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The hidden assaults

By Joanna Bourke - posted Monday, 10 September 2007

“He raped me”, stammered one woman recently, “he ripped off my pyjamas, he beat me up”. She believed that she would have coped better if the “scumbag” had been a stranger, but her attacker was her own husband, “and you don’t expect that. I was under constant terror even if he didn’t do it.”

This unnamed woman’s experiences are not exceptional. In Australia today, one in every five female friends of mine will at some time in their lives be forced into having sex. In a quarter of cases, the aggressor is a former or current partner or boyfriend. Indeed, women are more at risk from intimate men in our lives than from any sex fiend loitering in the bushes.

Yet, there seems to be a strange indifference to this type of rapist. The law, in particular, has been slow to recognise that wives are not mere chattels of their husbands. It is hard to believe that only 16 years ago the Australian High Court abolished the ruling that exempted any husband from being convicted of rape if his victim was his own wife (although states such as South Australia had partially abolished spousal immunity as early as 1975). Until this time, a husband could demand and force sexual intercourse from his wife at will.


Criticism of the law’s male bias has a long history. In holy matrimony, husband and wife may become “one” - but that “one” is masculine.

If marital sex is based on coercion rather than mutual desire, what is the standing of a wife? In The Subjection of Women, published as long ago as 1859, the philosopher John Stuart Mill answered in no uncertain terms: a married woman is little more than a “personal body-servant of a despot”. He provocatively concluded that marriage is “the only actual bondage known to our law. There remain no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house”.

Mill’s mid-19th century plea for marriage based on mutual respect and love as opposed to patriarchal power was radical for his time. By the 1870s, reformers from different perspectives had also begun imploring husbands to change their behaviour. For these commentators, forcing a wife to have sex was wrong because it harmed the husband. Aggressive husbands were warned that they risked weakening their nervous system and muscles. Forcing sex on an unwilling wife could cause them to suffer spermatorrhoea (the involuntary drooling of semen without erection). Any children born out of marital rape would inherit their father’s weakness, having been endowed even before birth with “lustful passions and morbid appetites”.

Unlike feminists such as John Stuart Mill, who had focused on the equal status of men and women, these commentators premised their attack on marital brutality upon the separate nature of men and women. Husbands had to respect the sexual integrity of their wives, not because of a shared humanity, but because women were radically different from men.

For one thing, women were seen as more pure: male lusts should not be imposed upon innocent womanhood. Forcing a wife to have sex would make her “frigid”, so went this story, and therefore, would “tantalise and strain to a harmful extent” their husbands’ “organs and constitution”, as one sex expert put it in 1906. Again, the emphasis was on the wrong done to husbands, not wives. In the name of male virility and the household’s respectability within society, good wives should submit to their husband’s sexual needs. Or cry silently.

The idea that marital rape was wrong because it harmed the husband’s interests remained intact until the feminist revolution of the 1970s. Even then, there was great resistance to the idea that, married or not, a woman’s body belonged to one person: herself.


Ironically, feminists in the 1970s found themselves repeating some of the arguments made by John Stuart Mill over 100 years earlier. They drew attention to marital rape as a hidden form of assault. Contrary to myth, wives sustained more severe physical injuries than did other rape victims. According to an Australian study, 66 per cent of women raped by their husband experienced additional injuries compared with 55 per cent of those raped by strangers.

Legally, husbands can now be prosecuted for raping their wives, but many people remain opposed to making married men accountable for sexually abusive acts against their wives. Activists in anti-rape movements have long pointed to the wide acceptance of what they call “rape myths”. One of the most common of these myths is that husbands (and boyfriends) might get “carried away” sexually, but to brand them rapists would be a gross abuse of the term.

Legal reform in eradicating the “marital exemption” has been rightly celebrated, but has made little difference. In bedrooms all over the country, women are still subjected to sexual violence from their spouses. Lack of money and access to alternative housing, in addition to emotional dependency and concerns over retaining access to children, means that married victims often felt unable to escape.

Only a handful of cases of marital rape have been successfully prosecuted. Clearly, if we want to eradicate rape from the marital bedroom, legal reform is not enough. Marital rape is as harmful as other forms of sexual abuse. Devaluing the wife who is raped devalues every rape survivor.

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About the Author

Joanna Bourke is the author of Rape; a History from 1860 to the Present published this month by Virago $69.95.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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