Local Commentaries
1:25 pm
Mon October 19, 2009

Diane Mayfield - October 20

Macomb, IL – Seldom do we hear the stories of sexual violence when a victim of domestic battery first comes to Victim Services for help. It is more usual for the victim to talk about the name calling, the put-downs, the threats, pushes, hits, and punches long before we hear the rest of the story. Things like "He would force me to have sex with him after he beat me. He called it make-up sex.' I guess that was his way of making the abuse go away."

Or, "He told me I didn't have the right to say no. I'd married him and that meant I had to do anything, any time, and any place he wanted me to, including sex."

Rarely does anyone think about the sexual violence happening between married or long term intimate partners. Sadly, it does happen. It is seldom reported to police, yet it is probably one of the most frequently committed crimes.

Studies from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom on marital rape have included couples who are legally married, separated, divorced, or cohabiting with the understanding of a long term relationship. Based on the findings of the largest U.S. study of violence against women to date, it is estimated more than seven-million women have been raped by their intimate partners.

If the number of women who felt emotionally coerced to have "unwanted sex" with their intimate partner is taken into consideration, the prevalence is much higher. In a national study in 2002, K. C. Basile found that 34% of women indicated they had unwanted sex with their partner most frequently as a result of marital obligation. Rape in marriage occurs more frequently when we consider that women in physically abusive relationships might be especially vulnerable to rape by their partners.

Just as with other forms of domestic violence, spousal rape is not confined to women of any specific age group, race, ethnicity, social class, educational level or geographic location. In the largest study, Diana Russell found that almost two thirds of women raped by their husbands were first raped before the age of 25. Reports have shown this pattern continues throughout the relationship, even into the senior years. Of importance for us in rural America is that up to 50% of battered women in studies of rural areas report having been raped by their partners.

It is essential to understand that the belief system many hold regarding rape in general, and spousal rape in particular, is a result of societal attitudes. Both historical and societal attitudes regarding rape have shaped laws and the availability of funds to provide services to victims. Beliefs that devalue women and condone violence against them supports a rape culture. Beliefs that see men as conquerors and women as property continue to justify the violence. Systems that are supposed to help victims often re-victimize them, such as the criminal justice system and the church. Victims have told of their reports not being taken seriously or being minimized. They have told of being sent back home to their abusers and told to work it out, pray harder, or even submit.

Since the beginnings of the United States, the "marital rape exemption" has been embedded in the sexual assault laws. In its most drastic form, the exemption means that a husband, by definition, cannot legally rape his wife. The theory goes that by accepting the marital contract, a woman has tacitly consented to sexual intercourse any time her husband demands it.

Today, however, all 50 states have laws that criminalize spousal rape, but many of them still have remnants of the marital rape exemption. Many states define spousal rape as a separate and lesser crime than stranger rape. In Illinois, up until August of 2004, victims of spousal rape only had 30 days to report the crime to law enforcement, unlike other adult rape victims who had 3 years to report a felony crime. Even though Illinois has changed the statute for reporting for spousal rape, few are reported and even fewer are prosecuted as rape.

In 2005, in Crete, IL, Regan Martin reported being handcuffed, beaten and repeatedly raped by her husband, John Samolis, after refusing to have sex with him. Initially he was charged with aggravated criminal assault, unlawful restraint, and aggravated domestic violence. However the case never made it to court. Samolis agreed to plea to the lesser crime of aggravated domestic violence and the other two charges were dropped. He ultimately served 19 months in prison. The average conviction for rape in Illinois is about five years according to a Department of Justice study. As a result, Martin and her family are now working with Illinois Congresswoman Deborah Halvorson to draft a bill that would not allow State's Attorneys to offer plea bargains in rape cases.

Coming forward, seeking assistance from a rape crisis center or a domestic violence agency, reporting the assault to police and seeking charges is a courageous act for all victims. Why many choose to not do so is not a reason to blame the victims, to hold them accountable for the actions of their abusers. We should make the effort to learn about the dynamics of intimate partner violence and available services in our areas, be more involved in making sure perpetrators are held accountable in the criminal justice system, and step out to support the victims and survivors in our families, neighborhoods, and communities.

Diane Mayfield is the Victim Services Director for the Western Illinois Regional Council's Community Action Agency.