Marital Rape and Domestic Violence

Rape between married partners is a serious and prevalent form of domestic violence. In the United States, it is estimated between 10% and 14% of married women are raped by their partners. Approximately one-third or 34% of women report having “unwanted sex” with their partners—primarily due to marital obligation.

woman sitting on side of the bed and boyfriend in background; Marital Rape and Domestic Violence
woman sitting on side of the bed and boyfriend in background; Marital Rape and Domestic Violence

The dilemma between marital commitments and a desire to live a violence-free life can be challenging for survivors to navigate. You deserve respect and dignity. Regardless, if your abusive partner is also your spouse or if you experience marital rape and domestic violence, knowing what to do is crucial.

What is Marital Rape?

While the legal definition varies within the United States, marital rape can be defined as any unwanted intercourse or penetration (vaginal, anal, or oral) obtained by force, threat of force, or when the survivor is unable to consent to the abusive partner or spouse (as opposed to a non-married intimate partner).

Marital Rape: Historical Perspective

Marital rape is a serious and prevalent form of domestic violence and sexual assault. Yet due to the legal history of intimate partner violence, a misconception perpetuates that marital rape is not rape. This perception of women seen as objects of property by common law, unable to handle their own legal affairs continues to influence the perception of men, police officers, prosecutors, and judges.

The Rule of Thumb and Domestic Violence

Although  wife beating was considered a crime, under the “rule of thumb” law that condoned a man could legally physically abuse his wife with a “rod not thicker than his thumb.”

Instead, spouse abuse was (and sometimes still is) often treated as a private family matter by police officers, prosecutors, and judges who fail to take the appropriate action. In fact, 50% of male college students believe a man is incapable of raping his wife. Roughly one third of male university students stated they would rape a woman if there were no consequences.

Marital Rape and Abuse

As of July 5, 1993, marital rape is considered a crime in all fifty states. Yet, there are still loopholes or exemptions in states when rape happens. Even today, some states still exempt spousal rape from criminal prosecution, making it a lesser crime than non-spousal rape.

Even though marital rape occurs across a range of ages, races, social classes, and geographical locations, research indicates that almost two-thirds of survivors experienced marital rape for the first time before the age of 25.

Marital Rape Risk Factors

Globally, rape and other forms of sexual violence affect women more severely than other forms of gender-based violence. Some common risk factors for survivors experiencing marital rape include being married to an older partner or in a marriage with a partner who is the only decision-maker on sex. Other common risk factors for survivors experiencing marital rape include:

  • In a relationship with a domineering partner, who treats them as ‘property,’ women suffer from a power imbalance where male privilege is used to control their partners and dictate all major decisions.
  • Women who are in physically violent relationships have a power imbalance where the abusive partner uses intimidation and threats to control the survivor.
  • Women who are pregnant could experience controlling behavior from their partner or coercion tactics by threatening to hurt or leave their partner.
  • Women who are ill or recovering from surgery may experience emotional abuse where the abusive partner may call their partner names or make them feel bad about themselves.
  • Women who are separated or divorced may experience an abusive partner who uses economic abuse by taking their money, or preventing them from working or keeping their job.

Physical and Emotional Effects of Marital Rape

Marital rape can have several physical and emotional consequences, including:

  • Physical injuries to the vaginal and/or anal areas, such as lacerations, soreness, bruising, torn muscles, fatigue, and vomiting.
  • Broken bones, black eyes, bloody noses, and knife wounds are common among battered and raped women.
  • In female survivors, several gynecological problems can result from marital rape, including vaginal stretching, pelvic inflammation, unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, stillbirths, bladder infections, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and infertility.
  • The emotional effects of marital rape can range from PTSD and anxiety to shock and depression to thoughts of suicide.
  • Marital rape can cause long-term emotional problems including insomnia, disordered eating, depression, problems with intimacy, negative self-images, and sexual dysfunction.
  • Nearly 18% of survivors of spousal rape say their children witnessed the crime.
  • While many sexual assaults go unreported to authorities, marital rape is one of the most underreported. Only 36% of non-marital rape survivors report their crimes to police, and 77% of marital rape cases go unreported.

Help is available.

If you or a loved one is experiencing marital rape, our advocates are available 24.7 to talk, chat, or text with you about your concerns or help with safety planning. Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at