Rape and Sexual Harassment Around the World - Marital Rape

wife women violence intimate

It was very clear to me. He raped me. He ripped off my pajamas, he beat me up. I mean, some scumbag down the street would do that to me. So to me, it wasn't any different because I was married to him, it was rape—real clear what it was. It emotionally hurt worse. I mean you can compartmentalize it as stranger rape—you were at the wrong place at the wrong time. You can manage to get over it differently. But here, you're at home with your husband and you don't expect that. I was under constant terror even if he didn't do it.

—A victim of marital rape

Rape has little to do with the sexual relations associated with love and marriage. Rape is an act of violence by one person against another. It is an act of power that aims to hurt at the most intimate level. Rape is a violation, whether it occurs at the hands of a stranger or within the home at the hands of an abusive husband or partner.

In the United States, state laws on marital rape vary. On July 5, 1993, marital rape became a crime in all fifty states. In thirty-three states, however, there are exemptions from prosecution if, for example, the husband did not use force or if the woman is legally unable to consent because of a severe disability. There is still a tendency in the legal system to consider marital rape far less serious than either stranger or acquaintance rape.

An analysis of data from the National Violence against Women Survey, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated that 1.5 million women and 834,700 men are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner each year. Of all surveyed women age eighteen and older, 1.5% said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date in the year preceding the interview, compared to 0.9% of all surveyed men. Of the women, 7.7% reported being raped by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Although these estimates were developed in 1998, most researchers agree that these statistics are likely to remain unchanged until improved methods to respond to violence against women are instituted.

As previous reports have consistently shown, the National Violence against Women Survey reconfirms that violence against women is primarily intimate partner violence. More than three-quarters of women who were raped and/or physically assaulted from the age of eighteen were assaulted by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date. Nine percent were assaulted by a relative other than a husband, and 17% were assaulted by an acquaintance, such as a friend, neighbor, or coworker. Rape or assault by a stranger accounted for only 14% of the incidents. By comparison, men were primarily raped and physically assaulted by strangers and acquaintances rather than by intimate partners.

Some researchers estimate that nearly two million marital rapes occur each year and that this form of rape is more common than both stranger and acquaintance rape. Although the legal definition varies from state to state, marital rape is generally defined as any sexual activity coerced from a wife unwilling to perform it. Research on marital rape indicates that 10% to 14% of married women have been raped by their partners and that marital rape accounts for about 25% of all rapes.

It is vitally important to recognize the limitations of available data about marital rape and intimate partner violence in general. In Intimate Partner Violence and Age of Victim, 1993–99 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, October 2001), Callie Rennison cautioned that marital status may relate directly to a survey respondent's willingness to reveal violence at the hands of an intimate partner or spouse. For example, a married woman may be afraid to report her husband as the offender or she may be in a state of denial—unable to admit to herself or others that her husband has victimized her.

In her landmark study Rape and Marriage (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), Diana Russell reported on interviews with a random sample of 930 women in the San Francisco area. Of all the women who had been married, 14% had been raped by their spouses at least once. Of this number, one-third reported being raped once; one-third reported between two and twenty incidents; and one-third said they had been raped by their spouses more than twenty times.

According to Russell, the first incident of rape usually occurred in the first year of marriage. Although marital rape occurred more frequently in spousal relationships where emotional and physical abuse were present, it could also happen in marriages where there was little other violence.

Raquel Kennedy Bergen in her book Wife Rape (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996) reported data collected from detailed interviews with forty wife-rape victims. Fifty-five percent had been raped twenty times or more during their marriages, while 17% had experienced this abuse only once. Most of the women in the sample reported that their husbands felt a sense of ownership that granted them sexual rights to their bodies. Because of this perceived entitlement, the men did not interpret their behavior as rape. Several women also believed that the abuse was an attempt to punish them and that the rape was an attempt to control and assert power.

Marital Rape Categories

Louis J. Shiro and Kersti Yllöo, in the Maine State Bar Association Bar Bulletin (vol. 19, no. 5, September 1985), observed that there is no single accurate depiction of marital rape—it is no more accurate to assume that marital rape is always a savage attack than to assume it is just a sexual tiff. Both scenarios are part of a spectrum. The researchers developed three broad categories based on their interviews with fifty assault victims: battering rapes, force-only rapes, and obsessive rapes.

About 45% of the women in this study suffered battering rapes. In these rapes, the batterer used sexual assault as another brutal form of abuse against his wife. Because of the particularly demeaning and degrading nature of some of the acts, this violent behavior appeared more brutal than other violence the abuser may have perpetrated on his wife. The battering rapist was characterized as often angry and suffering from alcohol abuse or another substance abuse problem.

