Intimate Partner Sexual Assault
The trauma of being assaulted or raped in a relationship.
Posted Mar 03, 2020
Thanks to the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein case, in particular, we are finally getting some clarity on what actually defines “rape.”
Due to the Weinstein case, it has been clarified that a person can be legally charged with rape even if there is an existing relationship and even if there is an ongoing relationship. Key to this definition is the existence of the attacker holding a position of power over the victim, as it was in the Weinstein case.
But there is still a form of rape that remains a “hidden crime”—the sexual assault by an intimate partner. This is partly due to the fact that many women who experience marital or intimate partner sexual assault do not realize they have been raped.
Marital rape is defined as any unwanted sexual penetration (vaginal, anal, or oral) or contact with the genitals that is the result of actual or threatened physical force or when the woman is unable to give affirmative consent.
This includes: being held down while your partner physically forces himself or an object inside you, your partner tying you up or otherwise confining you (without your consent) so that he can have complete control over your body, your partner forcing your head down on his penis and repeatedly pushing your head up and down, and your partner putting you in a doggy position and forcing himself inside you or forcing an object inside you (without your consent and without lubrication). It also includes sexual exploitation involving sexual contact, such as when a husband coerces a wife to engage in sexual acts with someone else.
Intimate partner sexual assault is an assault that is committed by a current or past spouse or boyfriend. This includes cohabitating couples who are not married since the relevant relationship dynamics of long-term cohabiting couples are similar to those of legally married couples.
Forced intercourse within a marriage is often called “marital rape.” Like other forms of domestic violence, marital rape is about exerting power and control over one’s partner. Nearly 1 in 10 women has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug-facilitated completed penetration. Surprisingly, rape by intimate partners is more common than stranger rape (Bachman & Saltzman, 1995; Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985; Randall & Haskell, 1995).
Please note: Those in a same-sex relationship can also be victims of “marital rape.” This is true whether the victim is a male or female, whether the aggressor is a male or female. For the purpose of simplicity in this article, I will refer to the victim as a female and the aggressor as a male.
Marital Rape Is Illegal
Historically, marital or intimate partner rape was not considered a crime. In many countries, including the United States, rape was traditionally defined as forced sexual conduct with someone other than one’s wife. As a matter of law, rape could not occur within a marital relationship; the wife’s consent to the sexual conduct was presumed. In recent years, however, there has been marked progress in removing such marital exemptions from rape statutes (stopvaw.org).
As of 2011, at least 52 countries have explicitly made marital rape a criminal offense, and according to a 2006 report from the UN Secretary-General, at least 104 countries criminalize marital rape—if not under explicit marital rape statutes, then under general rape laws. Yet, despite the trend on the books, legal systems in many countries continue to reflect the belief that rape within a marriage is not rape.
Regardless of the extent to which marital rape is defined or recognized by law, in practice, it is rarely reported, prosecuted, or punished. Many women throughout the world do not know that marital rape is illegal, and even those who do are discouraged from reporting by norms and social stigmas. Law enforcement and prosecutors are often unwilling to respond to complaints, and when they do, the burden is placed on the victim to prove the act was illegal, which generally requires visible physical injuries since it’s difficult to prove lack of consent or resistance without them.
Why Marital Rape Is So Underreported
Rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the US (Bachman & Saltzman, 1995). Victims of marital rape are even less willing to report the crime than victims of stranger rape. A number of factors contribute to this underreporting:
- Loyalty to husband/privacy of family. Women feel uncomfortable casting their husband in a negative light, and keeping the family secrets is typical in abusive relationships.
- An unwillingness to accept their own victimization. It is emotionally painful to acknowledge that one has been betrayed by someone they depend upon for love and support. For many women who lack the economic resources, social support, or job skills that would enable them to leave the relationship, acknowledging rape by a partner would only add to an already painful situation.
- Reluctance to label the experience “rape.” A common thread found in studies of wife rape is the women’s avoidance of the words “rape” or “sexual assault” when discussing experiences of forced sex with a husband or intimate partner. Many, who submit to sex out of fear, don’t consider themselves rape victims.
I met Mary Ann at a shelter for battered women. She had finally fled her husband after many years of being physically beaten by him. Although she freely talked about her various experiences of being physically abused by her husband, she had answered “no” when asked if she had ever been raped by him. Finally, several weeks after being in the shelter, she opened up about being sexually assaulted by her husband after another woman in the group shared her experiences. It turned out her husband had not only beaten her, but he had also demanded sex several times a day. If she did not comply, he would hit her, demean her verbally or throw her out of the house. He also forced her to have sex in front of their children.
When we talked to Mary Ann further, she revealed that the reason she had denied being sexually assaulted by her husband was because her husband had insisted that it was her duty to have sex with him. This had confused her and made her think his assaults weren’t actually rape.
