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Know the Laws:

UPDATED July 7, 2015

Marital / Partner Rape

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Below you will find information about rape and unwanted sexual contact by a spouse or intimate partner.

Basic info about marital / partner rape

back to topIs it rape if my spouse or intimate partner forces me to have sex? How common is this?

Yes.  Any time someone forces himself/herself on you sexually without your consent, this can be sexual assault or rape.  Even if you’re married to or in a relationship with the person who is assaulting or raping you, this doesn't make it any less "real."* 

Sexual assault within a relationship is not uncommon.  Although statistics vary, one national study from 1997 found that 34% of women were victims of some type of sexual coercion (including rape and other acts) by a husband or intimate partner in their lifetime.**  Another national study from 2010 found that 9.4% of women have been raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and an estimated 16.9% of women and 8.0% of men have experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.***  Other studies reveal that women had unwanted sex with a current spouse or partner because they thought it was their "duty" (43%), after the partner begged and pleaded with them (26%), and after their partner said things to bully them (9%).**  Please know that you have the right to say “no,” even to your spouse or intimate partner, and you have the right to expect that s/he listen to you and not intimidate you or otherwise coerce you into consenting. 

Note: Although the specific legal definitions vary by state, generally most states recognize unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact to be sexual assault and forced sexual intercourse to be rape.  Sexual abuse is a common form of domestic violence and one that many victims are often ashamed or embarrassed to talk about.  For specific information on your state’s sexual assault and rape laws, contact your local rape crisis center, which can be found on RAINN's website. For support, you can reach out to one of the organizations listed on our National Organizations - Rape/Sexual Assault page.

* See Pandora’s Project
** Kathleen C. Basile, Prevalence of Wife Rape and Other Intimate Partner Sexual Coercion in a Nationally Representative Sample of Women, 17 Violence and Victims 511 (2002) -  abstract available here.
*** Center for Disease Control, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey - Executive Summary (2010)

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back to topAre there different requirements to prove sexual assault or rape against a spouse than a stranger?

Possibly – it depends on your state. While marital rape is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it might still be treated differently than non-spousal rape in some ways. For example, in some states, if you’re married to the abuser:

  • You may have a shorter period of time to report the sexual assault and/or rape after it has happened; and/ or
  • You may have to show that your spouse used more force than if you had not been married to him/her (for example, that he/she caused you bodily injury or used some sort of weapon).*
Not all states have these differences. In order to find out more specific information about your state, please call a local rape crisis center, which can be found on the RAINN website. Even if you are unsure about your state’s specific law, you can report it to the police anyway.

* See The National Center for Victims of Crimes: Spousal Rape Laws: 20 Years Later (published in 2004)

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back to topDoes marital / partner rape only happen in violent relationships?

No. It can happen in any relationship. The unwanted sexual contact does not necessarily need to be physical or violent. Instead, it can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces you to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. The assault and/ or rape could happen once or many times, and may occur in a non-violent relationship that is otherwise respectful. However, that doesn’t make the behavior okay. It is still sexual assault and/or rape.* So, just because your significant other treats you well in other areas of your relationship, it does not mean that s/he is not sexually assaulting or raping you.

Although sexual assault and/ or rape can occur in non-violent relationships, it is more common in relationships that also have other violent and abusive behaviors. For example, it is estimated that rape occurs in up to 70% of relationships where there is domestic violence. So, if you are in a relationship where there is domestic violence, you should consider also whether or not you are being sexually assaulted and/ or raped.**

* Pandora’s Project
** Standing Together Against Rape (STAR)

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WomensLaw.org would like to thank Louise McOrmond-Plummer for inspiring us to create this page and for her input.

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