The war at home, all over the world
A lecture on marital rape at SAR
Rape within marriage was not fully criminalized in the United States until 1993. North Carolina was the last holdout, according to Kersti A. Yllö, professor emerita of sociology at Wheaton College. Yllö has studied domestic violence and sexual assault since the first sociological studies on domestic violence came out in the 1970s, when she was in graduate school. Her first book on marital rape, License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, was published in 1985, co-authored with David Finkelhor. At the time, there was virtually no academic research on the topic.
“In our book, we argued that the marriage license was a license to rape because wife-rape was legal then for almost all of the country,” Yllö said. She explained that the notion of permanent consent goes back to British common law and Sir Matthew Hale, a 17thcentury jurist who said that the husband and wife legally became one person upon marriage. “It was seen as the equivalent of a husband raping himself. You couldn’t steal your own property and you couldn’t rape your own wife. That notion continued through the 1980s.”
In recent years, Yllö has turned to an international focus in her research. She and a fellow Wheaton faculty member, associate professor of anthropology M. Gabriela Torres, held a small conference a few years ago that was the impetus for Marital Rape: Consent, Marriage, and Social Change in Global Context, published by Oxford University Press in 2016. The editors and contributors wanted to identify the nuances of forced sex within marriage in cultures that don’t necessarily criminalize the act, in countries that may view marriage and personal autonomy much differently than we do in the United States. Now Yllö and Torres have come together with a diverse group of scholars from around the world to approach methods of culturally sensitive intervention for women who are suffering the effects of sexual violation.
Yllö and Torres lead a public panel discussion, “Marital Rape in a Global Context,” on Thursday, Oct. 18, at SAR. Among the women on the SAR panel is a survivor of marital rape in Burkina Faso who sought asylum in the United States. Torres sometimes serves as an expert witness in such asylum cases,
especially for women from Guatemala. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently declared that domestic violence is no longer grounds for asylum in the United States, although this is currently being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union in Grace v. Sessions, in which Torres is the expert witness.
As an anthropologist, Torres approaches the study of other cultures in a relativist way, meaning that she is there to learn how people understand their lives and communities — and not to pass judgment on victims or perpetrators of marital rape. “It’s only in our particular legal context that we think consent is something that should be sought at every sexual act. This is not a commonly shared notion across the world,” she said. “We wanted to really try to understand, to what extent is there rape in marriage? It’s everywhere — so do people understand it as forced sex? And more importantly, do they understand it as harm? In our first book, we see that people being forced into sex in their intimate relationships see it as harmful to them. It makes women feel less able to lead fulfilling lives.”
In some cultures, such as Guatemala, she said, women understand forced sex in marriage as something they must endure — and they take pride in their ability to endure it successfully. In many cultures, marital rape tends to be just one element on a spectrum of what American researchers would consider abuse. The interdisciplinary approach of the SAR seminar includes psychological and public health approaches to harm reduction rather than a strictly Western humanitarian approach, which is not always appreciated in other countries.
During the last few weeks, Americans have watched Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the Republican establishment defend his reputation and career prospects from a sexual assault allegation stemming from his teenage years. Kavanaugh’s alleged victim, Christine Blasey Ford, held the public’s attention on Sept. 27 with her emotional but levelheaded Senate testimony about that long-ago night in question. What has become clear is that in this #MeToo moment, approaching accusations of rape, sexual assault, and abuse can no longer be oversimplified as “he said-she said” situations.
“For all the public attention to #MeToo, we have not heard one peep about marital rape,” Yllö said — except for the media reporting on the fact that President Trump’s first wife had accused him of rape during their divorce proceedings (a claim she later walked back). “If it feels shameful to women to say that a guy jumped on them in high school, it’s much more difficult to acknowledge or talk about experiencing this with your husband.” Yllö paraphrased a line from License to Rape in order to highlight the seriousness of such a distinction: “When you’ve been raped by a stranger, you live with a frightening memory. When you’ve been raped by your husband, you live with your rapist … Marital rape is the lynchpin of the patriarchy — the most personal way in which men still own women’s bodies.”
In India, efforts to criminalize rape in marriage have failed because, as politicians there have explained, “marriages are sacrosanct.” And in Vietnam, the ideal of a happy family means that any violence committed by a husband against a wife is considered a woman’s failure to create a pleasing home life. Given the vast differences between cultural beliefs on the topic around the world, one basic question arises: Is there any locale in which the researchers found women who were content with forced sex in their own marriages?
“No,” Yllö said. “We really haven’t found that. Most of the anthropologists who have talked to these women have a sense that there is no alternative, that this is life. But I don’t think the word ‘contentment’ is appropriate. How many people are happy with forced sex? I would say zero.”
“Marital Rape in a Global Context: Social Suffering, Adverse Health Consequences, and Culturally Sensitive Intervention,” a panel discussion with M. Gabriela Torres and Kersti A. Yllö, presented by the School for Advanced Research 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18 Eric S. Dobkin Boardroom at the School for Advanced Research, 660 Garcia St. There is no charge for admission but advance registration is encouraged: sarweb.org