them out of school, away from friends) or abandoning her children. She may not leave for fear of what the offender may do to her or the children. In addition, some women may not leave due to love and loyalty to the husband, which may override her own pain and suffering. The decision to leave a person you care about or love can be very difficult, even when the relationship is unhealthy or violent. But it's the abuse that's wrong, not loving someone who is abusive. No one deserves to be beaten or raped, and no one is required to live in a climate of fear and violence. Everyone has the right to live in a safe home.
Some consider focusing on such an issue to be "victim-blaming." Indeed, if we remain hung up on this issue we reinforce the notion that the woman is at fault for staying with an abusive partner, rather than the man being at fault for being abusive. The abusive partner must accept responsibility for the abuse, not the victim!!
If You Have Experienced Sex Without Your Consent or Against Your Will by Your Husband or Partner...
If your partner has insisted that you have sex against your will by force, threats, or intimidation, please know that you are not alone and seek help. You may want to seek personal and/or legal counseling. Counseling services can be found through rape crisis centers, domestic violence services, and family service agencies (see Resources below). You may call these numbers to discuss past experiences as well as recent ones. Immediately following a rape experience, please seek medical treatment at a hospital, followed by counseling.
Be forewarned that many rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters may not have services specifically designed for survivors of wife rape. Until recently, this issue has not been widely discussed. Try not to get discouraged, and know that efforts are underway to increase services for wife rape survivors (for more about the response of service providers to wife rape survivors, see Wife Rape in the Resource List.
In Beijing in 1995, all governments represented in the United Nations voted to abolish the marital privilege to sex on demand (see New York Times, September 10, 1995: Women's Meeting Agrees on Right to Say No to Sex - A Spouse's Prerogative, Draft Wording Asserts Right to Make Sexual Decisions Free From Coercion, by Seth Faison). You do not deserve to be abused and/or degraded in this manner, and you do have legal and human rights.
Some people may claim that religious doctrines say it is a wife's duty to have sex with her husband, regardless of the wife's wishes or the amount of violence used. Despite such claims, sex on demand is NOT part of the marriage contract in the United States. In fact, in January 1995, religious leaders across all faiths, across the United States, made a public statement declaring a woman's right to consent in their faith (see Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1996: When the Laws of God and Men Converge, by Roy Rivenburg). Please find writings about religion and domestic violence or sexuality (written by someone of your faith, if possible) which can offer you a different point of view and address your spiritual concerns (see Yllo & LeClerc and Fortune in the Resource List).
If You Have Had Sex with Your Wife or Partner Without Her Consent or Against Her Will....
If you have coerced or forced your wife or partner into sexual acts against her will, please seek help. Please see the resources and links at the end of this page. The following lists are adapted from When Your Wife Says NO (see the Resource list to order a copy of this pamphlet), and is intended to guide men who are sexually assaultive/abusive towards a more healthy and abuse-free sexual relationship with their wives:
A healthy sexual relationship is one in which:
Sex which is freely, intelligently, and voluntarily given by your partner is sex with consent. Your partner deserves to maintain her bodily integrity; she deserves your respect.
What Can I Do About Wife Rape?
Resources for Women Who Have Experienced Sex Without Their Consent or Against Their Will by their Partner
Women who need assistance should contact their local rape crisis center or battered women's shelter. Be forewarned that many rape crisis center and shelters may not have services specifically designed for survivors of wife rape. Try not to get discouraged, and know that efforts are underway to increase services for wife rape survivors. If you need a referral to a local agency, please call:
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE
Resources for Men Who Have Had Sex with Their Partner Without Their Consent or Against Their Partner's Will
Resources for Legal Information about Wife Rape
National Organization for Women (NOW)
The Center for Constitutional Rights
Resources in Print
Lehrman, Fredrica L. (1996). Domestic Violence Practice and Procedure. Deerfield, IL: Clark, Boardman, Callaghan. Domestic Violence Practice and Procedure contains a chapter on marital rape including information on civil prosecution of husbands for marital rape damages.
Ryan, R. M. (1996). The sex right: A legal history of the marital rape exemption. Law and Social Inquiry, 20 (4), 941-999.
