Why Don't Victims Report Spousal Rape?

Tracking an invisible pandemic behind closed doors.

Posted Jul 25, 2020

TMagen / CC BY-SA creativecommons.
Source: TMagen / CC BY-SA creativecommons.

For some individuals, the pandemic outside is fueling an invisible scourge within their own home.  Whether legally quarantined or choosing to self-isolate, men and women, involved in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, are being victimized behind closed doors.  The United Nations has documented how quarantine restrictions have been internationally recognized as a source of interpersonal controversy, including a rise in domestic violence.[i]  What is not discussed as much, however, at least not openly, is how much of that domestic violence includes spousal rape.  

Spousal Rape Is Rape

I have prosecuted spousal rape cases.  They are challenging on many levels, partially because some people still struggle with the proposition that you can rape a spouse. I have encountered such views in casual conversation, as well as in the middle of picking a jury on a sex crimes case.  In reality, most people understand that criminal laws are not suspended when a couple says, “I do.”  If that were the case we would not have domestic violence laws.  But when there are no physical injuries, there is a conceptual disconnect for some people when it comes to comprehending the criminal nature of forced marital sex—especially when it is rarely reported.  

Evolution of Spousal Rape Statutes

Criminal law has evolved over the years to make clear that raping a spouse is still rape.  Jennifer McMahon-Howard et al. discussed this evolution in “Criminalizing Spousal Rape: The Diffusion of Legal Reforms.”[ii]  Discussing several different factors impacting states’ decisions to adopt these laws, they conclude that overall, comprehending legal reforms requires attention to change, negative impact of spatial diffusion, and the factor of time.

Elaine K. Martin et al. provided a comprehensive review of marital rape, including its prevalence and legal history.[iii]Writing in 2007, they note that marital rape had then become a crime in all 50 states, but in terms of victims, regarding statistics available at that time, they report that 10% to 14% of all married women are victims of marital rape, and 40% to 50% of battered women.  It is hard to identify statistics today with certainty given the fact that spousal rape remains largely unreported.

Legally, fellow attorney and columnist Maclen Stanley writes about loopholes that still exist in 2020 when it comes to criminal code sections from various states that criminalize marital rape.[iv]  

Yet beyond the laws and statistics, spousal rape is unique from other types of sex crime in terms of the ways in which is impacts the victims, and the marriage itself.

Spousal Rape Response

Martin et al. report that marriages within which spousal rape occurs experience significantly higher rates of non-sexual types of violence, as well as marital dissatisfaction and lower assessments of marital quality.  They also note that victims respond differently when a rapist is a spouse.  They note that marital rape victims often resist verbally, usually unsuccessfully.  In fact, they note that marital rape victims may not resist at all, due to belief in the futility of the effort, fear of injury, belief in fulfilling their “wifely duty,” and concern over how resistance will impact the marriage relationship.

But they also note that regardless of whether or not victims attempt to resist, marital rape has serious effects on victims, both physically and psychologically.  They note that victims reportedly experience depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and adverse symptoms of physical health.  

Consider how such symptoms might be compounded by COVID-19-related regulations and accompanying physical and emotional effects, coupled with the understandable reluctance to risk exposure by visiting a doctor, or moving out of the home.  

Recognizing spousal rape as an important, under-reported form of intimate partner violence can promote awareness, understanding, response, and victim willingness to disclose.  While the world battles the overt pandemic outside, increased reporting of spousal sexual violence can help to identify and hopefully contain the invisible pandemic that exists inside abusive marriages.

Facebook image: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock


[i] See, e.g., https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/un-supporting-‘trapped’-domestic-violence-victims-during-covid-19-pandemic.

[ii] McMahon-Howard, Jennifer, Jody Clay-Warner, and Linda Renzulli. “Criminalizing Spousal Rape: The Diffusion of Legal Reforms.” Sociological Perspectives 52, no. 4 (December 2009): 505–31. doi:10.1525/sop.2009.52.4.505.

[iii] Martin, Elaine K., Casey T. Taft, and Patricia A. Resick. 2007. “A Review of Marital Rape.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 12 (3): 329–47. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2006.10.003.

[iv] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/making-sense-chaos/202005/the-bizarre-legal-loopholes-surrounding-spousal-rape