Marital rape (United States law)
Marital rape, also known as spousal rape, is non-consensual sex in which the perpetrator is the victim's spouse. It is a form of partner rape, of domestic violence, and of sexual abuse. Marital rape is today illegal in all 50 US states.
The legal history of marital rape laws in the United States is a long and complex one, that spans over several decades. The criminalization of marital rape in the United States started in the mid-1970s and by 1993 marital rape became a crime in all 50 states, under at least one section of the sexual offense codes. At that time, most states differentiated between the way marital rape and non-marital rape were treated. The laws have continued to change and evolve since 1993, but in some states, there still remain differences.
Criminalization of marital rape (mid 1970s to early 1990s)
The views which contributed to rape laws not being applicable in marriage can be traced, at least partially, to the 17th century, to English common law, which was exported to the US: the views of Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English jurist, published in The History of the Pleas of the Crown (1736), stated that a husband cannot be guilty of the rape of his wife because the wife "hath given up herself in this kind to her husband, which she cannot retract" (this would remain law in England and Wales for more than 250 years, until it was abolished by the House of Lords, in the case of R. v. R in 1991). The strong influence of conservative Christianity in the US may have also played a role: the Bible at 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 explains that one has a "conjugal duty" to have sexual relations with one's spouse (in sharp opposition to sex outside marriage which is considered a sin) and states that "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another (...)" - and this is interpreted by some conservative religious figures as rejecting to possibility of marital rape.
Prior to the mid-1970s marital rape was not a crime. Traditional rape laws in the US defined rape as forced sexual intercourse by a male with a "female not his wife", making it clear that the statutes did not apply to married couples. The 1962 Model Penal Code stated that "A male who has sexual intercourse with a female not his wife is guilty of rape if: (...)". In 1993, North Carolina became the last state to remove the spousal exemption. On July 5, 1993, marital rape became a crime in all 50 states, under at least one section of the sexual offense codes.
In some states, notably New York - in People v. Liberta 1984  - the courts had been involved in striking down the marital exemption as unconstitutional. The decision of the New York Court of Appeals, delivered by judge Sol Wachtler, stated that "a marriage license should not be viewed as a license for a husband to forcibly rape his wife with impunity. A married woman has the same right to control her own body as does an unmarried woman".
Similarly, in Alabama, the marital exemptions from the Sodomy statute (dealing with forcible sodomy)- Williams v. State (1986) and from the Rape statute (Merton v. State) were found unconstitutional.
Evolution of laws after 1993
Although marital rape had become illegal in all states by 1993, in most states there were significant differences between the way marital rape and other forms of rape were treated. Only in 17 states were marital rape and other forms of rape treated the same. In the other states there were various differences, such as shorter penalties, or excluding situations where no violence is used, or shorter reporting periods. (Bergen, 1996; Russell, 1990). The laws have continued to change through the 1990s and 2000s, in order to bring marital rape laws in line with non-marital rape, but even today there remain differences in some states.
While by 1993 all states criminalized some form of compelled sexual intercourse between cohabiting spouses (the last states to do so being Oklahoma and North Carolina - both in 1993), this was only the first step in the legislative battle in regard to marital rape. During the 1990s most (but not all) states treated marital rape differently from other forms of rape: recognizing a narrower range of forms of sexual violence in marriage, subjecting marital rape to a different legal regime (such as less serious sanctions), creating different procedural rules (such as shorter reporting periods).
- unmarried persons (offered full protection by sexual offenses laws);
- married persons who were in an abnormal marriage (e.g. separated, one spouse had filed for divorce etc.)- often treated in an intermediate way, although many states treated them either as unmarried persons or as married cohabiting persons
- married persons cohabiting (spouses living together under ordinary circumstances) - although by 1993 every state had criminalized some forms of sexual aggression between cohabiting spouses, many of these laws were initially very restrictive criminalizing only the "worst" forms of sexual aggression (e.g. requiring violence, a higher level of threat, injury etc.; and often punishing the crime less severely)
Feminists and women's organizations have lobbied continuously for the amendment of the laws, and the laws have changed numerous times in recent years. Today marital exemptions have largely been removed, but in some states there still remain differences. South Carolina remains the only state where the force or violence used or threatened must be of a higher level (force or violence must be of a "high and aggravated nature" - see section below State laws).
