Marital Rape Essay

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Marital rape is a serious form of intimate partner violence that is experienced by approximately 10% to 14% of married women. Rape by one’s intimate partner may be one of the most common forms of sexual violence. In their Canadian study, Melanie Randall and Lori Haskell found that 30% of the adult women who were victims of sexual assault had been assaulted by their intimate partners.

The definitions of wife rape vary within the United States; however, it is commonly defined as unwanted intercourse or penetration (oral, anal, or vaginal) that occurs when a woman is forced, threatened with force, or unable to give her consent. Most studies of rape in marriage have focused on couples who were legally married, separated, divorced, or cohabiting. Cohabiting couples have generally been included in research on wife rape because it is believed that the dynamics of violence between long-term cohabiting couples are similar to married couples.

Rape in marriage occurs regardless of one’s age, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, or geographic location; however, there are some risk factors. It is believed that men who rape their partners are often domineering individuals who feel a sense of entitlement to sex with their partners. This sense of entitlement does not necessarily end when a couple is separated or divorced. Women may be particularly vulnerable to rape by their partners when this sense of entitlement is challenged, such as when women are ill or have recently been discharged from the hospital. Pregnancy may be a factor that also places women at higher risk for sexual abuse by their partners.

One of the most significant risk factors is physical abuse. Research with clinical samples of battered women or those who are seeking help for the violence indicate that between 20% and 70% of them have been sexually assaulted at least once by their partner. However, not all women who are raped by their partners are battered women. In the first major study of wife rape, Diana Russell found that 4% of women who had been raped by their partners had not been battered. In their classic work, David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo found that 40% of the women who experienced marital rape experienced force-only rape— that is, their husbands used the amount of force necessary to coerce their wives into having sex, but battering did not characterize these relationships. Some women also experience what has been called sadistic or obsessive rape, which often includes physical violence, forms of torture, the use of pornography, and/or what women define as perverse sexual acts. Women who are raped by their partners often experience multiple forms of violence, and the violence may vary over the course of the relationship with their abusers.

There are serious physical, gynecological, and emotional consequences associated with women’s experiences of marital rape. Women commonly report experiencing broken bones, lacerations, knife wounds, torn muscles, and black eyes. Marital rape survivors also report gynecological consequences, including anal and vaginal tearing, miscarriages, bladder infections, urinary tract infections, and increased contraction of sexually transmitted diseases. Women who are raped by their partners also are at increased risk for unwanted pregnancy, often as a result of their partners’ refusal to use contraception and/or their refusal to allow their wives to use contraception.

The emotional consequences of marital rape can be severe. Although historically marital rape may have been portrayed as a marital tiff, the psychological consequences are often severe and long-lasting. Similar to other survivors of rape, women who are raped by their husbands frequently suffer from depression, intense fear, posttraumatic stress disorder, and sleeping disorders. These consequences may be short-term or last for extended periods of time. Raquel Bergen’s research found that some women report sexual dysfunction, sleeping disorders, and depression years after the violence ends. Women who are raped by their partners often suffer emotionally because of the bond of trust and love that has been violated given that their assailant is their partner.

It is evident that rape in marriage is a serious and prevalent form of intimate violence. Future research should address the issue of prevention and how marital rape might best be eliminated.


  1. Bennice, J. A., & Resick, P. A. (2003). Marital rape: History, research and practice. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 4, 228–246.
  2. Bergen, R. K. (1996). Wife rape: Understanding the response of survivors and service providers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Campbell, J. C., & Soeken, D. (1999). Forced sex and intimate partner violence: Effects on women’s risk and women’s health. Health Care for Women International, 10, 335–346.
  4. Finkelhor, D., & Yllo, K. (1985). License to rape. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  5. Mahoney, P., & Williams, L. M. (1998). Sexual assault in marriage: Prevalence, consequences and treatment of wife rape. In J. L. Jasinski & L. M. Williams (Eds.), Partner violence: A comprehensive review of 20 years of research (pp. 113–163). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Randall, M., & Haskell, L. (1995). Sexual violence in women’s lives. Violence Against Women, 1, 6–31.
  7. Riggs, D., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Resnick, H. (1992). Long-term psychological distress associated with marital rape and aggravated assault: A comparison to other crime victims. Journal of Family Violence, 7, 283–295.
  8. Russell, D. (1990). Rape in marriage. New York: Macmillan.

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