I'd like to take a moment to introduce the topic of this particular post: sexual assault within romantic relationships, but most importantly, marital rape. As a Catholic woman that has spent time as a domestic and sexual violence advocate, I've heard the reasons folks give to say that marital rape isn't real. I don't agree with those reasons, nor does the Church. After the four part series on intimate partner violence and sacramental marriage, I felt it was important to specifically address the way abuse can directly harm the sexual relationship of two spouses.
The facts about rape and sexual assault are that they vary. Rapists can be well-known to their victims. The victim was leaving a late night study session. Or asleep in bed. The truth is, the only black and white detail about sexual assault or rape, is that the victim did not deserve to be assaulted or forced into sexual contact against their will. That fact never changes, no matter how well-liked or understood the victim, no matter how beloved or despised the attacker. However, we allow ourselves to get buried in the details so that we do not have to believe what is true.
The Catholic Church teaches us about the sanctity of marriage. The bond between husband and wife is unique. The sexual relationship is not a dirty thing, or something to be hidden away: married people have sex and that produces babies and many a fun time in healthy, equally yoked relationships. But what about unhealthy relationships? Chances are, sex is used as a weapon.
An understanding of intimate partner violence (if you need a refresher, head back to the main screen and check out the previous four posts) tells us that an abusive spouse may use sex to manipulate their victim. This can be done in a number of ways: incorrectly interpreting scripture to assert male privilege, as a negotiation (you can have sex with me or I will punish you/the children), or in many other equally gruesome ways. The implication may not always be that overt, but you cannot fully give sexual consent if you are being in any way coerced.
I feel strongly that the Catholic Church as well as scripture (Go read all of Ephesians 5 with a critical eye) backs the condemnation of marital rape.
Getting married and saying your vows is not a blanket consent for sex at the demands of your spouse, 'til death do you part.
I Was Raped By My Spouse. Now What?
Just as in any situation that involves abuse, it is important that a survivor reviews the safety of their situation:
- Are you or your children in immediate danger?
- If so, do you have somewhere to go or someone to call?
- Are you physically injured?
- Do you feel comfortable going to a hospital to be examined and receive a rape kit?
- Do you need to contact law enforcement?
It is not always easy to answer those questions. If you did not consent to sexual activity, you could be experiencing a range of emotions. The attack doesn't have to be violent for you to experience trauma. You may not feel you are in immediate danger or that it would happen again anytime soon. It is important that you know it is never okay for a spouse to make you feel coerced into sexual activity, or to make you feel as though you somehow owe them sex.
A few things to consider:
- If you do not feel comfortable with an exam/rape kit, you can consider contacting a gynecologist or a physician you trust to examine you to rule out any physical injuries. (Keep in mind that, depending on the state, there may be laws that compel medical professionals to report rape. For specific information in your area, this link may help, or you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline.)
- Law enforcement involvement is an option. This resource from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) thoroughly explains the different things that can happen when involving law enforcement.
- It is important that both you and your spouse (separately and together) get help. Sexual assault comes with trauma and trauma needs to heal. Be careful when choosing counselors. Finding one that has experience with sexual assault survivors would be beneficial, and the spouse that committed the assault should find a counselor experienced in the rehabilitation of sexual offenders.
- Remember that not everyone in positions of authority is as familiar with the dynamics of abuse in relationships as is necessary. If you choose to disclose assault to someone you trust and the advice they give doesn't quite feel right, ask someone else. It is common to turn to religious leaders for guidance, and while I look forward to the day our Church leaders are well-prepared to provide thorough assistance in these matters, that is not always the case.