In general, women tend to perceive themselves as being more responsible for and less harmed by forced sex when the offender is a husband/long-term partner rather than a stranger. And many women blame themselves for the attack, believing they provoked their husband in some way. Here’s a more comprehensive list of reasons why women don’t report marital rape or even understand that what has happened to them as rape:
1. Misunderstandings about a woman’s role in marriage and marital responsibilities. Like Mary Ann, many women believe it is their “wifely duty” to have sex with their husband whenever (and often, however) he wants. They believe they are obligated by their marriage vows to submit to all sexual acts, and therefore, these acts are not rape. Some women believe they are wrong or frigid for not wanting sex.
2. Sexual inexperience and uncertainty about what constitutes “normal” and “forced” sexual relations. Many women whose husbands sexually assault them haven’t had much experience with other sexual partners, or their sexual partners have also been abusive. Therefore, they believe that forced sex is normal—not “real rape.”
3. Religious and cultural influences. Culture and religion can have a profound influence on the decisions and actions abused women have to consider. For example, in Latino culture:
- Women are often designated with the roles of “wife” and “mother.” It is socially unacceptable to be divorced, to marry more than once, or to remain single and have children out of wedlock. For these reasons, it may take some time, if ever, for a woman who is being raped by her husband to consider leaving him.
- Catholicism is prevalent in Latino culture, and religious beliefs can contribute to women’s inability to escape any form of domestic violence. Latinas often accept their situations with resignation, believing their life is the way God wants it to be.
- Inaccessibility to information and resources in their native language may prevent many Latinas from seeking appropriate services to aid them. For example, in Mexico, a law called “abandono de hogar” punishes women who leave their home, even to flee violence. Women convicted of “abandoning the home” often lost custody of their children. Some Mexican women who immigrate to the US erroneously believe that this law applies here.
The Damage Caused by Marital Rape
In general, lower penalties apply to marital rape than to stranger rape. This is based on the myth that because the husband and wife already have an intimate relationship, the act of forced intercourse is less traumatic for the victim. But current research dispels the myth that sexual assault in marriage is less traumatic than stranger rape. Family-violence researcher Kersti Yllo argues, for example: “The shock, terror, and betrayal of wife rape are often exacerbated rather than mitigated by the marital relationship.” And Raquel Kennedy Bergen’s research indicates that victims of marital rape appear to suffer particularly severe psychological consequences.
Marital rape can be just as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, stranger rape. Marital rape often involves severe physical violence, threats of violence, and the use of weapons. Men who batter and rape are particularly dangerous men and are more likely to severely injure their wives and potentially even escalate the violence to murder than batterers who do not rape their wives. It is also important to point out that marital rapes can occur many times over many years (Russell, 1990).
Victims of marital rape describe a deep personal violation of trust. This is what my client Mona shared with me about her experience of marital rape: “If a stranger raped me it would feel very different—I wouldn’t take it so personally. He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him. But with my husband it becomes personal. I say to myself, ‘This person knows me intimately, he knows my feelings, he knows what raping me will do to me and he does it anyway. It’s such a shock, such a betrayal.’”
Another client, Veronica, told me this after being raped by her husband: “I was raped by a stranger when I was in my twenties and I managed to compartmentalize the experience—I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I didn’t blame myself, exactly. I just determined I would be more cautious in the future. I didn’t worry about it happening again. But I didn’t ever imagine my own husband would do this to me. After the first time he raped me, I was in a constant state of terror from that point on. I was always waiting for him to do it again and I couldn’t get over it.”
As David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo note, a woman who is raped by a stranger lives with a memory of a horrible attack; a woman who is raped by her husband lives with her rapist.
Not only is there no evidence that victims of wife rape are less likely to experience the same consequences as victims of stranger rape, there is considerable evidence that the psychological consequences for wife rape victims are more severe. For example, studies have shown that suicidal ideation and nervous breakdown rates are higher among victims who had experienced complete rape when compared to victims of attempted rape—and sexual assaults between intimate partners are more likely to result in completed rape than assaults by strangers (Ullman & Siegel, 1993).
Researchers including Brown (1993) have found that PTSD is most likely to develop when traumatic events occur in an environment previously deemed safe. Living with a person who has sexually assaulted her, there is no place in which a woman may feel safe from future assaults.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), marital rape may result in more damage than stranger rape because victims are pressured to stay with their abusive partner, victims may have difficulty identifying the act as a crime or their partner as a criminal, there are potential negative impacts on children living in the home, and there is a higher likelihood of repeat assault.
Often, though not always, sexual assault by intimate partners is accompanied by other forms of domestic violence. Sexual assault is one of the abusive behaviors used by a batterer to establish and maintain power and control over his partner. According to Carol Adams, “Women are often raped as a continuation of beating, threatened with more violence if they fail to comply with their husband’s sexual requests, or forced to have sex to oblige the abuser’s need to ‘make up’ after a beating.” (Buchwald, et al, 1993).
And so we can see that for numerous reasons, marital rape can actually be more, not less, damaging to the victim than stranger rape.
Engel, Beverly. I'm Saying No! Standing Up Against Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment, and Sexual Pressure. 2019, She Writes Press.