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Marital Rape

Rape is rape regardless of the relationship between the rapist and the victim. It can be a total stranger; someone you recognize by sight, but have never really communicated with; someone you know superficially, a neighbor or a colleague; a friend, a boy-friend or a former boyfriend; a live-in partner, or a former partner; someone you are married to or have been married to in the past.

Rape is a very personal and intimate traumatic experience. Our experiences of and reactions to rape may differ widely, and although there are many similarities in the way that we feel about being the victim of rape, regardless of the relationship between us and the rapist, there are differences between stranger and intimate rape, and in this section I am trying to describe and offer an understanding of some of the specific problems regarding marital rape (or rape by an intimate) as opposed to stranger rape.

Please note that in this page I refer to wives and husbands, however, it can be understood to refer to all rapes perpetrated by an intimate. Also, I am only looking at rape and sexual assault on women, since this is by far the most common situation, though rape and sexual abuse also occur too frequently in same-sex relationships.

The main differences between stranger rape and marital rape

Stranger rape is usually a one-off, someone you don't know, with whom you don't share any experiences or history. When the assault happens, there can be no doubt as to what is happening: that it is Rape (though even in such situations the victim will often wonder what she has done to precipitate the assault and will blame herself). In marital rape the circumstances are very different. It is - quite apart from a physical and sexual violation - a betrayal of trust. Here is a person whom you thought you knew intimately, with whom you share a history, a home and quite often children. Here is a person whom you have made love to on a frequent basis often over many years, with whom you have shared your most intimate secrets and fears, and whom you believe to love you, want the best for you, who would never intentionally hurt you. Marital rape is so destructive because it betrays the fundamental basis of the marital relationship, because it questions every understanding you have not only of your partner and the marriage, but of yourself. You end up feeling betrayed, humiliated and, above all, very confused.

"When it is the person you have entrusted your life to who rapes you, it isn’t just physical or sexual assault, it is a betrayal of the very core of your marriage, of your person, of your trust."

Also, while stranger rape is a sexual act of violence outside (as in: apart from) the victims normal relationships, marital rape has to be understood in the context of an abusive relationship, that is, in the context of emotional and possibly physical abuse.

One of the differences between stranger and intimate rape is that stranger rape will nearly always involve a certain degree of physical violence (one notable exception to this is rape involving the date rape drug) while a lot of cases of marital rape will involve coercion and only enough force to control the victim, known as 'force-only' rapes (see below).

Another problem victims of marital rape face is that such instances are rarely a one-off, but a repeated if not frequent occurrence. This can be a huge issue to the victim, because she will feel as though she has somehow 'asked for it' by staying or putting herself in the situation where it can happen again. Also, once it has been tolerated on a number of occasions, she may question her right to then act upon it.

Different types of rape

Marital rape is generally sub-divided into three categories: those rapes which involve a degree of violence, those that use enough force to control the victim, known as 'force-only' rapes, and sadistic rapes.

         Violent rape occurs, as the name suggests, when the abuser uses enough physical violence to cause injury to the victim, apart from any injuries due to the rape itself, ie injuries to the genital area or breasts. Examples would include the husband punching his wife or injuring her with a knife - the rape being part of a violent assault, or the violence being a part of the rape. Many abusers will also force their wives to submit to sexual acts after a physical assault, either to prove her forgiveness or to further intimidate and humiliate her - and if the wife should refuse such an act, even the threat of further violence (or a previous experience!) will soon ensure her compliance.

         'Force-only' rape is usually understood to include only enough force used on the part of the abuser to control or hold his wife in position, e.g. holding down the victim by her arms or wrists to prevent her defending herself or escaping. This form of rape is common where there is a larger contrast between the physical size and strength of abuser and victim, or in abusive relationships where physical violence is infrequent or non-existent (insofar as one does not categorize sexual assault itself as a violent act). In most cases of 'force-only' rape, coercion plays a large part. The victim may also be so confused and numbed by constant emotional abuse, that she simply does not know how to act or react when sex is forced on her.

         Sadistic rape is sometimes also present. This tends to indicate that in addition to the rape itself, the victim is either forced to comply with or undergo deeds designed to further humiliate her. Examples of this would be the abuser/rapist urinating on the victim, acting out a fantasy of torturer, or using other object during a rape. Sadistic rape may or may not involve further violence. Some people consider buggery as a sadistic form of rape, since its effect on victim is often particularly humiliating.

It is difficult defining clear-cut lines between the different types of rape, since rape can involve any of the above or a combination of them. For instance, the rapist may use coercion tactics and enough force to control the victim initially, but then use increased violence if the victim struggles. Many victims of marital rape feel guilty for not having struggled more, or have been told that if they did not try to physically fight their abuser and thereby sustained injuries, that it is not 'real rape'. This can be extremely distressing and add to the trauma already experienced. What has to be remembered is that when you are living with your abuser, you are often very finely tuned to him, employing numerous coping mechanisms to limit the damage to yourself: you may realize either consciously or subconsciously that if you struggle, he is likely to get violent or take his anger out on you in other ways.

"I tried to push him off me, so he grabbed both my arms and flung them above my head, held them there and continued ... He held my arms by the wrists with one of his hands and held them so tight and with so much of his weight on them, that they really hurt and then started losing any sensation. When he finally let go I did not make the same mistake again ..."

Other reasons a woman may not fight back are so as not to disturb children sleeping nearby, thereby risking them witnessing the rape; shock or confusion at what is happening which paralyses her; and real concern for her abuser, which results in her not wanting to do anything which may harm or injure her rapist even to the detriment of herself.

Research seems to indicate that in the context of an abusive relationship, the woman is most likely to be subjected to rape towards the end of the relationship, or after she has left, though several women have reported that their boyfriends raped them at the very beginning of their relationship - which is reminiscent of the ancient custom of capturing and raping women to be able to claim them as wives. It would appear that where rape starts in an established relationship, that rape is often used by an abuser when other control tactics, such as isolation or emotional abuse are no longer sufficient to maintain his power and hold over her, or to punish her for either leaving or trying to leave. Only too often, this works.

The problem of defining marital rape as Rape

Many women who are victims of marital rape have great difficulty in defining it as such. The traditional idea that it is impossible for a man to rape his wife and that somehow, in taking our marriage vows we have abdicated any say over our own body and sexuality, basically denied ourselves the right to say 'no', is still prevalent amongst wives as much as amongst their husbands. A wife being raped will often question her right to refuse intercourse with her husband, and while she may realize that legally it now constitutes rape, there are many reasons which may prevent her from perceiving it in such a light.

We prefer to see it possibly as a communication problem (did I make it clear enough that I did not want intercourse tonight), we may see it as an act for which the man is not fully responsible due to his nature (men have a biological need to have sex and if there is a woman next to them in bed when they are in the mood they just cannot help it), we may see it as a misunderstanding (although I told him I didn't want to, maybe I gave him the wrong signals somehow), we may have religious issues which question our right to refuse intercourse (I have got to submit myself to him and accept his will above mine as my Lord and Master).

Basically, as wives being raped by our husbands, we look for every reason, every excuse to deny it is Rape because we do not want to accept the alternative: it is Rape, he is hurting and humiliating us with intent, we can no longer trust him, turn to him in comfort, gain reassurance and protection from his company and our home is no longer safe.

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