How living with a rapist could also mean living with a killer

Surely, no one now would think it OK for a husband to rape his wife, right? For a long time, that wasn’t the case. Women in the United States began fighting to make marital rape illegal in 1848 but didn’t succeed until they gained more economic equality. Until 1985, a man in Maine couldn’t be charged with raping his wife while the couple was legally married.

Every state now has some type of protection against spousal rape, but about half the states still maintain certain exemptions. For example, in some states a spouse must experience physical injury for prosecution to proceed. In others, it’s permitted for a husband to force sex if his wife is mentally incapacitated.

While Maine law thankfully doesn’t contain these exemptions, the state can do more to recognize the reality that sexual assaults occur between husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends — more often than one might think. Nearly one in 10 women in the U.S. has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than half of all female victims of rape report being raped by an intimate partner; about 41 percent report being raped by an acquaintance. (For male victims, more than half report being raped by an acquaintance and 15 percent by a stranger.)

This week, the organization End Violence Against Women International held a conference in Seattle for about 1,200 law enforcement officers, domestic and sexual violence advocates, health care personnel, forensic examiners, military members, prosecutors and government workers. I was there with Cara Courchesne of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault to present a workshop on media collaboration. We also accepted the organization’s annual media award.

We had the chance to listen to a nationally renowned judicial adviser, Lynn Hecht Schafran, who won the group’s Visionary Award.

Schafran is a lawyer, author and senior vice president at Legal Momentum, the oldest nonprofit legal organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls through law and public policy. Since 1981, she has been director of Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program, which educates the judiciary about gender bias in courts nationwide. She has co-authored curricula for judges and others. Her most recent is a Web course called Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse: Adjudicating this Hidden Dimension of Domestic Violence Cases. Registration is free and open to everyone.

She started by quoting Jeffrey Kremers, chief judge for the First Judicial Administrative District in Milwaukee: “If a partner is controlling, abusive and violent in the kitchen, the living room and in public, why would he stop the abuse at the bedroom door?”

In fact, it appears most domestic violence cases also involve sexual assault. In one study published in 2005 and funded by the National Institute of Justice, researchers interviewed 148 women who had sought court orders of protection for physical abuse. Though they had not stated so when petitioning the court for protection, 68 percent of the women surveyed disclosed they had also been sexually abused by their partner.

In another study, researchers Raquel Kennedy Bergen and Paul Bukovec interviewed 229 men enrolled in a batterers intervention program and found 53 percent admitted to conduct that legally met the definition of sexual assault or rape. Yet only 8 percent answered yes to the question, “Have you ever sexually abused your partner?”

People may appear at first to be victims solely of domestic violence, Schafran said. But they are also at great risk of having been sexually assaulted, and advocates, medical professionals and the courts need to know to ask. If they don’t, the victim won’t get the services he or she needs, and there won’t even be a chance that the offender will be held accountable.

Sexual abuse can range from verbal degradation relating to sexuality, to tampering with contraception or coercing abortion, to using social media to share information about sexual activity, to torture. Victims might not want to disclose what is happening because they might not know it’s illegal or they don’t want to be humiliated, or they might not disclose sexual abuse because no one asked.

It’s essential for responders to know whether sexual abuse is happening in a violent relationship because it’s a red flag for potential lethality, escalating violence, abuse against children in the home and even sex trafficking. Perpetrators who rape or sexually assault their spouses are a greater risk not just to their family members but to their communities.

Every day, three women in the U.S. are murdered by their current or former husbands or boyfriends, and a leading indicator of their deaths is sexual assault. David Adams, in his book “Why Do They Kill?” found that three-quarters of women he interviewed who survived nearly fatal attacks said their abusive partner had raped them.

Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, found a similar correlation: A woman who is physically assaulted by a partner and also forced to have sex is more likely to be killed.

Yet pre-sentencing and post-conviction risk assessments of batterers often fail to ask about acts of sexual assault. Many batterer intervention programs in the country do not make a concerted effort to raise the issue of sexual violence during sessions with batterers. In addition, judges who do not know about intimate partner sexual abuse cannot assess the risk of the situation accurately, provide the most appropriate court orders or best solve questions of child custody.

One of the biggest myths about marital rape is that “it’s no big deal” — that the woman says she’s tired and wants to go to bed, and the husband misunderstands. That’s not reality. A rape or sexual assault is a horrifying experience that is used as a means to degrade, humiliate and control. There is no way the crime can be rationalized or excused whether it happened between strangers or intimate partners.

All types of women, no matter their race, background or economic status, are at risk. As West Virginia University social sciences professor Walter DeKeseredy wrote, “What differs is not the woman, but the man. If the man is sexually abusive, he will victimize any woman with whom he lives with or has lived with.”

Domestic violence and sexual assault are often treated as “parallel tracks but never intersecting,” Schafran said. But clearly the issues overlap often, and the presence of sexual assault in the home indicates a greater chance the victim will be killed. If Maine wants to save lives, it must be able to gauge the broader picture, which too often involves sexual assault.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.