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Marital rape, also known as spousal rape, is a form of sexual violence, the non-consensual sex in which the perpetrator is the victim's spouse. As such, it as a form of partner rape, of domestic violence, and of sexual abuse. Once widely condoned or ignored by law, spousal rape is now repudiated by international conventions and increasingly criminalized. Still, in many countries, spousal rape either remains legal, or is illegal but widely tolerated and accepted as a husband's prerogative.

In 2006, it was estimated that marital rape could be prosecuted in at least 104 countries (in four of these countries, marital rape could be prosecuted only when the spouses were judicially separated),[1] and since 2006 several other countries have outlawed spousal rape. In many countries it is not clear if marital rape may or may not be prosecuted under ordinary rape laws. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia made spousal rape illegal before 1970, but other countries in Western Europe and the English-speaking Western World outlawed it much later, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. Most developing countries outlawed it in the 1990s and 2000s.

Research literature, particularly in the areas of incidence and effects, may extend the use of the term spousal/marital rape to include divorced/legally separated ex-spouses or unmarried cohabiting partners. Current state laws, however, often treat rape by ex-spouses or intimate partners as different than marital rape, and therefore, legally equivalent to stranger rape.[2]

Psychological damage

Main article: Effects and aftermath of rape

While rape by a stranger is highly traumatic, it is typically a one-time event and is clearly understood as rape. In the case of rape by a spouse or long term sexual partner, the history of the relationship affects the victim’s reactions. Marital rape is likely to be part of an abusive relationship. Trauma from the rape adds to the effect of other abusive acts or abusive and demeaning talk. Furthermore, marital rape is rarely a one-time event, but a repeated if not frequent occurrence.[3]

Legal aspect

Historically, many cultures have had a concept of spouses' conjugal rights[4] to sexual intercourse with each other. This can be seen in Common law, in force in North America and the British Commonwealth, where the very concept of marital rape was treated as an impossibility. This was illustrated most vividly by Sir Matthew Hale, in his 1736 legal treatise, Historia Placitorum Coronæ or History of the Pleas of the Crown, where he wrote that such a rape could not be recognized since the wife "hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract."

Formalization of the marital rape exemption in law

Common law and the United Kingdom

See also: Rape in English law

Hale's statement in History of the Pleas of the Crown was not supported by any judicial authority but was believed to be a logical consequence of the laws of marriage and rape as understood at the time. Marriage gave conjugal rights to a spouse, and marriage could not be revoked except by private Act of Parliament—it therefore seemed to follow that a spouse could not legally revoke consent to sexual intercourse, and if there was consent there was no rape.

The principle was repeated in East's Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown in 1803 and in Archbold’s Pleading and Evidence in Criminal Cases in 1822, but it was not until R v Clarence (1888) 22 QBD 23 that the question of the exemption first arose in an English courtroom. Clarence was determined on a different point, and there was no clear agreement between the nine judges regarding the status of the rule.

Feminist critique in the 19th century

From the beginnings of the 19th century women's movement, activists challenged the presumed right of men to engage in forced sex with their wives. In the United States, "the nineteenth-century woman's rights movement fought against a husband's right to control marital intercourse in a campaign that was remarkably developed, prolific, and insistent, given nineteenth-century taboos against the public mention of sex or sexuality."[5] Suffragists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone "singled out a woman's right to control marital intercourse as the core component of equality."[6] Nineteenth century feminist demands centered on the right of women to control their bodies and fertility, positioned consent in marital sexual relations as an alternative to contraception and abortion (which many opposed), and also embraced eugenic concerns about excessive procreation.[7] British liberal feminists John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor attacked marital rape as a gross double-standard in law and as central to the subordination of women.[8]

