MARITAL RAPES IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT
Sexual violence in marriage has a history as long as the institution of marriage itself. Marital rapes were considered a private trouble not a public issue. There is tremendous variation cross-culturally in whether rape by a husband is regarded as a criminal violation, just an “unfortunate reality” or an “unquestioned wifely duty.”
At this point in the 21st century, there are three significant trends that are changing attitudes toward marital rape.
- First, the idea that women’s rights are human rights is no longer a radical or fringe perspective.
- The second current trend that brings marital rape to the forefront is the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Research documents that large numbers of women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, have been infected by their husbands. It can be life threatening for women and their children.
- A third trend that is changing the way people think about marital rape is the global transformation of marriage as an institution. The traditional model of marriage as a contract between families for the purpose of reproduction is giving way to companionate marriage based on intimacy.
According to feminist theory, women have been subjugated to male desires and wishes since the dawn of the species. Husbands have had the right (or obligation) to force wives into obedience through discipline or chastisement, and the male has been assigned the multiple roles of master, protector, disciplinarian, judge and jury regarding his wife.9 It was believed that an unruly woman, especially an unruly wife, could wreak havoc in both the home and society. Women historically have been viewed as the property of men; daughters belonged to their fathers until marriage and subsequently to their husbands.
For example, Christianity traditionally requires that the wife promise in her marriage vows to “honor and obey” her husband, “forsaking all other, to keep only unto him as long as both shall live.
Other cultures have required a dowry, which ensured that the new husband would have adequate wealth to care for his new property. Rape laws were initially enacted to protect men’s property (daughters and wives) from other men rather than to protect the rights of women. Rape laws did not protect wives from marital rape because husbands retained the right to control their property.
The historic justifications for the marital rape exception have been largely discarded. However, there are several other justifications more recently proposed by those who continued to support the exception, including:
- Marital rape did not happen often enough to merit rescinding the exception. This is a patently unsupportable point, given the percentage of wives who have experienced the crime,
- The lack of a wife’s consent is too hard to prove because the spouses would have had consensual sex numerous times.
- Other laws, such as assault and battery, provide a raped wife with avenues for recourse that are less fraught than bringing rape charges against her husband.
- A husband should be able to have sex with his wife without fear of prosecution (which sounds a lot like the historic “husband’s right to sex” justification)
- Protecting the husband from false accusations of rape (for example, during divorce proceedings)