Monique Clinton Sherrod and Jennifer Hardison Walters

Marriages and other romantic relationships are often complex and sprinkled with peaks and valleys; however, few individuals anticipate sexual violence as a possible trauma resulting from their intimate relationship. Romantic relationships are complex by the very nature of intimacy experienced by the two individuals. The sexual aspects of the relationship often are among the most personal and cherished times for partners; however, in some cases what should be healthy and caring expressions of love may take a violent turn, resulting in the sexual violation of a partner perpetrated by another partner. Given that research indicates a woman is raped every six minutes in the United States1 and one out of every two females will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime,2 addressing sexual violence in all relationship contexts should be a national priority. While a sizable amount of attention has been focused on stranger, dating, and acquaintance sexual assaults, far less has been placed on sexual assault within long-term, committed relationships. This chapter provides an overview of what is known about sexual assault that occurs between married couples and committed intimate partners.

Throughout this chapter, both rape and the more encompassing terms of sexual assault and sexual violence will be used, primarily based on the original terminology used in the research cited. However, the definitions of these terms will be consistent, with rape referring to the legal definition of nonconsensual or forced anal, oral, or vaginal penetration and sexual assault encompassing a range of contact and noncontact, unwanted sexual behaviors (including rape).3 The chapter includes information on survivors from both heterosexual and gay and lesbian intimate relationships; however, very limited information is presented outside of married heterosexual relationships due to the fact that there has been so little research on sexual violence within these other types of intimate relationships.

Far too often the label of rape has been narrowly viewed as perpetrated by strangers or, even more recently, acquaintances. Oftentimes intimate partners and spouses are misperceived as the least likely offenders in this form of violence, or sexual perpetration by a spouse or an intimate partner is minimized and viewed as less severe compared with sexual violations perpetrated by nonintimates. A variety of individual, couple, community, and societal factors contribute to the interpretation and understanding of sexual violence that occurs within marriages and intimate relationships; however, many of the views around this issue are grounded in historical context.

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