Advocates of free love, including early anarcha-feminists such as Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman, as well as Victoria Woodhull, Thomas Low Nichols, and Mary S. Gove Nichols, joined a critique of marital rape to advocacy of women's autonomy and sexual pleasure.[9] Moses Harman, a Kansas-based publisher and advocate for women's rights, was jailed twice under the Comstock laws for publishing articles (by a woman who was victimized and a doctor who treated marital rape survivors) decrying marital rape. De Cleyre defended Harman in a well-known article, "Sexual Slavery." She refused to draw any distinction between rape outside of, and within marriage: "And that is rape, where a man forces himself sexually upon a woman whether he is licensed by the marriage law to do it or not."[10]

20th and 21st century criminalization


██ Marital rape is criminalized██ Marital rape is criminalized only if the couple is legally separated██ Marital rape is known not to be criminalized

As the concept of human rights has developed, the belief of a marital right to sexual intercourse has become less widely held. Feminists worked systematically since the 1960s to overturn the marital rape exemption and criminalize marital rape.[11] Increasing criminalization of spousal rape is part of a worldwide reclassification of sexual crimes "from offenses against morality, the family, good customs, honor, or chastity ... to offenses against liberty, self-determination, or physical integrity."[12] In December 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This establishes marital rape as a human rights violation.

Despite these trends and international moves, criminalization has not occurred in all UN member States. In 1997, UNICEF reported that just 17 States criminalized marital rape.[13] In 2003, UNIFEM reported that more than 50 States did so.[14] In 2006, the UN Secretary General found "Marital rape may be prosecuted in at least 104 States. Of these, 32 have made marital rape a specific criminal offence, while the remaining 74 [sic] do not exempt marital rape from general rape provisions. Four States criminalize marital rape only when the spouses are judicially separated."[14]

Countries which were early to criminalize marital rape include the Soviet Union (1922/1960),[15] Poland (1932), Czechoslovakia (1950), Denmark (1960), Sweden (1965),[16] Norway (1971), and some other members of the Communist Bloc.[16] The Israeli Supreme Court affirmed that marital rape is a crime in a 1980 decision, citing law based on the Talmud.[17][18] Criminalization in Australia began with the state of New South Wales in 1981, followed by all other states from 1985 to 1992.[19] Several formerly British-ruled countries followed suit: Canada (1983),[20][21] New Zealand (1985), and Ireland (1990).[19]

Many United States rape statutes formerly precluded the prosecution of spouses, including estranged or even legally separated couples. In 1975, South Dakota removed this exception.[22] In 1993, North Carolina became the last state to remove the spousal exemption.[23] However, as of 1999, 33 of 50 U.S. states regard spousal rape as a lesser crime [Bergen, 1999]. The perpetrator may be charged with related crimes such as assault, battery, or spousal abuse. There are other criminal charges that may be inapplicable to married couples. For example, in the U.S., there is a marriage exemption to the charge of statutory rape even if one of the spouses is under the age of consent in the jurisdiction where the sexual act takes place.

France's Cour de Cassation authorized prosecution of spouses for rape or sexual assualt in 1990, but ruled in 1992 that a presumption of consent exists from the time of marriage until it is revoked by either party.[24] In 1994, Law 94-89 criminalized marital rape;[24] a second law, passed 4 April 2006, makes rape by a partner (including in unmarried couples, married couples, and in civil unions) an aggravating circumstance in prosecuting rape.[25] Germany outlawed spousal rape only in 1997, which is later than other developed countries. Female ministers and women's rights activists lobbied for this law for over 25 years.[26]

In India, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (passed August 2005; entered into force October 2006) created a civil remedy for victims, but it did not criminalize marital rape,[27][28] and jail time is only considered if a court order has been violated.

