It’s Time to Confront Sexual Harassment Within Marriage

This week, as Christine Blasey Ford prepares to testify at the Senate Judiciary hearing about her account of an attack by US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, many of us are noting how far we have — and have not — come from the days of Anita Hill. When Hill testified in 1991 about the sexual harassment she endured by Clarence Thomas, she faced a solid wall of disbelief from the Senate Judiciary Committee and from much of the public. The committee — made up entirely of white men — subjected her to a national interrogation in an attempt to humiliate and discredit her — and to discredit women’s experiences of sexual harassment more generally. Hill was testifying long before #MeToo and before widespread recognition of sexual harassment. She was vilified and Thomas was confirmed as a US Supreme Court judge.

In some ways, things have changed dramatically since then: Hill’s testimony was a watershed moment. Millions of people recognized their own experiences in her story and began to fight back to change policies and beliefs about sexual harassment. In the late ‘90s, the majority of Americans said they believed people were too sensitive about sexual harassment. Twenty years later, the majority of Americans said they believed people were not sensitive enough about sexual harassment. One thing hasn’t changed though. We’re still not talking about sexual harassment in our intimate partnerships and marriages.

Why have we defined sexual harassment — “unwanted sexual advances” — as only something that happens in our workplaces or the street? Why haven’t we exposed the most common site of sexual harassment and sexual assault — our homes? We have so completely normalized intimate sexual harassment that many struggle to even understand the concept. But, according to researcher Kathleen Basile, “76% of the general public believe husbands use force to make their wives have sex and 80% believe it occurs often or somewhat often.”

And they are right. People in partnerships, but especially women married to men, experience “unwanted sexual advances” in their partnerships routinely, and this often leads to unwanted sex. Over a third of married women report being coerced into sex by a current or previous partner, by way of exploiting a woman’s sense of duty, expecting sex after spending money, or bullying and humiliating women into unwanted sex. This can look like endless pressure, the withdrawal of affection, threats to leave or cheat, and emotional abuse. It can also include sleep deprivation, threats to children and/or the withdrawal of financial support.

Intimate sexual harassment is uniquely severe; women are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by a partner than by someone harassing them on the street or at their workplace. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of women have been raped by their current partners or husbands, and this is likely underestimated. Two of the largest studies on spousal sexual assault found that “a quarter of our interviewees said they had been raped in the presence of others, most often their own children” and that a third had been raped over 20 times.

Sexual coercion by partners has enormous health effects. Women who have been raped by their partners are extremely isolated. Who can they talk to and get support from? They live with their rapist and there is little cultural recognition of the problem. Many survivors also live with the mental health effects of being sexually coerced by someone they love — PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicidality. The impacts of the problem are global. A Turkish study found that “women who had ever experienced physical or sexual partner violence were four times more likely to have attempted to end their lives, compared to women who had never experienced such violence.” Partner sexual assault has been identified as a leading cause of the transmission of HIV to women and it is a risk factor for women becoming victims of attempted and lethal homicides.

Despite the prevalence and severe impacts of sexual violence by a partner, it is astonishingly trivialized. The World Health Organization recognizes marital rape as a “global pandemic,” but to many, it’s a joke, just another one of the inconveniences of marriage.

Remember when Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen said, “by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse”? Technically Cohen was wrong — and he quickly backed down — but his sentiment reflects a widespread indifference to the sexual assault of partners.

In 2011, this sequence played out in the popular romantic comedy Bridesmaids:

Becca: So, you don’t even have sex anymore?

Rita: Oh, no! I have … I have sex constantly. The sex is constant. But he hasn’t kissed me in five years.

Becca: What are you doing when you’re having sex then?

Rita: Thinking about other things and wishing it would stop. You know, sometimes I just wanna watch The Daily Show without him entering me.

These two quips, one from a practicing lawyer and one from a comedy, illustrate how sexual coercion in partnership is minimized and dismissed. In all the #MeToo uproar, why hasn’t the spotlight turned to marriage?

