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Marital Rape: A Crime Against Trust

When one hears the word “marriage”, many ideas come to mind: romantic weddings; people building lives and families together, treating each other with love, kindness, and respect. Sadly, while these are still real definitions for many people, not all marriages look that way. In relationships poisoned by abuse and control, even the most classically cherished experience, like intimacy with a spouse, can be transformed into a brutal and violent act. For many years, it was unclear how to define this act when taking place within a marriage. But the truth is, regardless of the context of the relationship, a brutal sex act committed against a person’s consent is what it is. The truth is, between a husband and wife, that is called marital rape.


Defining marital rape

Sexual violence within a partnership - either a marriage or co-habitation can manifest in numerous forms, including, but not limited to, marital rape. The concept of marital rape is a controversial topic, with several different opinions on what should or should not be considered as rape. For the past thirty years, many countries exempted marriage from the classification as a criminal offense, giving spouses the leeway to commit in sexual coercion or assault against their partner. It has now been classed under the category of sexual assault by law in many countries, which has encouraged more women to come forward to seek help and take necessary legal actions against their partner/assailants.

Traditionally, rape has been characterized and legally defined as a criminal offense that could only be committed outside marriage. Most courts didn't even consider forced sex between spouses. A further complication are cultural and religious values that support female subordination and inequality, thus diminishing the issue of sexual violence against women.

Forced acts within forced marriage

The issue of forced sex against a spouse is further complicated when the marriage itself is nonconsensual. In many parts of the world, forced marriage and child marriage are prevalent. A forced marriage is one where one or both participants are married without their freely given consent, while in a child marriage, one or both parties are younger than 18. These types of marriages are associated with higher rates of domestic violence, including marital rape. These forms of marriage are most common in traditional societies which have no laws against sexual violence in marriage, and where it is also very difficult to leave a marriage. This is a roadblock shared by victims within all types of marriages.

Fear of speaking out

Although marital rape now is identified as a sexual assault, it continues to remain as one of the most under-reported violent crimes. This is aggravated by social tolerance, where some cultures brush off the nature of the act by stating “He’s your husband, not a random man.” Many women shy away from speaking up due to financial dependence on their husbands for either their own upkeep or that of their children. Fear of humiliation and fear of social rejection also play a part in discouraging women from seeking help.


Marital rape is often not an isolated event and is usually an attribute of an existing abusive relationship. Forced sex is most certainly sexual violence. When attributes such as gaslighting are
implemented by the perpetrator, they can make the victim believe that it is their fault. Imbued in these thoughts, victims thus never seek help. Spousal rape is indeed rape too and this can thus refer to any form of manipulation of the victim, thus getting them to engage sexually even when they do not want to. Spousal rape forms a big part of intimate partner violence, although the nature of a sexual assault within a marriage may not necessarily be violent. It could also be use of tactics that belittle the integrity of the victim.

Long term impacts of marital rape

Sexual violence within a romantic partnership can have drastic and unspeakable effects on the women who experience it. It can affect women physically and mentally, also leaving them with a strong feeling of violation and inability to trust even those closest to them. Forcing a spouse into having an intercourse or into bearing a child, constitutes violation of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. Some most common forms of sexual violence that women routinely
experience include marital rape, reproductive coercion, and insertion of objects into the vagina or anus and withholding sexual pleasure.

Many victims find it hardto accept the fact that their partner is capable of rape or why this happened to them. It is important for every victim to understand that what has happened to them is not their fault. The "why" behind the act hugely has to do with the spouse’s attitude and nothing to do with the victim. This can also severely alter the way a victim goes on to perceive love, relationships, and intimacy in it. There is a possibility that a strong trauma response to intimacy may develop. If the trauma from marital rape is not processed, it can lead to consequent physical trauma responses. It can also have a severe impact on interpersonal relationships, especially ones of a romantic nature. A victim could experience anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. This underscores the importance of counselling, a strong community of support, and ultimately, laws that recognize and protect the victimization and rights of spouses.

Voices for the voiceless

Historically, massive legal and cultural shifts begin with social action. In recent years, collective voices and protest have called for change, starting with the analysis gender norms which tolerated violence against women. With changing social views, and international condemnation of sexual violence in marriage, courts have started to apply the rape laws in marriage. The current applicability in many countries of rape laws to spouses is currently unclear, since in many countries the laws have not been recently tested in court. There is a critical need for continued education, awareness, and protest, to push for the creation of protective laws across countries that still follow outdated laws and practice antiquated social norms.

If you or your loved one has been sexually assaulted by a romantic partner, you deserve a safe space to process this and get all the support you need. Being violated by someone you trusted to be a partner for life and someone you loved, can be a shocking and confusing experience. This in turn can lead to an array of emotions, which could trigger the most unexpected responses. It is normal to feel lonely and that this is not something that you can share with someone else.
Although these are perfectly natural feelings, it is very important to seek help if you have experienced
marital rape. This experience you have been through does not define you and you are not broken.

What can we do?

Let us unite in the fight against marital rape and all forms of GBV. Let's ensure that survivors have the support and resources they need to reclaim their dignity, heal their wounds, and rebuild their futures. Your contribution, whether big or small, can help provide critical resources that are pivotal in rebuilding shattered lives.  Donate here to unite with us in the fight against marital rape and all forms of gender-based violence.

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