Marital Rape Research Paper

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Marital rape is a serious and prevalent form of intimate violence. The legal definition of marital rape varies from one state to the next; however, marital rape is generally defined as unwanted intercourse or penetration (oral, anal, or vaginal) obtained by force or threat of force or when the wife is unable to give consent (Bergen 1996, 2006; Pagelow 1992; Russell 1990). Research on marital rape generally includes couples who are legally married, separated, divorced, or involved in long-term cohabiting relationships (Mahoney and Williams 1998; Russell 1990).

Researchers estimate that between 10 and 14 percent of married women experience rape in their marital relationships at least once (Finkelhor and Yllo 1985; Russell 1990). Based on findings from the largest study on violence against women in the United States, it is estimated that 7.7 million women have been raped by their intimate partners (Mahoney, Williams, and West 2001; Tjaden and Thoennes 2000). Rape by one’s intimate partner may be one of the most common types of sexual assault. A Canadian study revealed that 30 percent of the women in one sample who were sexually assaulted as adults were assaulted by their intimate partners (Randall and Haskell 1995). Women who are battered by their partners may be at particularly high risk for sexual violence (Campbell 1989; Mahoney et al. 2001). Recent research indicates that women who are separated or divorced from their partners are also frequently at high risk for sexual violence (DeKeseredy, Schwartz, and Fagan 2005). Thus, marital rape is a serious problem that needs to be examined.

Marital Rape and the Law

Historically the act of forcing one’s wife to have sex was not defined as ‘‘rape’’ in the United States. Rape was most commonly defined as ‘‘the forcible penetration of the body of a woman, not the wife of the perpetrator’’ (Russell 1990, p. 17). This traditional definition exempted husbands from being prosecuted for forcing their wives to have sex against their will. As many researchers, including Finkelhor and Yllo (1985) and Eskow (1996), have argued, this provided husbands with a ‘‘license to rape’’ their wives. This exemption is grounded in English common law and is most frequently attributed to statements made by Sir Matthew Hale, chief justice in seventeenth-century England, who wrote, ‘‘But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto the husband which she cannot retract’’ (quoted in Russell 1990, p. 17). Hale’s statement established the understanding that with marriage, women gave an irrevocable consent to sex (Bergen 1996; Russell 1990). This understanding remained largely unchallenged until the 1970s when women in the anti-rape movement argued for the elimination of the spousal exemption (Finkelhor and Yllo 1985).

While reform of states’ rape legislations has been slow with regard to the marital exemption, progress has been made. In 1978 John Rideout became the first man to be prosecuted for raping his wife while they still lived together (Russell 1990). In 1984 in the case of People v. Liberta, New York became the first state to legally overturn its marital rape exemption when it was ruled that the exemption did not provide equal protection to married women under the law (Finkelhor and Yllo 1985). On July 5, 1993, marital rape became a crime under at least one section of the sexual offense code (X 1999). However, there is still considerable variation by state with regard to prosecuting men for raping their wives. As of 1998 (when the most recent comprehensive study of state rape laws was performed prior to this publication) thirty-three states still provided some exemption to husbands from rape prosecution. Most commonly, husbands may be exempt from rape charges if the crime is not quickly reported or if force was not used because the wife was incapable of giving consent (Bergen 1998; Eskow 1996). In the latter case, some states assume consent unless the wife is resisting. Thus, rape in marriage is still treated as a lesser crime than rape by another perpetrator throughout most of the United States.

The legal status of marital rape has contributed to the popular perception that this is a less serious form of sexual violence than others, such as rape by a stranger. In their study of marital rape, Finkelhor and Yllo (1985) report on a 1974 study conducted by Rossi in which people were asked to rank 140 offenses in terms of severity. ‘‘Forcible rape of a former spouse’’ was ranked 62nd on the list, below selling marijuana and blackmailing someone (Finkelhor and Yllo 1985, p. 154). More recent research indicates that marital rape is still frequently perceived as less serious than other forms of rape, and in some studies, rape in a marital relationship is not even perceived as possible (Monson, Byrd, and Langhinrichsen-Rohling 2006; Whatley 2005). In their study of college students, Monson, Byrd, and Langhinrichsen- Rohling (1996) found that marital rape was perceived as less serious than rape perpetrated by a stranger and that only 50 percent of the male students thought that it was possible for a husband to rape his wife.

