It is still a widely held myth that women cannot be raped by their husbands or partners.
Many people believe that sexual intercourse without consent, in this context, doesn’t really constitute rape at all, or if they do, that it is somehow not as serious as an assault carried out by a stranger.
The belief that by marrying or co-habiting with her attacker a woman has somehow given up her right to say no and should be expected to comply with his sexual demands is commonplace and causes great harm to women who suffer assault in this context.
The damage done when a woman is raped by her partner can be extremely serious. The experience of rape for a woman in this situation is compounded by a complete breach of trust by someone once loved – often the foundation of her personal life and security. Inevitably, this can leave her fearful of what confronting that might mean.
Sexual assault by a partner can be very difficult not only for women to disclose or walk away from, but even, sometimes, because of circumstantial pressures, to fully admit to themselves.
A significant minority (13%) of the broad cross-section of the Scottish population (700 interviewees) who took part in research carried out by Progressive on behalf of Rape Crisis Scotland in August 2007 believed that most women who are raped are raped by strangers.
Other research findings give the lie to this in the clearest possible way:
- In 2002 the UK Home Office published the findings of a British Crime Survey to which 6,944 women had responded. Nearly half (45%) of rapes reported to the survey were committed by perpetrators who were victims’ partners at the time of the attack. Strangers were responsible for only 8% of rapes reported to the survey
- The survey also found that partner rape entails the highest occurrence of multiple rape (62%) and attacks by partners and ex-partners are more than twice as likely to result in some injury to the victim (39%) as attacks by strangers (19%)
- In her landmark study Rape and Marriage (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), Diana Russell reported on interviews with a random sample of 930 women in the San Francisco area. Of all the women who had been married, 14% had been raped by their spouses at least once. Of these, 1/3 reported being raped once; 1/3 reported between 2 and 20 incidents; and 1/3 said they had been raped by their spouses more than 20 times.
- Another study estimated that 10 to 14% of all married women have been or will be raped by their spouses (Finkelhor, D., and Yllo, K., License to rape: sexual abuse of wives. The Free Press, New York, 1985)
”It was very clear to me. He raped me. He ripped off my pyjamas, he beat me up. I mean, some scumbag down the street would do that to me. So to me, it wasn't any different because I was married to him, it was rape — real clear what it was.
It emotionally hurt worse. I mean you can compartmentalise it as stranger rape — you were at the wrong place at the wrong time. You can manage to get over it differently. But here, you're at home with your husband and you don't expect that. I was under constant terror even if he didn't do it.”
Source: a survivor of marital rape.
Women who are raped by their partners are much less likely to report the assaults against them or seek legal redress than those attacked by strangers.
This can leave them vulnerable to repeated attacks and open to blame from others in the community who are often unable to understand or empathise with what has happened.
Fear of retribution, a sense of family loyalty or even a lack of awareness that what has happened is against the law, silences many women who have been assaulted by their partners, and prevents them from naming it as rape, even to themselves.
Rape in marriage has only been recognised as a crime in Scotland since as recently as 1989.
The concept of “conjugal rights” may have died out in the context of our legal framework, but the sense of a man’s entitlement to sex with his wife or partner is still very much alive in the minds and imaginations of many people, and often used to excuse or trivialise rape.
What you can do
Do not trivialise sex without consent between spouses or partners simply because they have previously had consensual sex – sex without consent is ALWAYS rape and rape is ALWAYS serious
Challenge the suggestion that rape in the context of a marriage or other intimate relationship is less serious than a stranger rape and insist that women in relationships have the same rights as all women, including the right to say no
Ask yourself some questions
How can we persist with the notion that a “typical” rapist is a stranger who lurks outside in the dead of night, when studies consistently show that the threat is far more likely to come from someone women know who is often a husband or partner?
Why do we refuse to take the rape of a woman by her partner as seriously as we would if she had been raped by a stranger?
When will we acknowledge that sexual violence is frequently a component of domestic abuse and help women who suffer this to receive the same justice and support as other victims of sexual violence?
Finally … If you want to end the silence and misunderstanding around rape in marriage and other intimate partnerships, download a briefing pack to spread the word elsewhere.