Rape and sexual assault can take many forms. Sometimes, it is a random occurrence between strangers, but it is actually more common for a woman to experience spousal rape, as statistics show that 51.1% of female rape victims are raped by an intimate partner.
So, what is marital rape? Learn the answer, as well as how to get help for yourself or a loved one, below.
What is marital rape?
Rape in marriage may seem like a strange concept, but the truth is that spousal rape does occur. In fact, prior to the 1970s, marital rape was not a criminal act in most states because spouses were exempt from sexual assault laws.
As of today, spousal rape is a crime in all 50 states, but some have only outlawed this act relatively recently. For example, up until 1993, the law in North Carolina stipulated that a person could not be prosecuted for sexual assault if the victim was the legal spouse of the perpetrator.
So, what is marital rape? It is just like any other type of rape, but it occurs within the context of a marriage. Marital rape occurs when one spouse forces the other to have sex without consent.
A marital rape definition is as follows: Any act of unwanted intercourse or sexual penetration that occurs with force, threats, or due to the victim’s incapacitation (such as being asleep or intoxicated).
In some states, marital sexual assault is treated as a separate crime from sexual assault that occurs outside of marriage. Perpetrators may receive lighter sentences for marital sexual assault. For instance, in California, there is no mandatory prison sentence for someone who is convicted of committing rape in marriage.
It is not uncommon for people to ask, “Is it rape if you’re married?” Prior to the passage of laws that banned sexual assault in a marriage, some people believed that spousal rape did not fit the criteria for rape. This is an egregious misconception.
The term “rape” refers to any instance in which one person forces another to have sex against their will.
If your spouse forces you to have sex or engage in a sexual act that you do not consent to, it still counts as rape, even if you are married to the person. In fact, sexual assault within a marriage is a form of intimate partner violence.
When people exchange marital vows, they promise to love, honor, and care for each other in times of sickness and health. They do not agree that one or both partners are entitled to sex when the other says no.
That being said, the answer to, “Can your husband rape you?” is a resounding yes. If a husband (or wife, for that matter) uses force to initiate sex or takes advantage of the other when they are incapacitated, this fits the criteria for rape.
Learn more about why marital rape is still considered rape in this video:
Why do sexual assault and marital rape happen?
After people find the answer to, “What is marital rape?” they often wonder why it happens. Rape in marriage is never the fault of the victim and is always because of the behavior of the perpetrator.
Sexual assault in marriage is about more than sex; perpetrators of these acts desire to assert power, control, and dominance over their partners. They may also have unhealthy and sexist beliefs surrounding marriage and partnership and feel as if they are entitled to the wife’s body whenever they desire it.
Furthermore, because of prevailing beliefs about the role of women in marriage, some people, including lawmakers, may believe that marriage means a woman has given irrevocable consent to having sex with her husband at any time and under any circumstances.
3 types of marital rape
When we define marital rape, it is important to understand that there can be several types of marital rape. Often, instances of spousal rape are divided into the following three categories:
1. Battering marital rape
This form of spousal rape includes both physical and sexual violence. A victim is exposed not only to sexual assault in marriage but also to instances of physical assault, including hitting, slapping, punching, and kicking.
In some cases, battering marital rape may occur only during sex acts. For instance, a victim may be forced to have sex, and during penetration, the perpetrator may physically beat the victim, leaving bruises or lacerations on the body.
In other instances, this type of marital rape can involve separate instances of physical and sexual abuse.
A perpetrator may act out physically and then force the victim to have sex in order to “make up” following a physical fight. Or physical and sexual abuse can occur separately in the context of a marriage that includes ongoing acts of domestic violence.
2. Force-only spousal rape
With force-only marital sexual abuse, there is no physical violence that occurs separately from rape. A husband uses only the amount of physical force necessary to coerce his wife into having sex.
For example, a husband using force-only rape may hold his partner down and force sexual intercourse upon her, or he may threaten to harm her if she does not give in and have sex. Outside of these acts of sexual violence, there is no ongoing physical battering.
A perpetrator who engages in force-only rape may force a victim to have sex through incapacitation. The perpetrator may drug the victim or force large quantities of alcohol upon the victim, so they are not able to resist the perpetrator’s sexual penetration.
In some cases, the victim may be so incapacitated that they are not aware they are being subjected to marital rape.