Women’s Experiences of Marital Rape

Despite popular perceptions, research with women who have been raped by their intimate partners reveals the severity of this form of violence against women. Not only do many women experience rape in their marital relationships, but women who are raped by their intimate partners are likely to be raped multiple times over the course of their relationships. Tjaden and Thoennes (2000) found that women experienced an average of 4.5 assaults per partner. When the focus is on rape by marital partners, the frequency of assaults is higher. Finkelhor and Yllo (1995) and Bergen (1996) found that 50 percent and 55 percent, respectively, of the women in their sample were raped more than twenty times over the course of their relationships. Women who are raped by their husbands not only experience vaginal penetration, but also commonly experience forced oral and anal intercourse (Mahoney et al. 2001).

Women who have been raped by their husbands commonly experience a wide range of violence that includes verbal abuse, battering, assaults with weapons, and forced intercourse with other people. Research indicates that between 20 percent and 70 percent of battered women experience sexual violence with their partners (Bergen 1996; Campbell 1989; Pense and Paymar 1993). The vast majority of women in Bergen’s (1996) and Finkelhor and Yllo’s (1985) studies experienced both battering and sexual assault. In ‘‘battering rapes’’ women experience physical abuse as well as sexual abuse in a variety of ways. Some women are battered and raped simultaneously, while others experience physical violence and then are raped afterward when their partner wants to ‘‘make up’’ (Bergen 1996). Some women’s experiences are characterized as ‘‘sadistic’’ or ‘‘obsessive’’ rape when the violence involves torture, perverse sexual acts, and, frequently, the use of pornography (Bergen 1996; Finkelhor and Yllo 1985). Approximately 25 percent of Bergen’s (1996) sample reported at least one experience of sadistic sexual violence with their partners.

It should be noted that not all women who are raped by their partners experience physical abuse in addition to sexual abuse (Bergen 1996; Finkelhor and Yllo 1985). In what Finkelhor and Yllo (1985) have called ‘‘force-only rapes,’’ women are forced to have sex against their will but their experiences are not characterized by excessive physical violence. Twenty-five percent of the women in Bergen’s (1996) sample experienced force-only rape, as did 40 percent of women in Finkelhor and Yllo’s (1985) study. In Russell’s (1990) study, 4 percent of the women who had been married had been raped but not battered by their partners. It is important to recognize marital rape as a distinctive form of violence and consider the multiple effects of this type of violence against women.

Women who are raped by their partners commonly experience a wide range of physical and emotional effects from the violence. As indicated above, women who are raped by their husbands are often physically assaulted, and common injuries include lacerations, broken bones, torn muscles, and black eyes (Adams 1993; Bergen 1996). Research indicates that when compared with women assaulted by other perpetrators, women who are raped by their partners report more physical injuries (Bennice and Resick 2003). Women who are raped by their husbands also commonly experience gynecological consequences as a result of the sexual violence, including vaginal and anal tearing, miscarriages, stillbirths, urinary tract infections, and bladder infections (Campbell and Alford 1989; Campbell and Soeken 1999).

