As an advice columnist for Psych Central, I receive too many letters like these (names have been changed):
Anna is a woman in her 40s. She has been in a conflicted marriage for years. Her husband insists on morning sex, even though he knows it will make her late for work. She gives in to get it over with.
Tara, newly married, is upset because her husband has been having sex with her while she is asleep. She likes sex but doesn’t like to be waked to him penetrating her. He says she agrees in her sleep. She feels violated.
Caren is in her 30s. She feels she has no say about when and where she and her husband will have sex. He often refuses when she initiates. But he’ll get furious if she doesn’t immediately fall into bed (or the bushes) with him when he wants it. She gives in rather than have yet another fight about it.
Kayla, age 18, writes that her husband regularly slaps her around and then forces her to have sex saying that he just knows she loves it. She does love him. She doesn’t want to leave. But she honestly doesn’t love domination as part of sexual intimacy.
These women are all married. Is what their husbands are doing a form of rape? The simple answer is “yes.”
It’s not what many people think of as rape. The man isn’t a stranger. He isn’t holding a gun to the woman’s head. He isn’t abducting her. But it is rape nonetheless. Rape is forced sex. He is getting off. She is getting violated.
Let’s go through those cases again. Rape is the word for forced or coerced sex. It is when the woman hasn’t had the opportunity to freely give consent or she is unable to give consent.
Anna’s needs aren’t being respected. Her husband is demanding sex despite the fact that it is inconvenient and not welcomed.
Tara is asleep! She wants to be awake, aware and involved when she and her husband have sex. Being waked from a sound sleep to penetration doesn’t feel loving or safe.
Caren feels coerced by the threat of yet another fight if she doesn’t give in.
Kayla is being physically hurt by the person who says he loves her.
Being married doesn’t change the social rules. Just because a woman said “I do” to marriage doesn’t mean that she has said “I do” to sex whenever, wherever, and however her husband wants it (or vice-a-versa — men can be forced into marital sex as well).
Married sex, like all intimate, loving sex is consensual. It is a way that two people who love each other express love and caring and communicate tenderness. It is not one of the following situations:
- Forced sex. This should be obvious. But some men have the mistaken idea that marriage changes the rules. It doesn’t. If a husband holds his wife down, pushes her, or imposes sex by hurting her, it’s rape. Making love doesn’t include making someone cry.
- Sex when the wife feels threatened. If a husband forces sex through verbal threats of harm to the woman or to people or things she cares about or if he comes to her in a barely contained rage, she can’t consent. She can only comply rather than risk being harmed either physically or emotionally.
- Sex by manipulation. If a husband calls his wife names, accuses her of not being a good wife, or blackmails her emotionally by suggesting she’s so bad in bed that he will go elsewhere, he’s manipulating her. Some men even threaten to leave and take the kids with him if their wives don’t comply with demands for sex. When a wife falls for these tactics, it isn’t consent. It’s rape.
- Sex when the wife can’t give consent. Loving sex is genuinely consensual. If a woman is drugged, asleep, intoxicated or unconscious, she obviously can’t give consent. Even if she says “yes” in such circumstances, the “consent” isn’t valid or truthful. She’s in no shape to consider the consequences or to participate as a willing partner.
- Sex by taking a woman hostage. Some men keep themselves in a position of superiority by controlling all the money, by making contact with friends and family difficult to impossible, or by making sure there is no way for her to get transportation out of the house. The woman becomes a hostage in her own home. Like many hostages, she gives up and gives in to whatever he wants — including sex.
- Sex when the woman feels she has no choice. Giving in isn’t the same as giving consent. When a woman feels that it’s just easier to give in to sex than to respect her own needs, she is being raped.
Let’s be clear: Being married doesn’t make any of the above situations okay.
Wives do not belong to their husbands as though they were property. Sex is not a “right” that goes with marriage. It is not a wife’s duty. A woman does not give up her right to say yes or no the day she gets married. Sex should be based on respect, equality, consent, caring, and clear communication.
No woman wants to feel like she’s living with a rapist. Good men don’t want to be one.
A couple can sometimes back away from hurtful sex on their own. But often, anger, disappointments and the emotional hurts that are the result of forced marital sex are so intense that it takes some specialized treatment to heal the relationship. If a couple wants to stay together in spite of an incident or pattern of marital rape, a couples therapist can help partners heal the hurts and develop a healthy way to be sexual with each other.
But if the husband refuses to take responsibility for inflicting emotional and physical pain and even feels justified in his actions, it may be that the only way for the wife to stop it is to leave. It may be frightening for the wife to cut loose, especially if she is financially and emotionally dependent on her husband. But sometimes it’s the only way to save herself.
Women’s support centers and domestic violence programs can help. Victims of abuse in the United States can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for support (or visit their website to chat online). Expert advocates are available 24/7 to talk confidentially to anyone about their relationship and where to find further information.