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"But if you can't rape your wife,
who can you rape?"
~ California State Senator Bob Wilson ~
To a group of women lobbyists, 1979


The exact prevalence of partner rape is hard to determine, as it is so underreported. Yet, if you are a survivor, you are certainly not alone. Researchers have been telling us about marital/partner rape for more than 25 years, and the news is not good: Even if it is underreported, it appears to be the commonest form of sexual assault. Let's have a look at the stats:
  • In 2006 the Australian Bureau published the results of the Personal Safety Survey. According to the Survey, an estimated 27,400 women in Australia have experienced sexual assault by their current partner, and 272,300 by a previous partner. According to the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACCSA) these figures are likely to be underestimates (1)
  • In 1975, the results of an American study on many rape situations were published. Diana Russell was so appalled by her findings on rape in marriage that she decided to conduct a research project on this area alone. From the 930 interviews conducted with women from a cross section of race and class, Russell concluded that rape in marriage was the most common yet most neglected area of sexual violence (2)
  • ¡17% of women in a New Zealand study reported that they had been sexually assaulted by a current or ex-partner and 13% of the survivors who contacted Rape Crisis Auckland in 2003 were raped by their partner (3)
  • David Finkelhor & Kersti Yllo's famous 1985 study estimated that 10 to 14 per cent of all married women have been or will be raped by their spouses (4)
  • In the UK, The British Home Office yields the information that the most common rapists are current and ex-husbands or partners. (5)
  • Figures on teenage girls in danger from boyfriends caused shock in research communities in the 1980's.Teen Dating violence, which often involves rape and sexual assault, continues to be on the rise. Approximately one in ten high school students experiences dating violence - that figure is 22% in college students (6)
It's a common misconception that rape - particularly partner rape - is about sex, rather than an act of power, control and violence. Here are common types of partner rape (note: They are NOT excuses for abuser behavior) (7, 8, 9, 10):
  • Power Rape: This happens to "show her who's boss." Batterers often want sex after beating their partners, and it's a means of forcing the woman to forget the fight and make up. It may happen because she said no to sex, or because she wants to leave. It may not be physically violent, but can involve sufficient force to get what he wants. Power rape occurs also when a woman is bullied or intimidated into giving in "to keep the peace."
  • Anger Rape: Anger rape is often very violent and is carried out in retaliation when a man perceives his partner "deserves" it - perhaps by calling his masculinity into question." It might be a response to her leaving, "flirting", showing him up in front of others.
  • Sadistic Rape: Where an anger rape hurts the woman to punish her, in sadistic rape, the abuser gets off on causing the pain, fear and humiliation. Cutting, biting, burning, urinating upon the victim or other painful and humiliating treatment characterizes sadistic rape.
  • Obsessive Rape: If you experienced sexual assault from a partner who was obsessed with pornography or forced you into repeated sex-acts that were bizarre or fetishistic in nature, this is characteristic of obsessive rape. It may also be repeated and constant acts of anal or oral rape - something the abuser is fixated with doing.

Just because an abuser is motivated by power one time doesn't mean he always is; I can clearly identify times when my ex-partner was motivated either by power or by anger.

Sexual abuse and assault happen in relationships that may not be overtly abusive. However, partner rape itself is domestic violence, and since it is an act of control, we shouldn't be surprised when it coexists with other forms of abusive control. These might be any of the below (11):
  • Physical abuse i.e. battery. Studies do indicate that the tendency toward partner rape increases significantly in men who batter. (12) Physical abuse also takes the form of throwing objects, hurting pets, or pushing and shoving.
  • Emotional Abuse: Putdowns, emotional blackmail, shaming, making jokes at your expense, withdrawing affection as punishment, deliberately embarrassing you
  • Mental Abuse: Negative comments about your intelligence, "mind-games" such as insisting something didn't happen when you know it did; calling you crazy or trying to drive you crazy, "second-guessing" you.
  • Social Abuse: Insisting on accompanying you on all social outings or refusal to allow you to go at all; isolating you from family and friends.
  • Financial Abuse: Insisting that you work in the family business for no money;, preventing you from earning your own money, making you account for every cent, giving you an "Allowance", controlling any money you make.
  • Spiritual Abuse: Mocking your religion, insisting that you embrace his religion, preventing you from going to church, distorting and quoting scripture to manipulate you into submission
  • Using "Male Privilege": Claiming the right to do as he pleases while the same right doesn't extend to you because you're a woman. Male privilege may also be a part of sexual assault; for example he may say that as your husband, it's his right to have you whenever he wants you.