Nonbattering, force-only rape, which involved about 45% of the cases, generally occurred in middle-class marriages where there was much less history of violence and abuse. The immediate reason for the rape was often a specifically sexual reason—for example, how often to have sex and the kind of sex the husband desired. The force used was much more restrained; it was enough to force intercourse but not enough to cause severe injury. This type of rape, Shiro and Yllöo observed, is not so much an instrument of anger as a tool to establish power or control or to "teach a lesson."

About 10% of the women interviewed described rapes the researchers categorized as obsessive marital rape. In these instances, the husband had very unusual, often deviant sexual demands that sometimes involved other men or violence that the wife was refusing to fulfill. This type of rapist was frequently found to be heavily involved in pornography.

How Is Aggression Related to Marital Rape?

Since marital rape frequently occurs in relationships plagued by other types of abusive behavior, some researchers view it as just another expression of intimate partner violence. Support for this idea comes from research documenting high rates of forced sex, ranging from 34% to 57%, reported by married women in battered women's shelters. Still, research has not conclusively demonstrated whether husbands who engage in physical and psychological violence will be more likely to use threatened or forced sex.

Amy Marshall and Amy Holtzworth-Munroe investigated the relationship between two forms of sexual aggression—coerced and threatened/forced sex—and husbands' physical and psychological aggressiveness. They reported their findings in "Varying Forms of Husband Sexual Aggression: Predictors and Subgroup Differences" (Journal of Family Psychology, vol. 16, no. 3, September 2002).

Marshall and Holtzworth-Munroe interviewed 164 couples and evaluated husbands using their own selfreports and their wives' reports on three measures: the revised Conflict Tactics Scale, a questionnaire called the Sexual Experiences Survey, and the Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory, a fifty-eight-item measure of psychological abuse. The researchers found that the most severely physically violent men most often used sexual coercion, while physical aggression was most predictive of threatened/forced sex. Husbands who were rated as generally violent/antisocial engaged in the most threatened/forced sex. Interestingly, even the subtype of physically nonviolent men was found to have engaged in some sexual coercion in the year preceding the study.

Marshall and Holtzworth-Munroe concluded that their findings underscore the need to consider sexual aggression as a form of intimate partner abuse. They also called for research to determine the extent to which sexual coercion precedes and predicts threatened/forced sex and whether this association holds true for all relationships or only for those relationships in which there are other forms of marital violence.

The Effects of Marital Rape

Contrary to the traditional belief that victims of marital rape suffer few or no consequences, research reveals that women may suffer serious long-term medical and psychological consequences from this form of abuse. In her review of the relevant research Marital Rape (Applied Research Forum, National Electronic Network on Violence against Women, http://www.vawnet.org/DomesticViolence/Research/VAWnetDocs/AR_mrape.php, March 1999), Raquel Kennedy Bergen reported raperelated genital injuries, such as lacerations (tears), soreness, bruising, torn muscles, fatigue, vomiting, unintended pregnancy, and infection with sexually transmitted diseases. Victims who had been battered before, during, or after the rape suffered broken bones, black eyes, bloody noses, and knife wounds, as well as injuries sustained when they were kicked, punched, or burned.

The short-term psychological effects are similar to those experienced by other victims of sexual assault and include anxiety, shock, intense fear, suicidal thinking, depression, and post–traumatic stress disorder. But marital rape victims reportedly suffer higher rates of anger and depression than women raped by strangers, perhaps because the violence was perpetrated by a person they had loved and trusted to not harm them. Long-term consequences include serious depression, sexual problems, and emotional pain that lasts years after the abuse. And J. A. Bennice et al. found that marital rape survivors were more likely than other battered women to suffer the debilitating effects of post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even when controlling for the severity of the beatings. They reported their findings in "The Relative Effects of Intimate Partner Physical and Sexual Violence on PTSD Symptomatology" (Violence and Victims, vol. 18, no. 1, 2003).

As is true with other violent acts, marital rape prompts some women to leave their rapist husbands. Kennedy Bergen reported that women from selected ethnic groups, such as Latinas, appeared less likely to characterize forced sex as rape and consequently less likely to accuse or flee their spouses. The fact that married women do leave their abusers, however, was confirmed by an analysis of National Crime Victimization Surveys data that compared marital status of survey respondents from one survey to the next. Table 5.1 shows that 30% of the female victims of intimate partner violence who were married during the previous survey interview when they had reported being victimized had separated by the next year, and an additional 8% had divorced their husbands.

