“I didn’t know it was rape. I gave him permission to be in my bed, so I thought that meant he could do whatever he wanted. But my therapist helped. She said, ‘You gave him permission to be in your bed but you didn’t give him permission to do that.'”
TW: this post contains descriptions of rape. Although I focus on the abuse of women in heterosexual marriage, intimate partner sexual violence can happen to people of all genders. Resources are listed at the end of the post. Read part 1 here.
My friend, J, had been married for several years when her husband started asking for sexual acts she wasn’t exited about. It was little things at first, but she gave in for her husband’s sake. Soon, during sex he began to use her body in ways she disliked. When she told him she didn’t want sex that way, he promised to stop. But after a week or two, he would repeat the same actions, holding tightly to her hips so she couldn’t escape. When she withheld sex out of fear that he would, again, force her in ways she didn’t like, he became sullen, or defensive, or aggressive. And J, herself, wasn’t sure what was and was not allowed in marriage. She had grown up being taught that a wife’s duty was to make her husband happy, and that sex was part of that duty. No one told her that sex should be mutually fulfilling. No one explained that her body was hers alone, and that not even a spouse had the right to do anything to her, ever, without full and enthusiastic consent. Instead of being an enjoyable part of their relationship, J began to dread sex. The dread turned to disgust. After years of enduring her husband’s unwanted actions, J gathered the courage to file for divorce. When the marriage ended, J had years worth of trauma to heal. A therapist helped her name what she hadn’t been able to see before: her husband had raped her, repeatedly, throughout their marriage.
Marital rape is rarely discussed and even more difficult to prove. In Shaw v. Shaw, the Supreme Court of Connecticut refused to grant a divorce on the grounds of ‘intolerable cruelty’ to a wife whose husband had raped her while she was still healing from the birth of their child. The husband dragged her from their daughter’s bed and “insisted upon his marital rights, against the wishes and remonstrances of his wife, when, in consequence of her ill health, it was indelicate, improper, unreasonable and injurious to her health so to do…and did in fact endanger her health.” The court recognized that the husband had been “unreasonable and injurious” to the wife’s health and yet confirmed the husband’s right to use her body any way he chose. In a bizarre feat of mental gymnastics, the court reinforced the myths that allow marital rape when it said, “The court finds, that she has no reason to fear any personal violence…but she had just reason to fear, that he would compel her to occupy the same bed with him, regardless of the consequences to her health.” Yes, the rape harmed the woman physically. Yes, the man would do it again. No, she had no reason to fear violence. The court, full of white men with clear biases, condemned this woman to a life of perpetual rape.
But this isn’t about one man and one woman. It’s about a whole system that defines women through their relationships to men. It’s a system that has ignored women’s pleasure. It’s about a system that repeatedly prioritizes the enjoyment of a man over the needs and desires of women. One US study found that 43% of women had unwanted sex with a current or former partner because they thought it was their duty. How did we get here? It’s a straight line from white patriarchal thinking.
Matthew Hale was an English barrister, judge, and jurist. He wrote treatises which defined English common law. English common law then became the foundation for law in the US, Canada, and other English colonies. What did he say that affects us today? Hales insisted that upon marriage, the woman ceases to exist apart from her husband. She is subsumed by him. He wrote, “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” He also insisted that women who deny sex to their husbands are, themselves, breaking the law and should be punished. Encyclopedia Britannica whitewashes his history, insisting that he was known for his “personal integrity and impartiality.” But can a man who sees women as subservient to men be truly impartial when making laws about women’s bodies? Is a man who sentenced two women to death for witchcraft really the person we want defining our laws today? And his theories do figure prominently today. His writings are why marital rape was not illegal in much of the US until the 1990s. It’s why many states still treat marital rape differently than any other rape, often carving out loopholes that give an intoxicated husband leniency. Other states exempt husbands if a wife is mentally or physically impaired, unconscious, asleep, drunk, or unable to consent in any way. In other words, our legal system still treats marriage as automatic consent. A recently leaked Supreme Court opinion quoted Hale extensively. Hales is woven throughout our social, political, and legal thinking.
