More States Taking Aim on Marital Rape Cases
Deborah was making a call from a pay telephone when a man held a knife to her throat and demanded money. When she got home, the same man was waiting. He raped her at gunpoint.
A man hiding in the shadows confronted Brenda, held a razor to her throat and forced her into her house, where he raped her.
After a party, Rita accepted a ride home from a man she knew. He held her captive, tore her clothes, raped her, choked her and dangled her body from a secluded bridge, telling her, “I’d drop you if I didn’t love you.”
All these violent crimes against women share another trait: Each victim was attacked by her husband.
Until recently, marital rape was not viewed as a crime. Before 1979 only five states--Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon, New Jersey and Delaware--had laws allowing prosecution of husbands for raping their wives.
During the last five years, however, 17 more states--including California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts--as well as the District of Columbia, have been added to the list. Campaigns are under way in 13 other states to change rape statutes.
Legislation to make marital rape a federal crime died in Congress this year, but sponsors say they will try to introduce the bill again.
In states such as New York, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Indiana, a woman still has no legal recourse against her husband if he rapes her.
Studies in Boston and San Francisco indicate that between 10% and 14% of married women have been raped by their husbands. Frequently, the rapes are part of a pattern that includes other abuses.
The legal foundation for excluding husbands from prosecution for rape dates to the 17th Century, when Sir Matthew Hale, a chief justice of England, 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.”
That sentiment was echoed by John Rideout, who went on trial in 1978 for allegedly raping his wife, Greta. “You’re my wife, you do what I want,” Rideout said.
Greta Rideout of Salem, Ore., became the first woman in the nation to press prosecution of her husband for rape that allegedly occurred while they were living together. Although John Rideout was acquitted, the publicity resulting from his trial caused several states to change their rape laws.
In another case that concluded last September, William Rider was found guilty in Miami of sexual battery and kidnaping of his wife, Marion.
Already on Books
Although the Rider verdict was widely reported as the first time a husband was convicted of raping his wife while they lived together, many such decisions already were on the books, according to Laura X, director of the National Clearinghouse on Marital Rape in Berkeley.
The conviction rate among husbands accused of marital rape is about 85%, compared with between 2% and 5% in cases of rape by strangers, she said.
The women’s rights activist, who tracks cases of marital rape, said she is aware of 99 cases of husbands convicted of raping their wives--21 when they were living together and 78 when they were separated.
Laura X, who changed her name in the tradition of black revolutionary Malcolm X, monitors court decisions and legislation and works to change laws so that husbands can be prosecuted.
“Rape laws were written to protect man’s property,” she said. “What we want is a woman’s basic right to consent.”
“There is this impression that marital rape is a tiff between husband and wife, that it’s not a serious crime. Marital rape can have all the brutality that we normally associate with stranger rape,” said David Finkelhor, associate director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Case studies show weapons and other foreign objects often are used in marital rape, either as a threat or as part of the rape, he said.
A book by Finkelhor and Kiersti Willo, “License To Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives,” will be published in March, he said. In a study he conducted of 335 women in Boston, he reported, 10% of women who had been married said they had been raped by their husbands, and 40% of those women said they had never told anyone.
In a study published in 1975, Prof. Diana E. H. Russell of Mills College said she found that among 930 women in San Francisco, 14% of those who had been married said they had been raped by their spouse. Most of those in the study said they also were beaten.
Many women who are raped leave their husbands, but many others stay because they believe the men will change or because they cannot support themselves or want to keep families intact.
Separation and divorce provide no easy answer because retribution is frequent. In fact, experts say the period of separation before divorce is one of the most dangerous times for women who have been raped by husbands.
Besides the physical brutality of marital rape, the trauma can be psychologically damaging, experts agree.
“When you’re raped by a stranger you have to live with a frightening nightmare,” Finkelhor said. “When you’re raped by your husband, you have to live with your rapist.”