Attitudes about Wife Rape

Historically, wives were considered the property of the husband, and therefore, rape of a wife was viewed as impossible. No husband still living with his wife was prosecuted for marital rape in the United States until 1978—and at that time, marital rape was a crime in only five states, as reported by Jennifer A. Bennice and Patricia A. Resick in "Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice" (Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, vol. 4, no. 3, July 2003). By 1993, marital rape under some conditions was recognized in all fifty states.

However, public attitudes toward rape in marriage have been slow to change, with many people believing that marital rape is not "real rape." Researcher Kathleen Basile of Georgia State University in Atlanta sought to examine variables that might predict specific attitudes about wife rape: beliefs about the occurrence and frequency of forced sex by a husband on his wife and whether respondents would classify various scenarios as constituting rape. She reported her findings in "Attitudes Toward Wife Rape: Effects of Social Background and Victim Status" (Violence and Victims, vol. 17, no. 3, June 2002).

Nearly all previous attitudinal research had focused on limited populations, such as college students, and could not be generalized to the public at large. Basile chose to analyze data from a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,108 adults to produce more widely applicable findings.

Basile hypothesized that social background variables and victim status would predict how survey respondents felt about marital rape. Based on earlier research, she believed that males, blacks, and other racial minorities would express opinions more supportive of wife rape. Similarly, Basile expected that supportive attitudes would increase with age. She felt that victims and persons with higher educational attainment would hold less supportive views of wife rape.

Survey respondents were asked whether they "think husbands ever use force, like hitting, holding down, or using a weapon, to make their wives have sex when the wife doesn't want to" to find out if they thought wife rape occurs. Respondents who answered "yes" to this question were asked how often they thought this occurs to gauge their perceptions of the frequency of wife rape. They also

TABLE 5.1

Change in marital status among married female victims who experienced a violent act by an intimate, 1993–99
Women married at the time of the earlier interview
Marital status over 6 months Experienced intimate violence Experienced non-intimate violence
Note: Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding. Percentages exclude women who did not complete two consecutive interviews. Among married female respondents reporting having experienced a violent victimization, those who reported that an intimate had victimized them were substantially more likely to also report a change in their marital status.
SOURCE: Callie Marie Rennison, "Among Married Female Respondents Reporting Having Experienced a Violent Victimization, Those Who Reported That an Intimate Had Victimized Them Were Substantially More Likely to Also Report a Change in Their Marital Status," in Intimate Partner Violence and Age of Victim, 1993–1999, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 187635, October 2001, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/ipva99.pdf (accessed October 15, 2004)
Total 100% 100%
Still married 62 97
Divorced 8 1
Separated 30 1

listened to descriptions of three scenarios of forced sex: two scenarios involved forced sex between husband and wife and the other was a woman forced to have sex with someone with whom she was previously intimate. The respondents were asked whether they considered each scenario to be an instance of rape.

Basile found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents believed that wife rape occurs, 18% thought it does not occur, and 5% were unsure. Among those who thought wife rape occurs, 38% said it happens often, and an additional 40% felt it happens somewhat often. Fifteen percent felt wife rape is infrequent and 4% said it is a rare occurrence.

Basile found support for nearly all her of hypotheses. The older the respondents, the less likely they were to believe that wife rape occurs, and white respondents were 2.5 times more likely to believe that wife rape occurs than blacks and other minorities. Women thought wife rape occurs more frequently than did men and, predictably, victims were more than twice as likely as nonvictims to feel that wife rape occurs.

The most surprising finding was that more education was associated with the belief that wife rape is less frequent. Basile observed that this finding might simply indicate that even persons with higher educational attainment remain ignorant about the frequency of wife rape.

Although Basile found that overall national attitudes about wife rape are less supportive than she would have predicted prior to her study, the variations in attitudes toward the two marital rape scenarios prompted her to observe that many Americans still feel victims play some part in their own victimization.

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over 2 years ago

What is this a good article! I have suffered from marital rape. It means that you are nowhere safe at home not even in your bed. After so many years I am still suffering from PTSS. I feel very uncomfortable if I have to be in a room or sit next to a man who will remind about me about my husband. I will feel sick and have to leave to avoid the situation. All my trust in man has gone. I still find it embarassing to talk about it.

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about 2 years ago

I was not only involved in my spouse raping me but was also controlled by my religious upbringing which adhered strictly to the biblical belief that women are to submit. My ex used that teaching and then with knowing full well that divorce was a disgrace to my family continued to spit out religious words to them and when i filed for divorce i became the outcast. The shame i suffered is unreal. Where does one go to let others hear there is help? Where does one get out their story to bring the end of this unspeakable crime to women?