The Wife Rape Fact Sheet

Patricia Mahoney, M.A.
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesely College Stone Center

(Excerpted from the Wife Rape Information Page.)

What is Wife Rape?
Wife Rape is the term used to describe sexual acts committed without a person's consent and/or against a person's will by a woman's husband or ex husband. Sexual acts may be committed through physical force, threats of force against her or a third person, or implied harm based on prior assaults causing the woman to fear that physical force will be used if she resists.

When a woman submits to sexual acts out of fear or coercion, it is rape. A wife does not need to be "putting up a good fight" for it to be rape (even according to the law). Sexual acts include but are not limited to penile vaginal intercourse, the insertion of genitals into the mouth or anus, or the insertion of objects into the vagina or anus.

How Common is Wife Rape?
Two studies have documented similar rates among random samples of women:

    Ten to fourteen percent of ever-married women have experienced at least one forced sexual assault by a husband or ex-husband (Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985; Russell, 1990).
    Studies of battered women staying in shelters and women seeking relationship help show one-third to three-quarters of those asked reported sexual assaults by their husbands or intimate partners.
How are Victims of Wife Rape Different from Other Rape Victims?
Women raped by a partner are violated by someone with whom they share their lives, homes, and possibly children. In addition to the violation of their bodies, they are faced with a betrayal of trust and intimacy. Sadly, victims of wife rape are not likely to see what is being done to them as a violation of their rights. This is no surprise, however, as society has only recently legally recognized wife rape as a crime, and opinion polls show that people still believe that wife rape must be "less harmful" than stranger rape.

Research indicates that wife rape victims are more likely to be raped multiple times compared with stranger and acquaintance rape victims. In research with wife rape victims, most report being raped more than once, with at least 1/3 of the women reporting being raped more than 20 times over the course of their relationship (Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985; Russell, 1990). Women who experience wife rape suffer long lasting physical and psychological injuries as severe or more severe than stranger rape victims.

What Legal Rights do Married Women Have Regarding Wife Rape?
Today it is a crime in all 50 states (and federal lands) for a husband to rape his wife. However, according to the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape (see Resource List), as of March 1996, only 17 states and the District of Columbia have completely abolished the marital rape exemption (which precludes a husband from being charged with rape of his wife in certain situations, or limits the seriousness of the offense with which a husband could be charged). Marital privileges are extended to unmarried cohabitants in some states.

It is important to remember that under at least one section of the sexual offense codes (usually those code sections regarding force), marital rape is a crime in all 50 states. Each state has its own sexual offense codes. Women may also sue their husbands in civil court for pain and suffering and medical and other costs incurred as a result of sexual battery.

Why Would a Man Rape His Wife?
Our ability to answer this question is limited, as so little research has focused on husband-rapists. It is, however, clear from survivors’ reports that it does not stem from wives withholding sex, which is the most common myth. Most women who report being raped by their husbands also report having consensual sexual intercourse. Researchers who have spoken with husband-rapists conclude that husband-rapists rape to reinforce their power or control over their wives or families, or to express anger.

Stereotypes about women and sex such as: "women enjoy forced sex," "women say ‘no’ when they really mean ‘yes,’" or "it's a wife's duty to have sex" continue to be reinforced in our culture through both mainstream and pornographic media. Such messages not only mislead men into believing that they should ignore a woman's protests. They also mislead women into believing that they must have "sent the wrong signals," blaming themselves for unwanted sexual encounters, or believing that they are "bad wives" for not enjoying sex against their will.

Why Would a Woman Stay With a Man Who Raped Her?
The answers to this question are complicated. Many women believe it is part of their "wifely duty" to have sex with their husbands, even if it is violent sex against their will. Many religious doctrines outline sexual acts as a "duty" for wives. In addition, it is only recently that the law has begun to offer wives protection from their husband's sexual attacks, and many people may be unaware that wife rape is a crime.

Many women do not have the financial resources to leave a relationship. If a woman has children, her ability to leave is complicated by the added problem of moving her children with her (taking them out of school, away from friends) or abandoning her children. She may not leave for fear of what the offender may do to her or the children.

Also, some women may not leave out of love and loyalty to the husband, which may override her pain and suffering. The decision to leave a person you care about or love can be very difficult, even when the relationship is unhealthy or violent. But it's the abuse that's wrong, not loving someone who is abusive. No one deserves to be beaten or raped, and no one is required to live with fear and violence. Everyone has the right to live in a safe home.

If You Have Experienced Sex Against Your Will by Your Husband or Partner...
If your partner has insisted that you have sex against your will by force, threats, or intimidation, please know that you are not alone and can seek help. You may want to seek personal and/or legal counseling. Counseling services can be found through rape crisis centers, domestic violence services, and family service agencies (see Resources section of the Wife Rape Information Page [click on title]). You may call these numbers to discuss past experiences as well as recent ones. Immediately following a rape experience, please seek medical treatment at a hospital, followed by counseling.

Sources and additional resources
The Wife Rape Information Page

Bergen, R. K. (1996). Wife Rape: Understanding the response of survivors and service providers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Finkelhor, D. & Yllo, K. (1985). License to Rape: Sexual abuse of wives. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Russell, D.E.H. (1990). Rape in marriage. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Mahoney, P. & Williams, L. (1998). Sexual assault in marriage: Prevalence, consequences and treatment for wife rape. In J. Jasinski & L. M. Williams (Eds.), Partner violence: A comprehensive review of 20 years of research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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