In the United States, there are major discrepancies between states, in that some states have completely removed the marital exemptions in the late 1970s, being among the first jurisdictions in the world to do so, while other states (especially in the South) have moved very slowly, lagging significantly behind other Western countries.
States where there continue to be significant differences in the treatment of marital rape and non marital rape include Ohio, Idaho, Connecticut, Virginia, Oklahoma, Nevada, Maryland, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and especially South Carolina.
In Ohio, a rape that happens in marriage when the spouses are living together can only be charged under subsection A(2) of 2907.02 Rape, which states that: "No person shall engage in sexual conduct with another when the offender purposely compels the other person to submit by force or threat of force." By contrast, a person who is not married to the accused or who is married but living separate and apart can rely on many laws which deal with various forms of coercion. It is notable that subsection A(1)(a) of 2907.02 Rape that deals with drugging someone "surreptitiously or by force, threat of force, or deception" to coerce them into sex does not apply in marriage (except in case of separation). The whole article 2907.03 Sexual battery, that deals with various forms of coercion (for instance it states in subsection in A (1) that "The offender [commits a crime when he] knowingly coerces the other person to submit by any means that would prevent resistance by a person of ordinary resolution") does not apply at all to married people.
In Idaho (which remains one of the few states which has gender specific rape laws) a married woman can bring a charge of rape against her husband only under subsections (4) and (5) of 18-6101. Rape defined (because Article 18-6107. Rape of spouse states: No person shall be convicted of rape for any act or acts with that person's spouse, except under the circumstances cited in subsections (4) and (5) of section 18-6101, Idaho Code). A married woman can bring charges:
(4) Where she resists but her resistance is overcome by force or violence.
(5) Where she is prevented from resistance by the infliction, attempted infliction, or threatened infliction of bodily harm, accompanied by apparent power of execution; or is unable to resist due to any intoxicating, narcotic, or anaesthetic substance.
18-6101. Rape defined has 9 subsections. The first two of them only deal with age (under 16 and 18 - "statutory rape"); but the other subsections deal with various types of criminal threats, exploitation of illness, unconsciousness, and impersonating somebody else.
Connecticut has a specific crime dealing with forced sex with a spouse and this doesn't apply only to spouses but also to unmarried cohabitants. The law is more narrow than the other sex laws and it has a shorter penalty. It is called Sec. 53a-70b. Sexual assault in spousal or cohabiting relationship and it reads:
- "No spouse or cohabitor shall compel the other spouse or cohabitor to engage in sexual intercourse by the use of force against such other spouse or cohabitor, or by the threat of the use of force against such other spouse or cohabitor which reasonably causes such other spouse or cohabitor to fear physical injury."
The spousal rape law of Connecticut makes reference to force used or threatened against the "other spouse or cohabitor" while the 'ordinary' sexual assault law deals with force used or threatened against the "other person or against a third person".
Nevada law appears to require force or threat of force. Article 200.373 states that "It is no defense to a charge of sexual assault that the perpetrator was, at the time of the assault, married to the victim, if the assault was committed by force or by the threat of force." This seems to imply that if force or threat of thereof were not used, marriage can be a defense. The general definition of sexual assault uses the wording "against the will of the victim" or "under conditions in which the perpetrator knows or should know that the victim is mentally or physically incapable of resisting or understanding the nature of his or her conduct".
In Oklahoma rape by a spouse can only be charged under subsection (B) of Section 1111 - Rape Defined which states:
- B. Rape is an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a male or female who is the spouse of the perpetrator if force or violence is used or threatened, accompanied by apparent power of execution to the victim or to another person.
For instance, a person in Oklahoma can not charge her/his spouse for rape if she/he is compelled to submit due to drugs "administered by or with the privity of the accused as a means of forcing the victim to submit", or when she/he is unconscious, as these situations are dealt under subsection (A) of Section 1111 which define rape as intercourse "with a male or female who is not the spouse of the perpetrator ".
In Virginia the main difference lies in punishment. Under certain circumstances, if the victim and the attorney for the Commonwealth agree, the perpetrator can undergo a therapy program, which if completed successfully, replaces any punishment. This can happen if "the court finds such action will promote maintenance of the family unit and be in the best interest of the complaining witness." While the victim has to agree to this option, this can expose the victim to intimidation and threats from the perpetrator, or to social pressure to remain in the relation.
