Is marital rape a real thing? Can there be rape in marriage?

I hate the fact that I have to ask that question, but unfortunately, I do. I have seen some blogs claiming to be from Christian men arguing that marital rape is impossible, since her body belongs to him (see here why that interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7 is ridiculous. Oh, and see this post on talking about sex as if it’s all about him is terrible, too!).

I have also seen women arguing virtually the same thing.

I seriously hope I don’t have to convince anybody that rape within marriage is possible. A wife is a person to love, not a body to use, as Leslie Vernick has said. But what worries me today is that while we may agree “rape can happen in marriage and it is terrible,” we may not agree with what constitutes rape. And I fear many women have been putting up with sexual violence without realizing it.

This week on the blog we’re going to be talking about how to defeat some sexual misperceptions, and I thought I’d jump in with a really heavy one (don’t worry; they won’t all be this serious! Some will actually be uplifting!). But to lay the groundwork, let’s go over what God means for sex to be.

  • Sex is a physical expression of complete and total intimacy–a deep “knowing” as it were (from the Hebrew in Genesis 4). When we make love, it’s supposed to be more than just physial.
  • Sex was designed so that, at the height of passion, we lose control. We become supremely vulnerable. This is about forging a deep connection with one other human being, and also showing us a mirror of what passion with God is like. It’s not about being in control; it’s about letting that intimacy wash over you.
  • Passion is very much from God. That’s why hot and holy can be simultaneous!

That’s how sex was designed. That is not, unfortunately, how it is always lived out. Because sex is so intensely personal, when it is perverted in any way, it hurts more than other hurts can.

Reader Question: Is Marital Rape a Real Thing?I received this letter recently:

Reader Question

I finally realized about 15 months ago that what has been happening to me in my marriage is sexual abuse and rape. My husband is a porn user and a prolific liar. He’s duped a lot of people, including me. I confronted him about a year ago. We’ve had some counseling, some of it has been beneficial and some of it has changed nothing. The struggle I’m having is that the church is not addressing a lot of these issues. It leaves me Feeling very lonely and without any resources to know how to handle this. I have not met one single person who’s dealt with their husband raping them and then seeing restoration in their marriage. That’s my ultimate goal, but I will not tolerate being physically violated. It’s not good for me and it’s certainly not good for his soul. I have well-meaning counselors and mentors at our church, but their perspective swings strongly in the direction of a “stay and gut it out” mentality. I lean a little more in the direction of gut it out as long as I can but eventually an in-house separation and/or out of house separation may be necessary. Both to hold him accountable and allow me to heal from this trauma.

I want this post to answer her request–to talk about what marital rape really looks like. She says that she only recognized that she was being assaulted after many years of marriage, because rape in marriage doesn’t always look like what we think it will. So let’s go through this:

Rape in marriage is real. Let's not forget that women are to be cherished in a marriage, and are not property to be owned.

Rape is about forcing someone to accept sexual penetration of any kind against their will.

When we picture rape, we usually picture the force as being physical. However, there are other kinds of force.

  • If a husband is angry and potentially acting violent or verbally abusive, and you try to placate him by having sex to protect yourself or your children, then that is rape.
  • If a husband routinely physically abuses you, and you find that he does so less often if you have sex more, then that sex is rape.
  • If a husband doesn’t give you any access to money or groceries or toiletries unless you regularly have sex with him, that is rape.
  • If a husband routinely verbally abuses you, and tells you that you are worthless, and tells you that God will be angry with you if you do not have sex with him whenever he wants, and pressures you psychologically, insinuating that you will be disobeying God, that is rape.
  • If a husband regularly has sex with you while you are sleeping (whether or not he wakes you up in the process), after you have told him that you do not want him doing that, that is rape.
  • If a husband tells you that if you do not have sex with him, he will look at porn, go on sex chat websites, go to strip clubs, or visit prostitutes, that is rape.

These things may not be able to be prosecuted in a court of  law, but they are evil. To rape is to take someone sexually without their consent, and coercion of any kind means that consent is not possible.

Compliance does not equal consent. Just because you go along with it does not mean that you were going along with it willingly.

What doesn’t count as rape?

  • If you have sex with your husband when you don’t particularly want to and aren’t in the mood, but you do so willingly, without fear, and don’t voice the fact that you don’t want to, that isn’t rape.
  • If you willingly do a sexual act that you don’t want to do, but do so without your husband threatening you, that isn’t rape.
  • If you are tired and would rather go to sleep, but your husband really wants to, and you don’t say no, that isn’t rape.
  • If you have sex with your husband and never get any pleasure out of it, and he doesn’t seem to care, that isn’t rape in and of itself.

Many women (and some men!) have sex without really wanting to, but they do so for a number of reasons: they figure it helps out their spouse, and won’t really take that long; they feel guilty because they haven’t had sex in a while; they want to bless their spouse; they hope that it may bring some peace to their relationship.

Let’s stop the language of “she belongs to him.” She is not an object.

Often they have sex and get no pleasure, but they haven’t expressed their disappointment to their spouse, or haven’t said that they would prefer something different. They also haven’t explicitly said no to advances.

These things may not be ideal (the ideal would be for the wife to be able to willingly jump in, and for each party to care about the other’s pleasure), but these instances aren’t rape. Consent is still there.

Personally, I would prefer that they work on their sex life, learn that sex can be so much better, and realize that women’s sexual pleasure matters, but these are not, in and of themselves, rape.

Are you TIRED of always being too tired for sex?

Do you yearn to actually WANT to make love–and figure out what all the fuss is about?

There is a way! And in this 10-module course I take you through what libido is (it may surprise you!), what affects libido, and how we can reclaim the excitement that God made us for.

But consent isn’t there when she is forced physically or forced mentally in order to avoid a serious consequence.

When we picture rape as always being a woman being pulled into the bushes, or a man holding her down and ripping off her clothes and doing something to her, then we may miss many instances that truly are rape.

That’s why talking about this clearly matters.

Sex was meant to be mutual. It is not meant to be about using one another. It is about intimacy, not just sexual release. When we treat it as something that he is owed or that he can take, then we diminish her, we diminish sex, and we diminish marriage.

The Obligation Sex Debunking Posts

Some posts that have also dealt with obligation sex and coercion

And check out The Great Sex Rescue--with two chapters looking at where the obligation sex message has been taught, what our survey of 20,000 women told us about how it affected us, and what we should teach instead.

So let’s stop the language of “she belongs to him.” She is not an object. And until we begin to say that clearly, we won’t address the problem of marital rape, because we’ll give cover to selfishness.

What do you think of these definitions of marital rape? Have I left some out? Should some not be there? Let’s talk in the comments!

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