Books on Wife Rape
Bergen, R. K. (1996). Wife Rape: Understanding the response of survivors and service providers.Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage. Finkelhor, D. & Yllo, K. (1985). License to Rape: Sexual abuse of wives. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Russell, D.E.H. (1990). Rape in marriage. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
Selected Research/Writings on Wife Rape (Book chapters, journal articles, pamphlets, etc.) ** NOTE: This reading list is NOT comprehensive. More articles have been written; these are suggestions intended to get you started.
Adams, C. (1993). I Just Raped My Wife! What Are You Going to do About it, Pastor? in E. Buchwald, P. Fletcher, & M. Roth (Eds). Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed.
Augustine, R. I. (1990-1). Marriage: The Safe Haven for Rapists. Journal of Family Law, 29(3): 559- 590.
Campbell, J.C. & P. Alford (1989). The Dark Consequences of Marital Rape. American Journal of Nursing, 89: 946-9.
Campbell, J.C. (1989). Women's Responses to Sexual Abuse in Intimate Relationships. Health Care for Women International, 10: 335-346.
Center for Constitutional Rights. (1986). Stopping Sexual Assault in Marriage/Supresion Del Ataque Sexual En El Matrimonio. NY, NY: Center for Constitutional Rights. (To order, call: (212) 614-6464)
Drucker, D. (1979). The common law does not support a marital exemption for forcible rape. Women's Rights Law Reporter ,5 (2-3).
Fortune, M. M. (1996). Violence against women and children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook. NY: Continuum Publishing.
Fortune, M. M. (1996). The First Amendment Defense Against Forced Sex? Working Together to Prevent Sexual and Domestic Violence, vol. 6, number 4. (Newsletter of the Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, Seattle, WA)
Frieze, I. (1983). Investigating the Causes and Consequences of Marital Rape. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 8: 532-553.
Hanneke, C. R. & Shields, N. M. (1985). Marital Rape: Implications for the Helping Professionals. Journal of Contemporary Social Work, October: 451-458.
Hanneke, C. R., Shields, N. M., & McCall, G.J. (1986). Assessing the prevalence of marital rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1(3): 350-362.
Johnson, Scott A. (1992). Man-to-man: When your partner says NO. Brandon, VT: The Safer Society Press. [FYI: This pamphlet addresses date and partner rape] (To order, call: (802) 247-3132; cost $7 + shipping).
Knopp, F.H. (1994). When your wife says NO: Forced Sex in Marriage. Brandon, VT: The Safer Society Press. (To order, call: (802) 247-3132; cost $7 + shipping).
Mahoney, P. & Williams, L. (1998). Sexual assault in marriage: Prevalence, consequences and treatment for wife rape. In J. Jasinski & L. M. Williams (Eds.), Partner violence: A comprehensive review of 20 years of research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (To access an earlier version of this chapter online, click here): Sexual Assault in Marriage (earlier version)
Pagelow, M. D. (1988). Martial Rape. In V. B. Van Hasselt, R. L. Morrison, A. S. Bellack, & M. Hersen (Eds.)., Handbook of Family Violence. New York: Plenum Press
Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Walsh, C., & Veronen, L. J. (1991). Marital rape. In R. T. Ammerman & M. Hersen (Eds.), Case studies in family violence (pp. 329-355). New York: Plenum Press.
Ryan, R. M. (1996). The sex right: A legal history of the marital rape exemption. Law and Social Inquiry, 20 (4), 941-999.
Shields, N.M., Resick, P.A., & Hanneke, C.R. (1990). Victims of marital rape. In R. T. Ammerman & M. Hersen (Eds.), Treatment of family violence. (pp. 165-182). New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Weingourt, R. (1985). Wife Rape: Barriers to Identification and Treatment. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 39 (2).
Whatley, M.A. (1993). For better or for worse: The case of marital rape. Violence and Victims, 8(1): 29-39.
X, Laura. (1994). A brief series of anecdotes about the backlash experienced by those of us working on marital and date rape. The Journal of Sex Research, 31, 151-153.
Yllo, K. & LeClerc, D. (1988). Marital Rape. In A. L. Horton & J. A. Williamson (Eds.). Abuse and religion: When praying isn't enough. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Source: Wellesley Center for Women
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