By Jenn Rockefeller
One of the many questions that abuse survivors ask themselves is, “Is it sexual assault if you’re married?”
It’s a valid question to ask because all we want to know is if our experiences were real or imagined. Think about it: many of us are taught early on that what happens between a man and wife is between them, while many more believe that certain physical liberties can be taken.
No one can deny that when a stranger physically forces themselves upon another, it is sexual assault. But what if you’re married? Does that count? Yes, it counts. Just because you’re married doesn’t make the assault any less valid.
The truth of the matter is this: When your partner says “no” or “stop,” that means no. That means the action being done must cease. In the realm of sexual assault and consent, no means no. “Stop” means no. And “I don’t feel comfortable” means no. And just because someone stays silent or has consented in the past, doesn’t mean that person consents now. Not fighting back and the clothing someone wears doesn’t mean the person consents. When in doubt, always ask for consent.
Problems arise when one partner takes it upon themselves to take the physical action to the next level, despite the other partner dissenting. For example, the wife says to her husband that she doesn’t want to continue (for whatever reason), but the husband continues and finishes, despite objections.
Is that sexual assault? Yes, absolutely. That’s the definition of assault. The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.”
Merely pointing out a definition, though, doesn’t clear the blurred lines. Because there are blurred lines in this society.
Some people are under the belief that a husband has the right to do as he pleases. They are married after all. Right? Legally, yes. But nowhere is it written that a wife must submit to her husband; in fact, marital rape became a crime in all 50 states in 1993. But despite this legislation, the husband will pressure the wife into sexual encounters. He will pressure her, maybe even withdraw from her (to make her feel guilty for turning him down), and threaten to leave her or cheat on her (because he’d claim he’s “not getting any at home.”) He may even deprive her of sleep until she gives in.
Is the wife giving in still sexual assault? It sure is. She doesn’t want sexual contact but gives in to keep the peace. It is still coercion and unwanted sexual contact.
This brings up another valid point. If the above constitutes sexual assault, can you then also use the term marital rape? Yes, absolutely. According to the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a staggering 14 percent of married women report being raped by their husbands. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) reports that women who are raped by their husbands are likely to be raped 20 or more times over the course of the relationship.
Those numbers were likely far higher several decades ago. The laws on spousal rape did not change until the late 1970s, according to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence (NCDSV). Before that, a woman was considered a man’s property and he could do as he pleased without repercussions.
The NCDSV also quoted a 1985 study that stated: “at least one of every 10 married women will be raped by a husband or cohabiting boyfriend in her lifetime.” That number rose dramatically in the 2010-2012 state report from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey that stated nearly half of female rape victims were assaulted by a current or former partner.
It’s vital that sexual assault survivors speak out about their experiences. The more survivors speak out, the more that abusers can be held accountable. Laws cannot change if everything remains status quo. Laws cannot change if survivors remain silent.
Where to go for help
Many times following a sexual assault, the female victim will feel shame and embarrassment. She may feel like no one will believe her. Many times, she may not know where or how to seek help.
Sexual assault victims can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-855-4-VICTIM (1-855-484-2846). It is important to know that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.