3. Obsessive marital rape
Obsessive marital rape, also called sadistic rape, involves extreme and perverse sex acts committed against the other spouse’s will. Instances of spousal rape that fall under this category can include torturous acts that place the victim at risk of harm and violate the victim’s dignity and rights as a human being.
As noted above, marital rape has not always been illegal, but it is currently against the law in all 50 states.
Fortunately, feminist movements beginning in the 1970s began to address marital rape by arguing that it was not an individual problem but rather a societal issue that was allowed to continue because of a patriarchal system that promoted male violence and female subordination.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, all 50 states began to reform rape laws in some fashion, either by removing or reducing the requirement that victims demonstrate resistance or by lessening requirements that third-party witnesses be able to corroborate the victim’s accusations.
At this time, all 50 states have laws addressing criminal sexual assault in marriage, but some states may offer lesser criminal sentences to perpetrators based upon marital status or reduce standards for demonstrating consent in marriage.
In some states, despite the criminalization of marital rape, language in the law makes it more difficult to convict a perpetrator of felony sexual violence if the victim is a spouse. Furthermore, 20 states have marital distinctions which give spouses greater access to the victim’s bodies, even when consent is not given.
In summary, while marital rape is recognized as a crime in all 50 states, it can be more difficult to prove marital rape or to have a rapist convicted of a crime when the victim is a spouse.
Regardless of what a perpetrator may try to tell you, marital rape is an act of domestic violence, and it is not acceptable behavior. If you have been subjected to rape within your marriage, there are professional and legal services available to help you.
Some options for seeking help if you have been a victim of marital rape are as follows:
1. Contact local law enforcement
While state laws vary in the way they address marital rape, the reality is that spousal rape is a crime in each state. If you have been a victim of sexual assault in a marriage, you can report the crime to police.
Reporting marital rape may result in the creation of a protection order, which makes it illegal for your spouse to have any contact with you.
This can protect you from further instances of rape. Throughout the legal proceedings for a marital rape case, you may also be provided with a victim’s advocate who can provide additional support.
2. Participate in domestic violence support groups
Marital sexual assault is a form of domestic violence, and local support groups can link you to others who have lived through the same experiences. In these groups, you can connect with others who can validate your experience and help you to develop coping strategies.
You can find information about local resources, including support groups, here:
Being a victim of marital sexual abuse is a form of trauma. You may feel anxious, betrayed, depressed, and alone. Working with a therapist can help you to overcome some of these feelings and heal from the trauma that arises as a result of sexual assault in marriage.
Many communities have a domestic violence shelter where victims can go, even in cases of emergency, if they are not safe at home. If marital rape is ongoing and you are seeking a safe location where you can escape the abuse, a local domestic violence shelter can provide assistance.
Shelters not only provide a safe place to stay; they can also link victims to other forms of assistance, such as legal resources, support groups, and mental health services. If you’re ready to leave a sexually abusive relationship, a local domestic violence shelter can be a good starting point.
If you’re unsure of where to start, contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline can link you to assist and help you to explore your options when you’ve been a victim of spousal rape. This resource offers help via phone calls, text messages, and Internet chat.
The hotline can link you to local resources, help you to develop a safety plan, or provide you with immediate assistance for domestic violence.
There are numerous resources available to victims of spousal rape. Reaching out for help can seem scary, and you may not be sure of what to do. The good news is that you do not have to have everything figured out when you make a phone call or contact a local agency for support.
Perhaps you just want mental health resources to help you overcome the effects of marital rape, or maybe you want to get in touch with others who can provide emotional support. There is no requirement that you be ready to leave your marriage or file criminal charges against your abuser.
When you seek help, mental health professionals and other support staff will meet you where you are and provide you with the kind of assistance you’re seeking, whether you want support to help you cope or you’re ready to end your marriage.
If you have been a victim of marital rape, it is not your fault, and you are not alone. There is support available, including mental health services, domestic violence hotlines, and support groups.
The primary concern when seeking assistance for marital rape is the victim’s safety. If you or someone you love has been a victim of sexual assault in marriage, it is important to develop a plan of safety.
Reaching out to a professional or local law enforcement agency can help you to develop a plan for safety and begin healing from the traumatic effects of rape in marriage.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.