THE BLOG
07/28/2015 06:51 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2016

Yes, Marital Rape Happens, and it is Terrible

Marital rape is a serious and frequently occurring form of domestic violence. Marital rape strikes at the heart of the marriage covenant, taking the promise, as in some Christian marriage ceremonies, to "cherish" the body of the spouse and turning into to a horror.

For most of human history, however, the marriage contract has meant the wife has "consented to sex" and thus sexual relations at any time are an entitlement by the husband. This is an extension of the idea that wives are the property of their husbands, as Diana Russell wrote in her 1990 landmark book Rape in Marriage.

Today, marital rape is now illegal in all 50 states and has been since July 5, 1993. Donald Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, has apparently just learned this.

Cohen exploded in response to an article in The Daily Beast that cited a 22 year-old allegation that Trump raped his former wife, Ivana. Ivana Trump's assertion of "rape" came in a deposition that was part of the Trumps early '90s divorce case, and revealed in the 1993 book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump.

Cohen said, "You cannot rape your spouse."

Actually, of course, you can. The legal definition of marital rape varies within the United States, but it is generally defined as any unwanted intercourse or penetration (vaginal, anal, or oral) obtained by force, threat of force, or when the wife is unable to consent (Russell, 1990).

Russell's study of sexual assault in marriage was crucial in helping to raise awareness of how often this kind of assault occurs within marriage. It involved interviews with 930 women in a randomly selected representative community sample in San Francisco established the pervasiveness of marital rape. Researchers, according to vawnet.org, have estimated that "between 10 and 14 percent of married women experience rape in marriage." Marital rape occurs across races, classes and ages, though many women have reported that their first experience of marital rape occurred when they were under 25.

While marital rape is a form of violence against women that is both prevalent and illegal, it is often regarded as a much lesser crime than rape by a stranger for example, or not really a crime at all. It is stereotyped as "just having sex with your husband when you don't want to."

This is a dangerous misunderstanding about marital rape and it can put women at risk, even risk of their lives. As these researchers have noted, "marital rape often involves severe physical violence, threats of violence, and the use of weapons by men against their partners. Importantly, some researchers have found that compared to batterers, men who batter and rape are particularly dangerous men and are more likely to severely injure their wives and potentially even escalate the violence to murder." It is also crucial to point out that these marital rapes can occur many times over many years (Russell, 1990).

Domestic violence per se is dangerous to women, often lethally so. Nearly double the number of women were killed in intimate partner violence from 2001 to 2012 than the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in that same period. The number of troops killed was 6,488, and the number of women who were murdered by current or ex male partners was 11,766 as cited in an article by Alanna Vagianos in the Huffington Post on October 23, 2014.

For every minute you spent reading this article, 20 people were victims of intimate partner violence, the vast majority of them women.

Marital rape, especially when part of a pattern of domestic violence, is very dangerous. But researchers now believe it is important not to simply conflate marital rape into being just one aspect of domestic violence.

It matters that marital rape be understood for the specific form of deep violation it is, in body, mind and spirit. Coerced sexual relations are a form of the abuse of power in a relationship and should, in my view, be considered violence, even in the absence of threats or use of physical violence. As one woman said to me recently who had experienced marital rape in a previous marriage, "It's such a violation. He's supposed to love and care about you. But you're afraid to say anything, because who's going to believe you?"

We are learning more and more about the dreadful consequences of not believing women when they report sexual assault through the publicity brought about through the multiple accusations against Bill Cosby. What happens is the assaults continue.

Women who have experienced marital rape need specific help for this kind of trauma. The long-term effects of marital rape can be severe, especially when there are multiple assaults by someone who is supposed to give a woman love and trust, and who instead violates that trust by violating her body. These can include anxiety, shock, intense fear, depression, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Russell 1990).

It all comes down to trust, really. Wives need to be able to trust their husbands not to beat and violate them sexually, and society needs to trust women and believe them when they experience marital rape.

I hope and pray we are shifting our societal attitudes and that women are more and more believed when they report the many forms of violence visited upon them.