If you've experienced these other forms of abuse, you may have come to doubt your own worth or sanity, and have little self-confidence. But just remember: These are tactics that abusers use to control and intimidate. Whatever you may have come to believe about yourself is a reflection of the abuse, not of truth. Please do seek help - you deserve much better Nobody has the right to control and hurt you.

Partner rape has numerous different features than other types of sexual assault and domestic violence.

It is true that all types of rape are traumatic, and that in any context, rape should be seen as rape. But known wisdoms about sexual assault are often ill-suited to IPSV survivors. Finkelhor and Yllo write about the “special traumas” of IPSV and tell us, “It is these special traumas that we need to understand in their
full and terrible reality (13).

There has been a past trend in domestic violence discourse to view IPSV as simply another abuse. Yet, Bergen’s study reveals that women who were battered as well as raped by their partners considered rape to be the most significant issue. She adds that, “When treated as battered women, the wounds left by the sexual abuse often go unaddressed” (14). To be sure, all domestic violence, be it physical, emotional, sexual or otherwise is usually aimed at control and subjugation. But sexual assault attacks a woman’s psyche in different ways. In my experience, the battery was aimed at getting me to do what I was told or hurting me for not doing so, but the rape had a far nastier and more contemptuous message about my lack of worth and power. My rapist intended it as an ultimate insult, and that is how I experienced it. While I was ashamed of being battered – certainly in terms of the blame it accrued from others – the shame of being raped was more deeply excoriating; I did not think I would ever tell anybody.

The above is lifted from an article I wrote for the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (WCSAP) Connections publication (Spring/Summer 2008). If you would like to read the article in full, please download the pdf here. It contains a more comprehensive view of why conflating partner rape with other types of rape, or simply slotting it under the heading of domestic violence does a disservice to survivors.
Survivors of partner rape can take longer to heal than survivors of other types of rape. I asked a sexual assault worker why she thought this was true, and she said that it is largely because the survivor of partner rape gets no community recognition that what happened to her is a real crime. When we consider that marital rape has only been a crime in the western world for 20 odd years - and there are many who still don't believe it ought to be a crime, we shouldn't wonder at the lack of recognition. Historically, women were seen as the property of their husbands - but it's not necessary for wedding rings to be traded for ownership of a woman to be assumed - as those of us who were raped by boyfriends, fiances and live-in partners can attest. We ourselves often internalize the social view of what real rape is - i.e. the stranger in the alleyway, so that when it happens, we are confused about what happened. This might also be backed up by people we told - some of us hear that it isn't rape, that we should be grateful it wasn't a stranger, or that we are "supposed" to submit.

If you are a hurting survivor of partner rape who has ever thought you are making something out of nothing, you’ll find that it is actually the other way around; there are forces outside of you, which make nothing out of something. And they are wrong. They have asked that you accept the unacceptable. You may see that even while social attitudes towards partner rape deny it, you can find your voice and stand upon the truth of your experiences (15).

  1. http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/PrimaryMainFeatures/4906.0?OpenDocument
  2. Russell, Diana E.H. Rape in Marriage MacMillan Publishing Company, USA 1990
  3. Fanslow, J. and Robinson, E., "Violence against women in New Zealand: prevalence and health consequences." New Zeland Medical Journal, Vol 117 No 1206 (2004),
  4. Finkelhor, D.and Yllo, K., License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, The Free Press, New York 1985;
  5. Myhill & Allen, Rape and Sexual Assault of Women: Findings from the British Crime Survey
  6. Wilson, K.J., When Violence Begins at Home: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Abuse, Hunter House Inc .Publishers, California, 1997
  7. Easteal, P, and McOrmond-Plummer, L, Real Rape, Real Pain: Help for women sexually assaulted by male partners, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 1996
  8. Finkelhor, D.and Yllo, K., License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, The Free Press, New York 1985;
  9. Russell, Diana E.H. Rape in Marriage MacMillan Publishing Company, USA 1990
  10. Nicholas Groth, with H Jean Birnbaum,, Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the offender, Plenum Press, New York, 1979
  11. Finkelhor, D.and Yllo, K. 1985, cited in McOrmond-Plummer, L, (2008). Considering the Differences: Intimate Partner Sexual Violence in Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Discourse, WCSAP Connections, Spring/Summer Issue 4-7
  12. Bergen, R, 1996 cited in McOrmond-Plummer, L, (2008). Considering the Differences: Intimate Partner Sexual Violence in Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Discourse, WCSAP Connections, Spring/Summer Issue 4-7
  13. Finkelhor, D.and Yllo, K., License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, The Free Press, New York 1985;
  14. Bergen, R, Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers, Sage Publications, California, 1996
  15. Easteal, P, and McOrmond-Plummer, L, Real Rape, Real Pain: Help for women sexually assaulted by male partners, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 1996