Throughout the history of most societies, it has been acceptable for men to force their wives to have sex against their will, indeed the traditional definition of rape was, ‘sexual intercourse with a female not his wife without her consent’.
This rationale remained largely unchallenged until the 1970s when the women’s movement argued for the elimination of the spousal exemption because it failed to provide equal protection from rape to all women.
However, it was not until 1991 that rape within marriage was recognised in law in England and Wales, although this recognition has not been accompanied by prosecutions, still less by convictions.
The British Crime Survey found that 54% of rapes were committed by a current or former partner and research published by the Home Office last summer revealed that few of these are reported to the police – in this study of 676 rapes reported to eight police forces, just over 20% were committed by a current or former partner.
Partner rape is an extremely prevalent form of sexual violence, particularly when we consider that the one in four women who will be involved in physically abusive relationships are especially vulnerable to rape from their partners. Studies show that between a third and half of women experiencing physical abuse are also raped by their partners at least once.
This is experienced in various ways; some are physically abused during the sexual violence whilst others are raped following a physically violent episode where the husband wants to ‘make up’. Other women experience sadistic or obsessive rape; these assaults involve torture and/or ‘perverse’ sexual acts and are often very physically violent and involve pornography.
For many women who are physically abused and raped, the sexual violence is particularly devastating and traumatic – on top of everything else with which all rape victims contend, there is the additional devastation of betrayal by someone once loved.
Women who are raped by their husbands are likely to be raped many times – often 20 times or more. Survivors of partner rape not only experience a higher number of assaults, but research indicates that they are more likely than women raped by acquaintances to experience oral and anal rape. Husbands often rape their wives when they are asleep, or use coercion, verbal threats, physical violence, or weapons to force their wives to have sex. Importantly, some researchers have found that compared to men who ‘only’ physically abuse, men who physically abuse and rape are particularly dangerous individuals and are more likely to severely injure their female partners and potentially escalate the violence to murder.
Most researchers of partner rape agree that rape in marriage is an act of violence – an abuse of power by which a husband or co-habitee attempts to establish dominance and control over his partner. While the research thus far reveals no composite picture of a partner-rapist, these men are often portrayed as jealous, domineering individuals who feel a sense of entitlement to have sex with their ‘property.’
Women appear to be particularly at risk for being raped by their partners under some circumstances which include being pregnant, being ill or recently discharged from hospital. Women are at a particularly high risk of experiencing physical and sexual violence when they attempt to leave their abusers since this represents a challenge to the abusers’ control. One study found that two thirds of the women in their sample were sexually assaulted at the end of the relationship.
Despite the historical myth that rape by one’s partner is a relatively insignificant event, causing little trauma, research shows that partner rape often has severe and long-lasting consequences for women. Indeed, rape by a partner is more likely to result in physical injury than rape by a stranger. The physical effects of partner rape may include injuries to the vaginal and anal areas, lacerations, soreness, bruising, torn muscles, fatigue and vomiting.
Women who have been physically abused and raped by their husbands may suffer other physical consequences including broken bones, black eyes, bloody noses, and knife wounds that occur during the sexual violence. Campbell and Alford (1989) report that one half of the partner rape survivors in their sample were kicked, hit or burned during sex. Specific gynaecological consequences of partner rape include vaginal stretching, miscarriages, stillbirths, bladder infections, infertility and the potential contraction of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV infection.
Given that women who are raped by their partners are likely to experience multiple assaults, completed sexual attacks, and rape by someone that they once presumably loved and trusted, it is not surprising that partner rape survivors seem to suffer severe and long-term psychological. Similar to other survivors of sexual violence, some of the short-term effects of partner rape include anxiety, shock, intense fear, depression, suicidal ideation, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Compared to women raped by strangers and those whom they don’t know well, partner rape survivors report even higher rates of anger and depression. Long term effects often include disordered eating, sleep problems, depression, problems establishing trusting relationships, and increased negative feelings about themselves. Research has also indicated that the psychological effects are likely to be long lasting. Some partner rape survivors report flash-backs, sexual dysfunction, and emotional pain for years after the violence.
Survivors of partner rape are less likely than other survivors of violence to report their assaults to formal service providers, friends, or family members. Reporting rape in marriage may become even more complicated because of a woman’s relationship to her assailant. Women raped by their husbands may hesitate to report because of family loyalty, fear of their abuser’s retribution, inability to leave the relationship, or they may not know that rape in marriage is against the law or even ‘name’ their experience as rape.
Many women (and men) believe that only stranger rape is ‘real rape;’ and other women see sex in marriage as an obligation and define forced sex as a ‘wifely duty,’ not rape. Obviously, if women do not ‘name’ their experiences as rape, they are unlikely to seek outside assistance to stop the violence.
Last month the UK Government launched its Serious Violence Action Plan with welcome news of expansion of Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs). Unfortunately, as with its efforts to reduce domestic violence, the strategy is overly focused on the criminal justice system (CJS).
Whilst this is critical to address the pitifully low rates of conviction for rape and domestic violence, the CJS involves only a fraction of the women who experience violence. As argued in a new paper by the End Violence Against Women campaign, we need both Rape Crisis Centres and SARCs if we are to provide the support that raped and sexually assaulted women need and deserve.
Until we eliminate the sense of entitlement which some men have to women’s sexual services, women will continue to be pressured, threatened and violated both by individual men and the systems which are supposed to protect them and offer justice.
Davina James-Hanman is director of the Greater London Domestic Violence Project