We’re taught that men are to rule over the family. Sometimes we throw in words like “kindness” and “longsuffering” but the structure remains exactly what it was for Hale. The husband rules, the wife nurtures. Even if our church and political leaders don’t say it in those terms, the bias is built into every aspect of our society. How many times do we hear things like “boys will be boys?” How often does a teacher pull out the crumpled $20 bill, or a chewed piece of gum, and tell girls that it’s their job to remain morally pure even if the boys they meet at church dances run their hands a little too low or a little too high. Men do sex; women receive sex.
Like my dear friend J, many of us were taught that sex outside of marriage is bad, but we weren’t taught what sex in marriage should be like. Many of us in LDS heterosexual relationships aren’t taught that sex should feel great for everyone. We are taught that sex is about becoming one with our spouse, but we aren’t taught the how-to: how to talk about sex with our partner; how to know what feels good to us; how to recognize abuse. I remember very clearly hearing my mother’s friends talk about ways they avoided sex with their husbands, or how they learned to disassociate from their bodies during sex. Sex, for so many, was a chore but not a pleasure.
What does marital rape look like? It looks like J telling her husband she didn’t want sex in a particluar way and having her wishes ignored. It looks like a husband having sex with an unconscious or groggy wife. It looks like manipulation through words like “it’s God’s will” and “men have needs.” It looks like a husband begging his wife even after she has said “no” or “not tonight” or “I don’t feel like it.” It looks like women being taught that, as nurturers, it’s our role to fulfill the needs of those around us even if it means sacrificing ourselves and our wants.
Men aren’t the only ones who hide what rape looks like. Women obscure it for other women. In Relief Society one day, the topic turned to sex. One sister said, “If you don’t feed your husband at home, you can’t blame him for getting a donut on the way to work.” Whose responsibility is it to keep the husband on the straight and narrow, even if the wife isn’t in the mood or the husband doesn’t know how to make her feel good during sex? I saw this in action recently. A friend’s husband had an affair. Repeatedly I heard our ward sisters say, “But M is so attractive! Why would he cheat on her?” The message they sent was simple: if you’re attractive enough, satisfying enough, responsive enough, your husband won’t stray. The onus for fidelity is placed squarely on the wife and her sexual submissiveness. Rarely do we hear in church meetings that men should learn to ask first, to wait for enthusiastic consent, to respect their wives’ bodies and wants. Recently, a prominent LDS leader taught a sex education class to a group of 5th grade boys. He spoke about consent. But he said that boys should get consent so they don’t get in trouble. Get consent so you don’t get in trouble? How many loopholes does that leave?
What does thinking like that do to all of us? What does it do to the young woman preparing for marriage who has rarely if ever heard about her capacity for pleasure? What does it teach all of the youth about the role of consent within marriage? Hale, and men like him, have built an entire legal structure on the idea that marriage=eternal consent. We’re still living with the consequences of that thinking, both inside and outside the LDS church.
I had a friend once say that sometimes in marriage we have to give in to sex to make our husbands happy.
Sisters. We do not. It is not our job to give in. If we don’t like the particular kind of sex someone else wants, or if our brakes are on for whatever reason, God does not require us to sacrifice our bodies, minds, and souls so that someone else can feel physical gratification. That isn’t the sort of love God wants for any of us.
Giving consent one time, or to one thing, does not mean consent every time, or to everything. What works for you today may not feel ok tomorrow, and that’s ok. God gave us bodies, and told us to be joyful. Sex can be a beautiful experience. It should be. And if it isn’t, it is not your job to suffer through it.
If you have questions about your experiences, please speak to a qualified therapist. Someone trained in trauma work would be particularly helpful. Although your bishop or Relief Society president may be lovely, they aren’t trained professionals, and this is something we need a professional for. Hale, and men like him, have woven through our brains certain harmful beliefs. When working with possible rape, we absolutely need to talk to someone who understands the baked-in biases that are part of our society. It’s only through a professional that we can unravel and heal marital rape.
For more resources, visit: