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Intimate Obligation: The Harsh Past and Present Realities of Marital Rape


            “It was an episode of forced sex that brought the marriage to its close. He had been gone for several days and came home drunk. As they were going to bed, he told her he wanted to have sex with her. She particularly did not like having sex with him when he was drunk, and so she told him she did not want to. He insisted, pinning her down on the bed and holding her arms” (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 39). This is a brief illustration of marital rape. Jessica, the woman who experienced this, said that she only told a couple of people about the incident – before the private interview featured in the book License to Rape by David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo – but would have been more public about it had there been a campaign to change the marital rape laws in her state. She also did not want to humiliate her husband. Even though the woman, Jessica, felt she was raped, she never considered pressing charges. She felt “sex is not supposed to be something you talk about” (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 40). Marital rape has been a private, quiet battle for ages. This is apparent when watching old films, such as The Color Purple. Despite rarely being discussed, in some marriages people believe that their spouse has an intimate obligation to them, causing intense emotional effects; these ideals make marital rape a prevalent issue in America.


Before examining marital rape, it is important to understand intimate obligation. Intimate obligation is a phrase used to describe a woman’s obligation to be intimate with her husband. It is defined this way because a man is not, and was not ever, required or obligated to be intimate with his wife – unless to produce a baby. Authors David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo, in License to Rape, state that “In most of the United States, a man cannot be prosecuted for raping his wife. Legally, he can sexually assault her in a dark alleyway. He can force her to submit with a knife at her throat. He can tie her up and have sex with her repeatedly, against her will. Whatever the degree of indignity, humiliation, or brutality he may impose on her, he will not wind up in jail for committing rape” (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 1). While this is clearly an extreme description, it is true. Is it moral? Is it ethical? When a man feels he has the right to have sex with his wife regardless of if she says no, terrorizes his wife and children, and resents his child because she interferes with time that could be spent making his wife have sex, is it moral or ethical (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 41-51)? This question may be easily answered after a further look into marital rape.


The definition of marital rape varies. Dissertations like Dr. Kersti Yllo’s Battered Women’s Justice Project: Marital Rape contain a definition on behalf of the wife in a marriage: “the definition of marital rape can be stated simply as forced sex without the consent of the woman in cases where perpetrator and victim are legally married” (Yllo 3). Other articles, such as the article from, have more neutral definitions of marital rape: “Marital rape [is] any unwanted sexual acts by a spouse or ex-spouse that is committed without the other person's consent” ("Marital Rape Law and Legal Definition"). Some definitions exclude the possibility of a man being raped in a marriage. However, there are men who are raped in their marriages, but no one knows because they keep it quiet. Therefore, the simple, equal definition of marital rape – for this paper– will be any unwanted sexual acts forced on either spouse in a marriage, separation, or divorce. According to Diana E. H. Russell in Rape in Marriage, “the laws relating to rape in most of this nation, and most countries of the world, include what is commonly referred to as ‘the marital rape exemption’. These laws usually define rape as the forcible penetration of the body of a woman, not the wife of the perpetrator, and so according to them, rape in marriage is a legal impossibility” (Russell 17). Yet, “One small study found 36% of women and 34% of men experienced forced sex with a current or recent partner” (Fukura). This was done on gay male and lesbian relationships. Considering that intimate obligation is when a man feels his wife has an obligation to sexually please him and marital rape can be in any form, the two terms are not interchangeable; intimate obligation is the reasoning behind some men’s actions.


            Bearing in mind the marital rape exemption and the myth that only women get raped in marriage, a further examination of the myths and realities of marital rape is necessary. “To most, [marital rape] is a disagreement over sex that the husband wins” (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 14). The description of rape by a stranger is usually more violent and disturbing, as opposed to rape in a marriage where the description is flat like “He wanted to. She didn’t”; therefore people usually do not take marital rape seriously (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 14). A movie like “Gone With the Wind presents a most dangerous image of marital rape, for it powerfully advertises the idea that women secretly wish to be overpowered and raped, and that, in fact, rape may be a good way to reconcile a marriage” (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 14). Movies also introduce the myth that “marital rape [is] primarily about sex” (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 15). Marital rape is actually about power.


Some realities of marital rape became apparent in stories like that of a twenty-three year old man raping his paraplegic wife, found in the August 28, 1981 Herald Tribune of Sarasota Florida. The story was only made public because a neighbor in the couple’s apartment heard screaming and called the police. The woman told the police that she had been beaten days prior to their arrival and lost several teeth. Paralyzed from the ribs down, the woman said she was reduced to unwanted oral and anal intercourse after being beaten (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 16). Cases like these bring the realities of marital rape into perspective. In more extreme cases, marital rape is about humiliation, degradation, anger, and resentment. Further disturbing truths about marital rape include women being jumped in the dark and raped in the anus on debris, gang raped with their husbands’ friends, forced with the threat of a weapon, forced after returning home from a gynecological surgery, and forced by an estranged husband because he has kidnapped her baby (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 18). These different styles of rape can be categorized into three types of marital rape.


            The three types of marital rape are battering rape, force-only rape, and obsessive rape. With battering rape, a spouse is beaten prior to the rape or in an abusive relationship in general. Although, a person does not have to be in an abusive relationship to be raped in their marriage (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 37). The next type of rape is force-only rape. Force-only rape takes place when a spouse uses only severe force to accomplish the goal of rape. The rapist may have different motives but does not resort to harsh beatings. The third type of rape is obsessive rape. This kind of rape happens when one spouse makes the other have sex all the time, to the point where it is unbearable. The raped spouse may feel like a machine (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 51). These types of rapes are influenced by two different motives; Anger rape and power rape are the two motives that influence each type of rape. Anger rape is the motive when a spouse uses unnecessary physical force and harsh language to achieve the goal of hurting and debasing the other. With power rape a spouse’s goal is not to harm the other, but rather possess them sexually. It is used to express issues with mastery, strength, control, authority, identity, and capability. Knowing this, one can better understand the harsh realities of intimate obligation.


According to the “Battered Women’s Justice Project: Marital Rape” dissertation by Kersti Yllo, rape has traditionally been defined legally as

forced intercourse without the consent of the woman other than one’s wife. This last phrase is known as the “spousal exemption” and for centuries it made the marriage license a license to rape. This exemption derives from British common law, particularly from the writings of an early British jurist by the name of Lord Mathew Hale. He proclaimed in 1680 that,“The husband cannot be guilty of rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” (2)

Furthermore, “the Hale doctrine became part of the U.S. criminal code, and marital rape was legal until the 1980s when most states eliminated, or at least limited, the spousal exemption” (Yllo 2). Even then, there were heavy conditions and restrictions for women reporting marital rape. This is the harsh reality of intimate obligation.


            In addition, there are still other reasons marital rape has lasted so long. “Throughout written history women have been subordinate to men. Written records indicate that women were subordinate to men in virtually every culture” (Johnson and Sigler 19). In some families, this is still the case today. According to Forced Sexual Intercourse in Intimate Relationships by Ida M. Johnson and Robert T. Sigler, “fathers and husbands were held responsible for the behavior of their children and wives and were expected to control them…Men, as the dominant sex, were expected to discipline their women. In the exercise of this discipline men were expected to use reasonable physical force” (Johnson and Sigler 20). This was defined as black eyes and broken noses and continued into the 20th century uninterrupted:

Intimate violence became an issue as the woman’s suffrage movement gained strength in the 1920s, but lost prominence in the public eye as that movement waned and did not become salient again until the 1970s when pressure began to develop to force the justice system to treat marital violence as a criminal offense. While the feminist movement was not concerned with domestic affairs in the early years of the most recent resurgence of the women’s movement, as women’s roles changed and women became more involved in women’s issues, domestic violence became a topic of concern. (Johnson and Sigler 20)

Because it was not illegal for a man to rape his wife and was often seen as acting as the man of the house, horrifying things happened to many women and were not given a second thought.


            “Violence among intimates had become subject to scrutiny in the past two decades after centuries of classification as a taboo subject” (Johnson and Sigler 19). Still, some women have shared their stories. One story, from over fifty years ago, noted in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about an average sexual relationship between a married couple during that time. Although the woman who this story belongs to has passed, her relatives, who she talked to about the situation, explained her story and how she felt to the author. Henrietta, ill with cervical cancer, explained to her family “when that man want to get with me, Sweet Jesus aren’t them but some pains” (Skloot 14). Skloot goes on herself to explain the situation further saying, “when sex first started hurting, she thought it had something to do with baby Deborah, who she’d just given birth to a few weeks earlier, or the bad blood David sometimes brought home after nights with other women” (Skloot 14). Skloot shows her doctor’s report stating all the illnesses Henrietta has. It also shows that even though she has five children, she is not fond of sexual intercourse, but is still in a happy household (Skloot 15). This allows readers to question what kind of lifestyle they could have had. One can only assume that, due to the social norms of a man being in control of his household at that time, Henrietta thought – by comparison – she lived in a happy household. Even though she knew her husband was sleeping with other women, giving her venereal diseases, and sex was only painful, she felt her household was happy. Women in that day and age were often abused by their husbands. But because it was the norm, not even the women thought anything was wrong with it, at least until decades later.


            Some thirty years after this story took place, Diana E. H. Russell wrote one of the first books about marital rape entitled Rape in Marriage. In the book, Russell tells of updated laws and the prevalence of ‘wife rape’. She even gives quotes from the husbands who rape and the husbands’ mothers. She also explains that, out of the results of her sample of 644 married women in San Francisco, 85% had been raped by their husbands (Russell 57). Russell goes on to tell the stories of some of these women. Mrs. Bernadette Powell of the Powell case suffered so much abuse, being a battered rape victim, that she eventually killed her husband. She testified in court that she would experience harsh cruelty such as burning cigarettes being placed on her body, being beaten with a metal ring, and kicked down the stairs, at least twice a week. The district attorney persuaded the court to believe that her husband’s behavior was sexually motivated and that she was a masochist who enjoyed the abuse. Thus, even after shooting her husband– defending herself against his gun– Mrs. Bernadette Powell was found guilty of murder with a fifteen-year-to-life sentence in prison (Russell 274). This suggests that a man can sexually do whatever he wants with his wife regardless of how she feels. Another case, the Hughes case, first documented in the book The Burning Bed: The True Story of Francine Hughes – A Beaten Wife Who Rebelled by Faith McNulty (also documented in Russell’s book) is “one of the most remarkable case studies of torture in marriage” (Russell 275). McNulty explains that Mrs. Hughes, after feeling trapped, being intimidated and raped, and dealing with other humiliating things her husband did to her, she set their bedroom on fire while he was sleeping. She was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity (qtd. in Russell 275). Readers can conclude from this story that marital rape, among other abuses, is detrimental to one’s health, in all aspects.


            Because marital rape is a physical and sexual situation, it is common knowledge that someone who is raped is physically and sexually assaulted. What are often mentioned, however, not explicitly explained in detail, are the emotional effects that marital rape has on a household. The wife is definitely emotionally affected, but is the husband emotionally affected? Are the children in the house emotionally affected? The effects that marital rape have on the husband are often minimal, if they have any at all. Many men enjoy raping their wives, prefer raping them to having sex consensually, and, as mentioned previously, feel they have the right to do so. The following quotes from husbands, featured in the book Rape in Marriage by Diana E. H. Russell express, first hand, how husbands really feel about raping their wives: A male respondent in “The Hite Report on Male Sexuality” in Shere Hite in 1981 explains that “[A] psychiatrist once told me that there was no excuse for my not having raped my wife since she was depriving me needlessly” (qtd. in Russell 132). Even California State Senator Bob Wilson objects “But, if you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape” (qtd. in Russell 132). With 18th century French sayings like “The man who is not master of his wife is not worthy of being a man” (Russell 132), it is no wonder plenty of husbands feel they should have sexual control over their wives at all times. One husband, in the interview, attributed his beliefs to the story of Adam and Eve saying, in “The Hite Report on Male Sexuality” in Shere Hite in 1981, that “God gave me this right when he made women for men” (qtd. in Russell 132). To be fair, the Holy Bible does say that God made woman for man, but he made her as a “help meet” – a partner – not a sex slave (Gen. 2.18, 2.20). Still, many wives– a husband’s supposed partner –are often treated very poorly.


            As a result of marital rape, wives, if not suicidal, often feel passive, submissive, and helpless. This can be best explained by the theory of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is “the act of giving up trying as a result of consistent failure to be rewarded in life, thought to be a cause of depression” (“Learned Helplessness”). Wives who deal with this effect often stay with their husbands (Russell 207). Other effects include anger and fear. In fact, wives who stay with their husbands after being raped are more fearful of being sexually assaulted outside the home than the wives who do not stay. Some wives even blame themselves for the situation and excuse their husband’s behavior, attributing it to drugs, alcohol or a traumatic accident. Feeling trapped is also a common effect (Russell 221). Children are affected by such trauma as well.


            A common emotional effect of children who live in a house where marital rape takes place is fear. Children can easily feel terrified. They may also be over protective of their mother and confused about why she has not left. They may even grow to hate their father (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 41). Children who deal with marital rape in their home may grow up to fear their sex or the opposite sex, as well as marriage. “Marital rape victims, like battery victims, are trapped with their abusers, subject to repeated assaults, [and] victimized by the psychological abuse that goes along the physical abuse…” (Finkelhor and Yllo, “Rape in Marriage” 117-118). Author Richard J. Gelles states, “[as] violent and unpleasant as a husband’s assault might [be], most wives would resist calling it rape. No doubt raped wives, like battered wives, use many self-descriptions to avoid facing the realities of an intolerable marriage because the alternatives – loneliness, loss of financial security, admission of failure – are so frightening” (qtd. in Finkelhor and Yllo, “Rape in Marriage” 121). The intense, common emotional effects are another reason the future of marital rape is unpredictable.


            The future of marital rape is unpredictable because there is no way to convince every married man in America that his wife is not an object he can use whenever and where ever against her will. She may be obligated to be his wife, as long as she wants to, but to tell someone of 21st century America that they have to be subjugated by their spouse and unhappily married is not an easy task. It is not an agreeable statement. Ironically, not every man in America will think anything is wrong with over powering his wife. Thus, the harsh notion of intimate obligation will continue. According to “The Sex Right: A Legal History of the Marital Rape Exemption” by Rebecca M. Ryan, one of the major problems with intimate obligation in the past was that

Marital unity…embedded the dialectic of rights specific to marriage within the status of each spouse. That dialectic stood as follows: Under coverture, the wife forfeited her legal existence, thereby forfeiting her in-dependent rights in the law; the husband assumed her rights, or assumed a right over her; in return, he was to offer the protection she presumably required in her weakened state. If his duty was protection, her duty was, above all else, obedience. Nineteenth-century legal scholar James Schouler wrote: "It is for the wife to love, honor, and obey: it is for the husband to love, cherish, and protect." (Ryan 944)

Ryan follows saying, “marital unity proved, then, misleading. The dialectic of rights within the marriage contract defined the spouses not as sharing one person, but each as owning an opposite status-the husband, possessor of rights, and the wife, his charge” (944). Similar ideas are why intimate obligation will continue to be one of the main reasons for the issue of marital rape.


Marital rape as a whole, because of the unpredictability of the ideas and notions that lead into it, will, most likely, never end. It is stated in Rape in Marriage, by Diana E.H. Russell, that – in the 1980s and 1990s – “the absence of legislation outlawing rape in marriage in most states reminds us that… men…can rape their wives with impunity” (Russell 119). By 1993, all fifty states had one section of sexual offense codes to cover marital rape, but thirty-three states had conditional exemptions designed to protect a man from rape claim. These exemptions are primarily related to the degree of violence used (Fukura). This still seems to be the case.