Research indicates that the emotional consequences of being raped by one’s husband can also be quite severe. Women who are raped by their partners, much like women raped by other types of assailants, frequently suffer from depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, intense fear, sleeping problems, and shock (Bergen 1996; Riggs, Kilpatrick, and Resnick 1992; Stermac, Del Bove, and Addison 2001). Long-term effects can include sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, poor body image, and depression (Bergen 1996; Frieze 1983; Ullman and Siegel 1993). When compared with other survivors of rape, research indicates that being raped by one’s spouse is not less traumatic than being raped by another perpetrator (Bennice and Resick 2003). Indeed, it may be even more traumatic given that marital rape survivors often experience multiple assaults and that the assaults are perpetrated by someone whom they know and trust (Bergen 1996; Kilpatrick et al. 1988). Several studies have also attempted to examine the impact of sexual violence compared with physical violence on survivors of marital rape. When compared with women who have been battered by their partners, women who experience sexual and physical abuse experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, fear, and sexual dysfunction, and poorer self-esteem (Bennice and Resick 2003; Campbell 1989). Thus, it is clear that being raped by one’s partner has serious emotional and physical consequences for the many women who experience this form of violence.

Assisting Survivors of Marital Rape

Rape is a highly underreported crime, and research indicates that women who are raped by those whom they know are particularly unlikely to report the violence to the police or seek medical assistance (Bennice and Resick 2003; Koss and Cook 1998). This may be particularly true for women who are raped by their husbands. Survivors of marital rape may not report the violence for many complex reasons, including fear of retribution by their abusers, fear that they may not be believed by the police, self-blame, or shame. Importantly, some women who have been raped by their partners may not identify their experiences as rape given the historic perception of stranger rape as ‘‘real rape’’ and because of cultural expectations that sex is an obligation in marriage (Bennice and Resick 2003; Bergen 1996). In her research on victims of marital rape, Basile (2002) found that the majority (61 percent) had unwanted sex with their husbands out of a sense of obligation. Women who perceive forced sex as a ‘‘wifely duty’’ are unlikely to report their experiences as rape or seek assistance. However, when women do choose to seek assistance for their experiences of marital rape, they may encounter significant barriers from service providers.

Law enforcement officials are often the first to respond to women who have been raped, and there has been little research that has systematically assessed the response of law enforcement officials to the problem of marital rape. Research by Frieze (1983), Russell (1990), and Bergen (1996) with marital rape survivors found that the police were largely perceived as unresponsive in that they tried to discourage the women from reporting, failed to respond to calls, or were unfamiliar with the laws. Frieze (1983) argued that police officers were less responsive to survivors of marital rape than they were to battered women. However, research by Stermac et al. (2001) found that when compared with other victims of sexual assault, women who were raped by their partners were more likely to be accompanied by police to the hospital and to have forensic evidence collected. The collection of forensic evidence is particularly important for prosecuting cases of rape in marriage. Bergen’s (1996) research revealed that a positive police response can be critical in validating women’s experiences of sexual violence and helping women to seek the resources to begin the healing process.

Battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers are two types of organizations that are in excellent positions to provide assistance to women who have been raped by their husbands. However, research indicates that historically many of these organizations have not provided comprehensive services to marital rape survivors (Bergen 1996; Russell 1990; Thompson-Haas 1987). A national survey of battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers in 1995 by Bergen (1996) revealed that 42 percent of battered women’s programs and 79 percent of rape crisis centers trained their staff and volunteers specifically about the problem of marital rape. In terms of service provision, only 2 percent of programs provided support groups specifically for survivors of marital rape. Additionally, fewer than half (42 percent) of programs routinely ask women about their experiences of rape in marriage. This is particularly important given that women who are raped by their partners are unlikely to voluntarily speak about their experiences because of the shame and self-blame that many feel (Bergen 1996; Russell 1990).

When probing incidences of marital rape, it is important to ask women in a sensitive way about a wide range of experiences with their partners; for example, ‘‘Does your partner force you to have sex against your will?’’ and ‘‘Does your partner pressure you to do things sexually that you are not comfortable with?’’ rather than merely, ‘‘Has your husband ever raped you?’’ The latter is insufficient given that many women may not self-identify their experiences as rape, because their husband was the perpetrator. There are many services that battered women’s programs and rape crisis centers can provide to survivors of marital rape, including outreach, shelter, medical advocacy, legal advocacy, and counseling.