Perhaps because marital rape is the most state-sanctioned form of sexual violence against women. The first European law of marriage in 8th-century Rome decreed husbands to “rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions.” A millennium later, in 1736, Chief Justice of England Matthew Hale clarified that English marriage law explicitly protected men’s right to rape their wives in what became known as the “theory of implied consent.” He wrote “the husband cannot be guilty of a 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.’’ This idea of permanent, irrevocable consent became part of the “marital rape exemption.”

At the heart of the problem of sexual abuse in marriage is patriarchy — the rule of the father and husband over his family and wife, who are seen as his property. And the problem of patriarchy and sexual abuse through irrevocable consent is not just in heterosexual marriages, it underpins queer relationships too. LGBTQ relationships have similar or higher rates of sexual violence. All forms of sexual violence occur at higher rates for women at the intersections of multiple oppressions. Women who are low-income, trans, incarcerated, disabled, Indigenous and/or women of color face much higher rates of partner sexual assault, as high as 42 percent to 60 percent.

Many feminists — especially more privileged white feminists — turn to the state for solutions to sexual violence. In the 1980s and ’90s, feminist activists pushed hard to have the marital rape exemption struck down from sexual assault legislation. They were successful to an extent — marital rape was criminalized in some way in all US states. However, in about half the US, spousal sexual assault is treated as a lesser crime. This often means that penalties for spousal sexual assault are more lenient or it remains legal to sexually assault one’s spouse as long they are mentally or physically impaired (for example, asleep or incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs).

Yet, are more laws the answer to intimate partner sexual violence? All signs point to no. As the INCITE! network of radical feminists of color has noted, Despite an exponential increase in the number of men in prisons, women are not any safer, and the rates of sexual assault and domestic violence have not decreased.” Every part of the criminal legal response to sexual assault fails survivors. From how sexual harm is defined to how laws are enforced, the system functions to abuse survivors and protect abusers.

It is worth interrogating our sexual assault laws, not because law offers us the solution but because it reveals how our society understands a social problem. For example, under the law only physical force constitutes sexual assault, but in most cases, coercive partners don’t need to rely on force. Cultural beliefs about marital duty and emotional and economic threats coerce sex much more often than physical force. These forms of sexual harassment in marriage are not seen as significant by the law even though they are early warning signs for more severe forms of sexual and physical abuse. The law also comes in far too late — after a sexual assault (or repeated sexual assaults). Even if survivors of spousal sexual assault do want to report to police, the differential enforcement of law means bringing the dangers of racist and classist policing into their homes. Criminalization is an unworkable solution that has not protected women from sexual assault in their partnerships.

Trivializing intimate sexual harm won’t erase it, and criminalization doesn’t stop it. Both these approaches have been distractions from the work of changing cultural beliefs and social institutions that shape our sexualities and relationships.

Many grassroots organizations are already doing just that — working to stop sexual violence without police or prisons. They are designing sex education curricula that teach consent. They are organizing on campuses to learn how to recognize and intervene when abusers first begin to show signs of sexual entitlement and lack of consent. They are working to end the wage gap and transform an economy that has so many women (especially mothers) vulnerable to abuse because of their economic dependence on their partners. They are working to restore the jurisdiction of Indigenous legal orders; many Indigenous nations have matriarchal laws about marriage and sexuality that were violently displaced by Christian patriarchal marriage laws. They are developing transformative justice approaches to sexual harm. They are demanding the media do a better job of reporting on and representing sexual violence. They are breaking down the isolation of survivors and encouraging us to speak to each other through art and protest, and online. They are demanding effective consequences for abusers — not just the rare show trial that makes an example of a serial predator like Bill Cosby.

Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill and all the survivors who have come forward with their #MeToo stories are changing the world. It’s inspiring to see survivors confront power and galvanize another generation of feminists. And what will happen when more survivors begin to blow the whistle on sexual coercion in our partnerships? What would our partnerships look like if we had movements that poured our efforts, our love and our strategy into real solutions to partner sexual abuse? I want us to find out. #MeToo needs its marriage moment.