Thai legal scholar Taweekiet Meenakanit voiced his opposition to legal reforms that made spousal rape in Thailand a crime. He said it was "abnormal logic" to allow a man to file a rape charge against a woman. He also disagrees with making a crime of a husband raping his wife, on the grounds that this would be difficult to effect since many Thai wives were dependent on their husbands and would not want to divorce them or put them in jail.[29]

Recent countries to criminalize marital rape include Turkey (2005),[30] Cambodia (2005),[31] Mauritius (2007),[32] Ghana(1998/2007),[33] Malaysia (2007),[34][35] Thailand (2007),[36] Tunisia (2008),[37] Rwanda (2009),[38] South Korea (2009),[39] and Jamaica (2009).[40] Human rights observers have criticized a variety of countries—including Japan,[41] Poland,[42] and Kazakhstan[43]—for failing to effectively prosecute marital rape once it has been criminalized.

Ending the exemption in England and Wales

Main article: Rape in English law

The marital rape exemption was abolished in England and Wales in 1991 by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, in the case of R v R.[44][45] been promulgated in 1736 in Matthew Hale’s History of the Pleas of the Crown (see above).

The first attempted prosecution of a husband for the rape of his wife was R v Clarke [1949] 2 All ER 448. Rather than try to argue directly against Hale’s logic, the court held that consent in this instance had been revoked by an order of the court for non-cohabitation. It was the first of a number of cases in which the courts found reasons not to apply the exemption, notably R v O’Brien [1974] 3 All ER 663 (the obtaining of decree nisi), R v Steele (1976) 65 Cr.App.R. 22 (an undertaking by the husband to the court not to molest the wife) and R v Roberts [1986] Crim LR 188 (the existence of a formal separation agreement).

There are at least four recorded instances of a husband successfully relying on the exemption in England and Wales. The first was R v Miller [1954] 2 QB 282, where it was held that the wife had not legally revoked her consent despite having presented a divorce petition. R v Kowalski (1988) 86 Cr. App. R. 339 was followed by R v Sharples [1990] Crim LR 198, and the fourth occurred in 1991 in the case of R v J, a judgment made after the first instance decision of the Crown Court in R v R but before the decision of the House of Lords that was to abolish the exemption. In Miller, Kowalski and R v J the husbands were instead convicted of assault or indecent assault.

R v R in 1991 was the first occasion where the marital rights exemption had been appealed as far as the House of Lords, and it followed the trio of cases since 1988 where the marital rights exemption was upheld. The leading judgment, unanimously approved, was given by Lord Keith of Kinkel. He stated that the contortions being performed in the lower courts in order to avoid applying the marital rights exemption were indicative of the absurdity of the rule, and held, agreeing with earlier judgments in Scotland and in the Court of Appeal in R v R, that “the fiction of implied consent has no useful purpose to serve today in the law of rape” and that the marital rights exemption was a “common law fiction” which had never been a true rule of English law. R’s appeal was accordingly dismissed, and he was convicted of the rape of his wife.

Marriage after rape

In a variety of cultures, marriage after the fact has been treated historically as a "resolution" to the rape of an unmarried woman. Citing Biblical injunctions (particularly Exodus 22:16–17 and Deuteronomy 22:25–30), Calvinist Geneva permitted a single woman's father to consent to her marriage to her rapist, after which the husband would have no right to divorce; the woman had no separate right to refuse.[46]

Criminal prosecution for rape ends in the event of marriage in Algeria, Lebanon (both as of 2010Template:Dated maintenance category),[47] Jordan (as of 2009Template:Dated maintenance category),[48] Brazil (as of 2003Template:Dated maintenance category),[48] Guatemala (as of 2001Template:Dated maintenance category),[48] and Bolivia (as of 1999Template:Dated maintenance category).[49] Such laws were ended in Mexico in 1991, Colombia in 1997, and Peru in 1999.[48]


In 1975, Diana E.H. Russell, a researcher into rape, conducted a study of 930 women from San Francisco, California (50% non-response rate, Asian women were specifically excluded as non-reliable respondents) of whom 644 had husbands to whom they were married, divorced (ex-husbands), or whom they self-identified as a husband although not legally married. 7 of these women (1.1%) reported having been raped by their husbands, while the survey interviewers identified 74 (11.6%) as having been raped. Of the 286 non-married women in the sample, 225 (78.7%) were identified by the interviewers as having been raped. Russell found, however, that when repeated instances within a marriage are included, rape in marriage accounts for 38% of all rape instances, making it a highly neglected area of sexual violence.[50]

A survey by the National Victim Center in Arlington, Virginia states that 10% of all sexual assault cases reported by women involved a husband or ex-husband.