Health care providers are also important for assisting women who have been raped by their partners to deal with the trauma that many of these women suffer. Given the prevalence of marital rape, health care providers (gynecologists and obstetricians specifically) should routinely screen their patients for experiences of sexual and physical violence with their partners. Research indicates that battered women are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, and unplanned pregnancy; therefore, health care providers should assess for this as well (Bennice and Resick 2003). Women who are pregnant are not immune to physical and sexual abuse from their partners, and there is some evidence that the violence sometimes escalates during pregnancy (Pagelow 1984). Pregnancy may provide that rare window of opportunity when health care providers may have regular contact with their patients and can provide violence assessments, thorough examinations, and referrals for assistance (McFarlane et al. 1998). This assistance is also important when women may be most vulnerable following surgery or the birth of a child. Campbell and Alford (1989) found that 46 percent of the battered women in their sample had been raped by their partners after being discharged from the hospital—most after childbirth.

There are a variety of others who come into contact with marital rape survivors, including mental health professionals, marriage counselors, social workers, and religious leaders. As previously indicated, the emotional trauma associated with marital rape can be quite severe and long-lasting. Validating women’s experiences of marital rape and challenging victim-blaming attitudes are particularly helpful strategies for assisting women who have been raped by their partners (Bennice and Resick 2003; Bergen 1996). Many women who have been raped by their partners have difficulty disclosing their experiences of violence, and if their disclosure is met with disbelief, resistance, or recrimination, women may not choose to disclose again or seek help to end the violence (Bennice and Resick 2003; Mahoney 1999; Russell 1990).


It is clear that rape in marriage is a prevalent and serious problem in contemporary society. While there have been many challenges to the historical existence of a husband’s ‘‘license to rape,’’ rape in marriage is still treated as a lesser crime in the majority of states. For many, rape in marriage is not perceived as ‘‘real rape.’’ However, research indicates that marital rape survivors often suffer serious consequences as a result of the violence that they have experienced at the hands of their husbands. There are a variety of service providers, including law enforcement officials, advocates for battered women and rape victims, health care professionals, mental health care providers, and religious leaders, who routinely come into contact with survivors of marital rape and are important sources of support for women who have been raped by their husbands.

See also:


  1. Adams, Carole. ‘‘I Just Raped My Wife! What Are You Going to Do about It, Pastor?’’ In Transforming a Rape Culture, edited by Emile Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth. Minneapolis: Milkweed Press, 1993, pp. 57–96.
  2. Basile, Kathleen C. ‘‘Prevalence of Wife Rape and Other Intimate Partner Sexual Coercion in a Nationally Representative Sample of Women.’’ Violence and Victims 17, no. 5 (2002): 511–524.
  3. Bennice, Jennifer A., and Patricia A. Resick. ‘‘Marital Rape: History, Research and Practice.’’ Trauma, Violence and Abuse 4, no. 3 (2003): 228–246.
  4. Bergen, Raquel Kennedy. Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
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  9. DeKeseredy, Walter, Martin Schwartz, and Danielle Fagan. ‘‘Separation/Divorce Sexual Assault in Rural Ohio: Women’s Views of Male Peer Support.’’ Unpublished manuscript, 2005.
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  16. McFarlane, Judith, Karen Soeken, Jacquelyn Campbell, Barbara Parker, S. Reel, and C. Silva. ‘‘Severity of Abuse to Pregnant Women and Associated Gun Access of the Perpetrator.’’ Public Health Nursing 15, no. 3 (1998): 201–206.
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  24. Rossi, Peter, Emily Waite, Christine Bose, and Richard Berk. ‘‘The Seriousness of Crimes: Normative Structures and Individual Differences.’’ American Sociological Review 39 (1974): 224–237.
  25. Russell, Diana E.H. Rape in Marriage. New York: Macmillan Press, 1990.
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