If you have any doubt, leave. Don't stay for anyone, get out for you. (Trigger warning.)
This is a trigger warning. The following article may cause severe distress to the victims of sexual assault.
For many years in Western society it was impossible for a man to rape his wife.
Let me back up … for many years in Western society it was impossible for a man to be convicted of raping his wife.
The practice certainly existed, of course, but the within the contract of marriage a man was seen to have certain rights over his wife, and a reasonable (whatever that means) demand for sex was among them. Failure to comply was not so much a choice as defaulting on an agreed set of terms as far as the courts were concerned.
American legal thinking on the concept of marital rape dates back to even before the country was formed. It was based on the writings of English jurist Sir Matthew Hale, who said in his 1736 commentaries that…
"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 herself up in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract."
This sentiment was imported to the Colonies and would not receive any more significant legal consideration in either the United Kingdom or America for more than two centuries. In short, a woman claiming that she was raped by her husband was akin to someone claiming they were speeding on a Vespa; there was no way in that particular instance for the crime to occur.
But it was happening.
And it continues to happen with alarmingly frequency.
Up until the 1970s, the various criminal jurisdictions in the United States explicitly defined rape as "forced sexual intercourse with a woman who is not his wife". That such a wording was so casually used throughout law enforcement is simply horrifying. Aside from completely denying the concept that males can be raped entirely, it also effectively made the sexual access of married women completely the domain of her husband.
States began removing this definition of the word rape after a movements to do so began as part of the feminist initiatives in the mid-'70s. North Carolina was the last state to do so in 1993.
Still, though marital rape became universally illegal in America with North Carolina's actions, the crimes of rape by a stranger and rape by a spouse were and are still often treated very differently.
Cynthia's marital rape nightmare began around 1996.
For the first year of her marriage Cynthia of New Hampshire had no problems with her husband. He was prone to angry fits, but nothing seemed overly outside the norm.
When the two had an argument in their second year of marriage her ex-husband hit her, Cynthia left.
Initially, her ex-husband was extremely apologetic. He sent her flowers, promised never to do such a thing again, etc. Upon returning home he began petitioning Cynthia for sex. Still hurt over the incident, Cynthia refused despite continuously more aggressive requests from her ex.
"When I forcefully told him no, he just knocked me down from the edge of the bed where we were sitting, held me down to the floor, and forcefully had sex with me, even though I was crying telling him to get off and stop," said Cynthia. "He did say, 'You are my wife, you can't say no'. He truly believed that. At the time I didn't think it was 'rape'. I was married, I loved him, but it made me feel hurt, angry, disrespected and sad. He actually thought it was so funny that I was so mad and locked myself in the bathroom to shower and cry after."
Months of regular married life would pass between the couple, to be followed by a cycle of arguments used as an excuse to rape Cynthia. Having been abducted and raped at gunpoint at the age of 16 by a stranger, she still had a hard time equating her rape at the hands of her husband to what she considered 'real rape'. Eventually, she came to terms with the assault against her and left.
"It is so undermining to self-worth to have so someone who is supposed to love and cherish you, invade your body," said Cynthia. "Being in a normal loving, respectful relationship now, makes me wish I could have known then, not to waste another minute."
Heather from Houston also found herself being regularly raped by her husband under the false banner of rough makeup sex.
He would often say that he would never have hurt her intentionally. When she finally began resisting him with as much force as she could, he began hitting her, claiming he did so because she was "losing it" and "overreacting."
"If you have any doubt, leave, don't stay for anyone, get out for you," advises Heather. "They may convince you that's it is all in your head but deep down you know it's not."
Not every marital rape story starts out so openly aggressive.
When Charity from Hayward, California, first married her husband she found herself having a much higher sex drive than he did. For the first three years of their marriage she would attempt to gain his physical attention time and time again only to meet with rejection.
Ultimately, the constant frustration saw her drive shut down and she became physically cold to her husband right about the time he decided that he was finally in the mood after all. Unable to secure sex from her while she was awake, Charity's husband began having sex with her while she was asleep.
"Apparently he felt that as his wife I had an obligation to fulfill his sexual needs, and that if I was unwilling while I was awake he would take it while I was sleeping and could not tell him 'No'," said Charity when we talked to her. "In the beginning I didn't wake up while it was happening. When I awoke the next morning I would be confused thinking I had maybe been dreaming.
"I have post-traumatic stress disorder due to being the victim of ongoing sexual abuse by a family member that lasted over seven years. There are specific actions that trigger my PTSD, the main trigger being initiating in sex with me while I am sleeping. If I am awoken during the act I become physically violent.
"When I did finally awake during the act, this time I instead went into a disassociated state. I became completely withdrawn, even toward my 5-year-old daughter and was functioning in a robotic way. I was also no longer performing well at work, and working in healthcare my supervisor and coworkers noticed and told me that I needed to start seeing a therapist because my job was in jeopardy."
Much of the thinking that a married woman has no right to consent, even if she is unconscious like Charity, is religiously-inspired. The pertinent passage is from 1 Corinthians 7:4; "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."
The second sentence does not often come up in case law for some reason. Nonetheless, the passage is held up by many conservative Christians as proof of the non-existence of marital rape in the eyes of God.
Rachel from Redwood City, California, grew up and married within a very fundamentalist faith.
After the first year of marriage her husband simply began to not care if Rachel consented to sex or not. No amount of begging or crying deterred him. He simply took her as his due.
When they entered church-sponsored marriage counseling Rachel was given more scripture in order to deal with her response to her rape, encouraging her to be more of a submissive wife like those described in Proverbs 31 to avoid the beating her husband began doling out in response to her resistance to the rapes.
Eventually a beating went so far that Rachel required medical attention. After a broken nose, cracked ribs, and two dislocated fingers Rachel had had enough. She left her husband and her faith behind.
Another woman who asked to remain anonymous also found herself locked out of her religious community for leaving her husband, who had anally penetrated her against her will when they were merely engaged. Many years later, as she tried to come to grips with everything that was wrong in their marriage sexually, she brought up the rape.
His response was honest confusion. "What rape?" he said.
A question that seems to still be being asked all across the country by people who still deny to existence of marital rape despite the damage it continues to do to America's women.