David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo's 1985 study estimated that 10 to 14 per cent of all married American women have been or will be raped by their husbands. (Finkelhor and Yllo, 1985) A 1997 study led by Kathleen C. Basile found that 13% of US married women had experienced rape (defined as unwanted sex obtained through the use or threat of force) by their current husband.[51]

In 1994, Patricia Easteal, then Senior Criminologist at the Australian Institute of Criminology, published the results of survey on sexual assault in many settings. The respondents had been victims of numerous forms of sexual assault. Of these, 10.4% had been raped by husbands or de facto spouses, with a further 2.3% raped by estranged husbands/de factos.

In the UK, statistics disseminated by the Rape Crisis Federation yield the information that the most common rapists are husbands, ex-husbands, or partners.[52]

The prevalence of marital rape depends on the particularly legal, national and cultural context. In 1999, the World Health Organization conducted a study on violence against women in Tajikistan, surveying 900 women above the age of 14 in three districts of the country and found that 47% of married women reported having been forced to have sex by their husband.[53] In Turkey 35.6% of women have experienced marital rape sometimes and 16.3% often.[54]

Sustaining factors

Young women from various settings in South Asia explained in surveys that even if they felt discomfort and didn't want to have sex, they accepted their husbands' wishes and submitted, fearing that otherwise they would be beaten.[55] In many developing countries it is believed—by both men and women—that a husband is entitled to sex any time he demands it, and that if his wife refuses him, he has the right to use force.[55] These women, most of them either illiterate or very poorly educated, are married at very young ages (in Bangladesh, for example, according to statistics from 2005, 45% of women then aged between 25–29 had been married by the age of 15[56]), and depend on their husbands for their entire life. This situation leaves women with very little sexual autonomy. Often, when asked by their husbands to have sex, they are not in a position to refuse: they have to choose between unwanted sex and being subjected to violence; or between unwanted sex and being abandoned by their husbands and ending up living in abject poverty.

Problems in prosecuting spousal rape

There have been many problems with prosecuting the perpetrators of spousal rape, chief amongst them has been the reluctance of the various legal systems to recognize it as a crime at all. However, criminalization has opened a new set of problems. To take an example in the United Kingdom, such a category of rape was only recognized by a 1991 House of Lords decision known simply as R v R (1991 All ER 481). While most parties agreed with the House of Lords' motive in making the decision, there were many (for instance the writer Patricia Hirst in her Textbook on A-Level law)[citation needed] who were of the opinion that the decision involved post facto criminalization, since the House of Lords were imprisoning spouses for doing what was once, according to the law, their right.

The second problem arises on what can be called a procedural level. While the law in theory may hold no distinction between a spouse or any other person, in practice when the case comes to court there will be difficulties in proving that rape in fact took place. This is because in marriage, sexual relations are to be expected, and if the defense claims consent, then the evidential burden is a very difficult burden for the prosecution to discharge.[57]

The very definition of consent can also lead to problems and deadlock, since social norms permit a varying level of physical intimacy (and freedom) depending on the relationship between the parties.

Countries that have made spousal rape a criminal offence

Only criminalized when couple is legally separated

Countries that have not made spousal rape a criminal offense

See also

  • Implied consent
  • Recognition of marital rape in Pakistani Law
  • National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape
  • Types of rape
  • Victimology
  • Maouloud Baby v. State of Maryland, court case having to do with the withdrawing of sexual consent



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