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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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Actions you can take

back to topWhat can I do if my spouse or partner has sexually assaulted and/or raped me?

The following are some suggestions of how to get the practical and emotional support you need:

  • Get to a safe place (for example, the nearest hospital, police precinct, or someone’s home).
  • You can call 911 for immediate police protection and assistance. You can also call one of a number of hotlines to discuss your options for reporting the assault.  You can find national hotlines on our National Organizations - Rape/Sexual Assault page.
  • Go to your local hospital emergency room for immediate medical care to check for injury, prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, get counseling and so that evidence of the rape can be collected for possible future prosecution.  Evidence collection does not require you to place a report with the police or press charges; it just preserves these options for the future. For the purposes of evidence collection, it is best to avoid urinating, showering, combing your hair or changing your clothes before going to the hospital. Many states have a crime victim compensation program that can assist you with ongoing medical and counseling expenses and other expenses related to the assault. Your local rape crisis program can provide more information about this process and your rights as a crime victim - for a list of local programs, go to the RAINN website
  • Tell someone you trust who can support and assist you.
  • Call the nearest rape crisis program for crisis intervention, hospital accompaniment, counseling, courtroom advocacy, support groups, information and referral.* You can find these organizations that support sexual assault victims on our National Organizations - Rape/Sexual Assault page.
* This information was adapted from the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault website.

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back to topCan I file for a restraining order against my spouse or partner?

Maybe – it will depend on whether your state recognizes sexual assault as part of the legal definition of “domestic violence” for the purposes of getting a restraining order, although the majority of states do include sexual assault as a legal reason for granting an order. (If you are not married to the abuser, it will also depend on the rules of your state regarding non-married intimate partners' ability to file for protective orders).  Please go to our Restraining Orders page for your state to find out more information on how to file, who can file, and how your state defines “domestic violence” for the purposes of getting a restraining order.

As part of a restraining order, you can ask the judge that the abuser be removed from the home that you share with him/her. However, if the judge does not grant this, you may have to be the one who leaves the home to protect yourself.   Please go to our Getting Ready to Leave  page for more information and tips on leaving safely -- but be aware that if you have children with the abuser, leaving without your children could hurt your chances at custody.   It is a good idea to speak with an attorney that knows the custody laws of your state before leaving. Please go to our Finding a Lawyer page to find a lawyer who specializes in custody issues in your state.

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More info and help

back to topSome people tell me that marital / partner rape is “not as bad” as being raped by a stranger. Is that true?

If you do not have visible physical injuries from the assault and/or rape, friends and family may think you are okay.  Many people do not understand the extent of trauma that is suffered by rape and sexual assault victims, even if the offender is a loved one.  As a victim of spousal or relationship sexual assault and/or rape, you will probably have to deal with additional effects and concerns from your experience that are different from the experience had by victims of stranger sexual assault and/or rape.* Some of these effects are:

  • Having to deal with ongoing contact with the abuser;
  • Being in love with/having romantic feelings for the abuser;
  • Further sexual assault and/or rape by the abuser as well as the possibility of different types of violence (for example, women being sexually assaulted and/or raped by their partners are also statistically more likely to be murdered by them).*
There are also further emotional effects that you may have to face based on the abuse you had to endure from your spouse. Because women who are raped by their partners are raped by someone they loved and trusted, they are more likely to:
  • Be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those who are victims of abuse by someone other than a spouse or partner;
  • Have trouble forming trusting relationships;
  • Have a poor body image which may lead to an eating disorder;
  • Have more negative ideas about themselves and blame themselves for what happened.**
The fact that effects may be different than other types of sexual assault or rape does not mean that they are less serious. You have the same right to assistance as any other survivors of rape or sexual assault.

* Pandora’s Project
** National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women. Marital Rape: New Research and Directions

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back to topWhere can I find additional resources for victims of marital / partner rape?

If you have been sexually assaulted and/or raped by your spouse or partner, here are some resources you can look to for help:

Pandora’s Project (http://www.pandys.org/articles/intimatepartnerrape.html)
Pandora’s Project (specifically the article “For Women Raped by Husbands or Boyfriends”) provides statistics and other information about marital rape and steps to begin dealing with the pain of the experience.

Aphrodite Wounded: Help for Women Sexually Assaulted by Partners (http://www.aphroditewounded.org/)
On Aphrodite Wounded, you'll find survivors’ stories, statistics about partner rape, and information about healing, safety issues, seeking help and much more. If you were raped by a current or past partner, you are not alone. Whether you are still in the relationship or are some years out of it, you may find something informative and validating on this site. The site’s author is Louise McOrmond-Plummer, co-author of the book “Real Rape, Real Pain: help for women sexually assaulted by male partners.”

Pandora’s Aquarium (http://www.pandys.org/forums/)
Pandora’s Aquarium provides sexual assault and rape survivors the opportunity and forum to chat with other survivors and share experiences and comfort one another. They have discussion topics and chats for victims of spousal and partner rape and abuse.

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) Victims Services (http://www.rainn.org/about-rainn/victims-services)
RAINN provides support for sexual assault victims and their loved ones through two hotlines at 800.656.HOPE and online.rainn.org. Whether you are more comfortable on the telephone or online, RAINN has services that can guide you in your recovery.

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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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