Witches were still being burned at the stake when Sir Matthew Hale came up with his legal theory that rape could not happen within marriage. The 17th century English jurist declared it legally impossible because wedding vows implied a wife’s ongoing consent to sex.
Three and a half centuries later, vestiges of the so-called “marital rape exemption” or “spousal defense” still exist in most states — remnants of the English common law that helped inform American legal traditions. Legislative attempts to end or modify those exemptions have a mixed record but have received renewed attention in the #MeToo era.
The most recent efforts to roll back protections for spouses focus on rapes that happen when a partner is drugged, unconscious or otherwise incapacitated. Minnesota is the latest to take action. The state Legislature this week voted to eliminate the exemption, which had prevented prosecutions in those cases.
“No longer will this antiquated and shameful law be on our books,” Gov. Tim Walz said as he signed the bill into law on Thursday. “The concept of a pre-existing relationship defense should have never been part of our criminal statutes.”
In Ohio, determined opponents plan to re-introduce a marital rape bill this month, after two earlier attempts failed.
Former lawmaker and prosecutor Greta Johnson was the first to introduce the Ohio legislation in 2015. She said having to address whether a woman was married to her attacker as part of sexual assault prosecutions struck her as “appalling and archaic.”
“Certainly, there was a marital exemption lifted years ago, but it was just for what in the prosecutorial world we call the force element — by force or threat of force,” she said. “You could still drug your spouse and have sex with them, and it’s not rape. You could commit sexual imposition against your spouse, and it’s not a crime. It was really troubling.”
All 50 states had laws making marital rape a crime by 1993, whether as a result of the two preceding decades of activism by women’s rights groups or because of a pivotal court ruling. Nearly 9% of women and 0.8% of men have been raped by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National surveys have placed the percentage of women raped within marriage between 10% and 14%.
Still, many states’ marital rape laws have loopholes — not only involving the victim’s capacity to consent, but related to age, relationship, use of force or the nature of the penetration. Some impose short timeframes for victims to report spousal rape.
A recent Maryland bill sought to erase the marital exemption for all sex crimes.
During discussion of the bill, one skeptical male lawmaker wondered whether a spouse might be charged with sexual assault for “smacking the other’s behind” during an argument. Maryland Del. Frank Conaway Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, raised religious concerns.
“If your religion believes if you’re married, two are as one body, then what happens? Can you get a religious exemption?” he asked.
“No, I would actually say that the First Amendment would prevent the state from getting entangled in that sort of judgment,” replied Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “So you would have to rely on your faith and your commitment to that to not bring those charges. But that’s no place for the General Assembly.”
The bill died in March.
Professor D. Kelly Weisberg of the University of California Hastings College of the Law said the Maryland debate touched on some of the common rationales for the marital rape exemption over the centuries.
One is Hale’s premise from the 1670s that marriage implies irrevocable consent and even property rights by the husband over his wife and her body. Those ideas have never truly disappeared, said Weisberg, author of a new reference book on domestic violence law.
She said other arguments for such laws are that marital privacy is a constitutional right, as when spouses can’t be forced to testify against one another in court, that marital rape isn’t serious enough to criminalize and that it would be difficult to prove.
For those and other reasons, Weisberg said marital rape laws have not kept pace with other domestic violence laws. That means in some cases an unmarried domestic partner has more legal protections against attack than a spouse.
Changing attitudes — and laws — about marital rape is what drove Jenny Teeson to go public this year with her story.
The 39-year-old from Andover, Minnesota, was going through a divorce in 2017 when she discovered a flash drive with videos taken by her husband. They showed him penetrating her with an object while she lay drugged and unconscious. In one, their 4-year-old lay next to her on the bed.
Teeson turned the videos over to the police. After an investigation, her husband was charged with third-degree criminal sexual assault against an incapacitated victim. Charges were brought in the morning — but dropped by afternoon because of the state’s marital rape exemption.
“I was beside myself,” she told The Associated Press.
Her ex-husband ultimately pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor charge of invading her privacy and served 30 days in the county jail. Still shocked that he could not be charged with a felony because of the state law, Teeson decided to take action.
“I thought if I can’t have the law be in place to keep myself, my kids and my community safe, I could wallow in it, or I could do something about it,” she said.
The AP does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but Teeson has shared her story publicly, including during testimony before legislative committees. Democratic state Sen. Karla Bigham credited Teeson’s advocacy for persuading lawmakers to pass the bill.
“She had to relive the trauma every time she shared her story,” Bigham told her colleagues during a debate in the Senate chamber this past week. “Her voice speaks loudly to those women who deserve justice. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s right this wrong.”
AEquitas, a resource for prosecutors, reported last month that 17 states still maintain some form of the exemption for spouses who rape partners when they are drugged or otherwise incapacitated: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington and Wyoming.
In Ohio, state Rep. Kristin Boggs, a Democrat, said she’s not optimistic the upcoming version of the marital rape bill will be any more successful in the Republican-controlled Legislature than it has been in the past.
But at least one past opponent — the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association — has evolved on the issue. Executive Director Lou Tobin said he expects the group will support a bill that seeks to eliminate the exemption.
“In the past, I know that there’s been some concern that these cases are difficult to prove; they can be a lot of he-said, she-said back and forth,” Tobin said. “But sorting through those things is what prosecutors are for.”
Boggs’ bill would again call for removing references to the marital exemption throughout Ohio’s criminal code. Her argument in favor of it is straightforward.
“Our rationale for introducing this legislation is simply that your legal relationship to another human being shouldn’t give you permission to rape them,” she said.