            This speaks to the true prevalence of the issue. Because “many men see sex as a solution to all problems in their marriage, as well as a means to validate their masculine identity” and women generally do not (Russell 120), many women find themselves in the unfortunate predicament of marital rape. Prevalence is also mentioned in the Dark Side of Families. The editors state that “now prevalence studies are suggesting that rape by intimates is far more common than rape by strangers and that sexual assaults in marriage may be the most common kind” (Finkelhor and Yllo, “Rape in Marriage” 117). Finkelhor and Yllo go on to express this commonality by presenting results from a survey where 36% of 304 battered women reported being raped by their husband or partner. “Nonetheless,” they explain, “public and professional awareness that marital rape exists is growing. The slowly accumulating evidence suggests that rape in marriage is not a rare crime that may blossom into a headline-grabbing trial, but that it is a persistent problem in a large number of marriages” (Finkelhor and Yllo, “Rape in Marriage” 119-120). The actual prevalence of this issue may be unknown. Not every spouse reports or gets a chance to report their rape. This is only the documented prevalence.


            In closing, the prevalence of marital rape is often overshadowed by the myths that surround it. Many people think that marital rape is the result of a disagreement that the husband wins; however, marital rape is much more than a simple disagreement. Movies also introduce the myth that marital rape is primarily about sex, but marital rape is usually about power. Moreover, the three types of marital rape are battering rape, force-only rape, and obsessive rape. These types of rape are influenced by two different motives, anger and power. Another notion that may be used as an excuse for raping one’s wife is intimate obligation. In addition, there are still other reasons marital rape has lasted so long; one being the intense emotional effects that comes with the abusive predicament.


Marital rape, among other abuses, is detrimental to one’s health, in all aspects. The emotional aspects, however, are often overshadowed by the horrible physical effects. The effects that marital rape has on the husband are often minimal, if they have any at all. Wives, if not suicidal, often feel passive, submissive, and helpless. This can be best explained by the theory of learned helplessness (Russell 207). Feeling trapped is also a common effect. Some wives even blame themselves for the situation and attribute their husband’s behavior to drugs, alcohol or a traumatic accident (Russell 221). Other effects include anger and fear. A common emotional effect of children who live in a house where marital rape takes place is fear; children may grow to fear their sex or the opposite sex, as well as marriage. They may also be confused, over protective of their mother, and eventually hate their father.


The future of marital rape is unpredictable because not every married man in America is convinced that his wife is not an object he can use against her will. While a wife may be obligated to be a wife, she is not obligated to be subjugated. The truth of the matter is, a person does not have to be in an abusive relationship to be raped in their marriage (Finkelhor and Yllo, License to Rape 37). Moreover, marital rape has been a long, private and quiet battle. This private, quiet struggle is still being fought today by many women and even men. Despite hardly ever being discussed, marital rape was, and still is, a prominent issue in America.






Works Cited

The Color Purple. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg. Amblin Entertainment, 1985. Film.

Finkelhor, David, and Kersti Yllo. License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives. New York: Free Press, 1987. Print.

Finkelhor, David, and Kersti Yllo. “Rape in Marriage: A Sociological View.” The Dark Side of Families. Ed. David Finkelhor et. al. Beverly Hills: SAGE, 1983. 117-121. Print.

Fukura, Dale. “Marital Rape: The Line between Consent and Coercion.” 2010. Notes. Washington State University. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.


The Holy Bible. Print.

Johnson, Ida M., and Robert T Sigler. Forced Sexual Intercourse in Intimate Relationships. Brookfield: Ashgate, 1997. Print.


"Learned Helplessness.", n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.


"Marital Rape Law and Legal Definition." USLegal, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Russell, Diana E.H. Rape in Marriage Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.

Ryan, Rebecca M. “The Sex Right: A Legal History of the Marital Rape Exemption” Law and Social Inquiry 20.4 (1995): 941-1001. Print.


Skloot, Rebecca.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  New York: Broadway, 2011. Print.

Yllo, Kersti. “Battered Women’s Justice Project: Marital Rape.” Diss. Wheaton College, 1996. Print.



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