My impression is that in most people’s minds, “rape” has two specific connotations: as date rape by someone the victim barely knows, or as a violent attack by a predatory stranger. Rarely do I see public acknowledgment of another very serious situation: spousal rape.
What limited discussion I have seen about spousal rape– or, more accurately, partner rape– has focused on whether it is in fact “real.” The majority, or at least a significant proportion, of opinions are that when people are married (or in a long-term relationship) sex is a right, a given, a duty. Thus the stereotype of one partner needing an excuse, like a headache, for not wanting sex, rather than being free to say that they just don’t want it right now. To deny your partner sex is to let them down, and it’s presumed that they would be– and for good reason– upset with you as a result.
Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no situation in which it is remotely acceptable for someone to threaten, bargain or guilt-trip another into intimacy. Not on a date, and not in a relationship. To imply that there is such a situation is to deny and yet condone the misery, humiliation and trauma suffered by survivors of partner rape. If you don’t believe me about the strength of those feelings, listen to my own story. Trigger warning for sexual abuse, self-harm.
My husband, who was my first partner and with whom I stayed for seven years, was always sexually aggressive and manipulative. He pressured me into having sex early on in our relationship, when I was in my mid-teens, and to hide it from my parents, who for better or worse were not particularly liberal on the subject. He insisted on having sex in situations that made me very uncomfortable– in the prop room of the theater building where we went to college, for example. Throughout, I never had any emotional or physical pleasure from any of our intimacy.
After I moved in with him at 17 (when he was 20) things only got worse. He started to pressure me to let him do things to me that were very painful and humiliating. At times, I would cry during sex, and he would ignore me and continue with whatever he felt like doing. I started cutting myself so deep that I should have had stitches, and ended up with terrible scars.
Because he had threatened to kill me twice before, as well as to kill my beloved cat, and had physically attacked me, slapping me, grabbing me, once slamming my head against a wall, once dislocating my jaw, I had no reason to think that if I denied him he wouldn’t hurt me. As pathetic as it sounds, I was just as afraid of losing him, since, as often happens in abusive relationships, I had centered my whole life around him. So the threat to me was real, immediate and implied, if not explicit. In addition, he took advantage of me twice while I was drunk and passed out, or nearly so, and unable to resist.
Later, when we had separated, I had no choice but to move back in with him for several months. During that time, he raped me at least 5 times. I made it clear both in the moment and in general that I did not want to be intimate in any way, but he just kept pressuring and touching and insisting. At one point he threatened and tried to commit suicide if I wouldn’t be in a relationship with him. So again, there was a clear threat looming over me as he continually pushed me toward sex. At one point he even offered to pay me $1000 for intercourse.
There should be absolutely no question, no ambivalence, no doubt that what happened to me “counts” as rape. In essence, partner rape means taking advantage of a relationship that’s meant to be about trust, love and caring to impose an absolute demand on another person, regardless of how much it harms them.
The experience shattered me. I felt disgusting, sickened, frightened and violated. I couldn’t get myself clean enough. It was around this time that I began again to have horrifying nightmares that had stopped for some time beforehand, while we were separated. I would wake up screaming and punching the air or the wall. My skin crawled all the time and I threw up compulsively. I panicked when I knew he was coming home from work, because of what he might do to me. I wished he would die, and I considered– and almost succeeded in– killing myself, putting myself in a coma for days after overdosing on several medications.
There is nothing in the world that justifies damaging and tormenting another living being in that way. Period. The idea that there is ever a right to sex, that sex can ever be an obligation, is no different from chimpanzees who beat their mates with sticks to force their desire. It is an animal urge that has no place in society. Partner rape is a crime and a severely traumatizing experience, and defending it is almost as inexcusable as doing it.