Maryland law states that, if the spouses are living together, a prosecution can take place only if the accused "uses force or threat of force and the act is without the consent of the spouse." If the spouses are separated they are treated as if they were strangers (See Section § 3-318)
A similar situation exists in Mississippi. A person can be convicted of sexual battery of a spouse when they are living together only if he engages in "forcible penetration against the victim's will". This excludes, among others, situations where the victim is "rendered incapable of knowing or controlling his or her conduct, or incapable of resisting an act due to the influence of any drug, narcotic, anesthetic, or other substance administered to that person without his or her consent".
In Rhode Island, Article § 11-37-2 'First degree sexual assault', has four subsections; while subsections 2, 3 and 4 apply to spouses, subsection 1 does not; it reads: "The accused, not being the spouse, knows or has reason to know that the victim is mentally incapacitated, mentally disabled, or physically helpless." This has the result of excluding from prosecution, among other situations, incidents where the victim was drugged by the perpetrator ("Mentally incapacitated" is defined by legislation as: "a person who is rendered temporarily incapable of appraising or controlling his or her conduct due to the influence of a narcotic, anesthetic, or other substance administered to that person without his or her consent, or who is mentally unable to communicate unwillingness to engage in the act". )
In Minnesota, certain sexual offenses do not apply to spouses (unless they are separated), and neither do they apply to unmarried cohabitants. These are offenses that deal with situations where the lack of consent is due to the incapacity of consent of the victim, including where the victim was drugged by the perpetrator. Article 609.349 'Voluntary relationships' creates this exemption. This article excludes situations where the victim was "mentally impaired, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless". The term "mentally incapacitated" is defined as a person who "under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance, administered to that person without the person's agreement, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration".
In Michigan, Section 750.520l excludes situations where the criminality comes solely due to the spouse being "mentally incapable, or mentally incapacitated." Section 750.520a Definitions reads: '"Mentally incapacitated" means that a person is rendered temporarily incapable of appraising or controlling his or her conduct due to the influence of a narcotic, anesthetic, or other substance administered to that person without his or her consent, or due to any other act committed upon that person without his or her consent.'
Iowa contains an unusual exemption. Subsection (2) of article 709.4 Sexual abuse in third degree, excludes sexual acts committed by adults with children as young as 12, provided the parties are "cohabiting as husband and wife". This does not refer only to legal marriages, but also to informal cohabitation. (Iowa is one of few states which recognizes common law marriage) In 2012, a man who got his 13-years old live-in-girlfriend pregnant tried to rely on this law. The man, who was of Mexican origin, argued that his relation could be considered as similar to marriage under cultural norms as they exist in his Mexican culture. The court rejected this argument, ruling that the exemption could be used only if the couple "objectively cohabited in the status of husband and wife, whether common law or otherwise", not if they merely believed they did.
South Carolina represents the most extreme situation. Not only is marital rape punished less severely and the victims have only 30 days to report, but the law requires a higher level of violence to be used. The law, titled "Spousal sexual battery" reads as follows:
- (A) Sexual battery, as defined in Section 16-3-651(h), when accomplished through use of aggravated force, defined as the use or the threat of use of a weapon or the use or threat of use of physical force or physical violence of a high and aggravated nature, by one spouse against the other spouse if they are living together, constitutes the felony of spousal sexual battery and, upon conviction, a person must be imprisoned not more than ten years.
A relatively similar law existed in Tennessee until 2005, when it was repealed. The law stated that a person could be guilty of the rape of a spouse at a time they are living together only if that person either "was armed with a weapon or any article used or fashioned in a manner to lead the alleged victim to reasonably believe it to be a weapon" or "caused serious bodily injury to the alleged victim". This meant that, in practice, most cases of marital rape could not be prosecuted, since few rapes involve such extreme circumstances. The law was finally repealed in 2005, allowing for marital rape to be treated like any other type of rape. The bill to repeal the old law has been introduced more than ten times before it succeeded.
- "The National Center for Victims of Crime - Library/Document Viewer". Ncvc.org. Retrieved 2012-05-14.