April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and today, April 4th, 2017, is the #SAAM Day of Action. And because spousal rape isn’t rare — it’s just rarely discussed — we believe it’s important to have these conversations in the marital context.

Did you know that, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 22 percent of reported rapes were committed by husbands or boyfriends, 47 percent by acquaintances, and 2 percent by other relatives? (See Criminal Victimization in the United States, US DOJ.)

Contrary to what some might think, it’s not just single women who are affected by sexual violence and it’s not just strangers who are perpetrators of such violence. Here are a few statistics that may surprise you:

  • “More than 1 in every 7 women who have ever been married, have been raped in marriage.” —Rape in Marriage by Diana Russell, Indiana University Press, 1990
  • According to studies compiled by The Advocates for Human Rights’ on Marital and Intimate Partner Sexual Assault, research indicates that men who both batter and rape are more likely to severely injure or kill their wives.
  • “Of 300 community women in Boston surveyed, 3% reported sexual assault by a stranger and 10% who had been married reported sexual assault by a husband or an ex-husband.” —License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives by David Finkelhor & Kersti Yllo (of the Family Research Laboratory in New Hampshire)
  • According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), spousal rape may cause more damage than stranger rape because victims are pressured to stay with an abusive partner and may have difficulty identifying their partner as a criminal and the act as a crime. This means a higher likelihood of repeat assault and potential negative impacts on children who may be living in the home.

But spousal rape hasn’t always been handled seriously. Despite its clear meaning (Merriam-Webster defines rape as “sexual activity carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against [a person’s] will…”), there have been blurred lines throughout history as to what constitutes rape. The study, Sexual Assault in Marriage: Prevalence, Consequences, and Treatment of Wife Rape, says, “a marital rape exemption legally shielded husbands from being charged with the rape of their wives, and this exemption was not successfully challenged until the late 1970s.”

Part of the issue has to do with what the study refers to as a “long- standing tradition of failing to recognize wife rape as a problem.” This dilemma “reflects cultural beliefs about men, women, and sexuality that have interfered with the acknowledgment of and societal response to wife rape. Such beliefs are imbedded [sic] in notions such as the idea that a woman’s sexuality is a commodity that can be owned by her father or husband, the belief that what happens between husband and wife in the bedroom is a private matter, that a man is entitled to sexual relations with his wife, and that a wife should consensually engage in sex with her husband, thus making rape ‘unnecessary.’”

Despite who the perpetrator might be, however, rape is rape. Anyone who has been sexually assaulted — whether by an intimate partner or a perfect stranger — knows the resulting humiliation, fear, and trauma can leave permanent scars. Unfortunately, victims may either be ashamed or fearful of the consequences if they were to report such a crime. Being married to your perpetrator, especially if children are involved, only complicates things.

While the United Nations recommended marital rape be defined as sexual assault in its 2010 Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women, stereotypes and misunderstandings about spousal rape remain. Because of these misunderstandings — and the fear and stigma surrounding intimate partner violence — we believe it’s appropriate to cover these topics.

We invite you to join us in standing with victims of sexual violence by posting words of support to social media using the hashtag #SAAM.