Legal History And Theoretical Grounding

Historically, the legal definitions of rape have excluded married female spouses. This stems from various English laws, including (1) laws that viewed a woman's contractual obligation to her husband in marriage as including unlimited sexual access for her partner; (2) early views of women as the property of their husbands and arguments that an individual can not be charged for violating his own property; and (3) arguments that viewed the marriage as uniting a couple as one and in such cases, a man cannot violate himself.4 As recently as the early 1990s, state laws did not consider marital rape a crime and gave exemptions to spouses when it came to rape laws applied to nonspousal offenses. The following excerpt from North Carolina law (in existence until 1993) serves as an example of such a statute: "A person may not be prosecuted under this article if the victim is the person's legal spouse at the time of the commission of the alleged rape or sexual offense unless the parties are living separate and apart (North Carolina General Statute 14-27.8)."5 From early dictates on marital rape, a woman's entry into marriage was deemed a contract that bound her to her husband, including any sexual demands that he might make—in essence, dissolving any prospects of her voicing a marital rape concern because of a lack of legal grounds to do so.

Additional barriers included general social resistance to addressing the issue—prevalent views maintained (and sometimes still do) that sexual violence among intimate partners was a private matter, that assertions of such challenged the institution of marriage, and that women might use false claims of marital rape in vindictive ways.6,7 With these many barriers to establishing legal avenues for survivors of marital rape, change was slow but eventually occurred through growing feminist advocacy efforts initiated in the early 1970s.8 Changes have occurred in all states to provide grounds for women to take legal actions against their spouses for rape; however, these laws vary from state to state. Thirty-two states still maintain partial exemptions to legal statutes that essentially legally allow marital rape (and in some cases rape among cohabitating couples) under certain circumstances without consequences (e.g., when a spouse is unable to give consent).9,10 Challenges remain—the severity of punishment and reporting periods for intimate partner and nonintimate partner rape vary, with nonintimate partner rape often resulting in longer time periods for reporting the crime and more severe sentencing statutes.11

The limited societal focus on sexual violence in intimate relationships is also apparent in the conceptual development of the issue from a research perspective. Sexual violation in long-term relationships has yet to be examined with a theoretical model that takes a comprehensive perspective encompassing individual, couple, and societal factors that may impact these traumatic experiences. Feminist theories of intimate partner sexual violence perpetration assert that control and dominance issues are the driving forces for sexual violence. In related perspectives, social constructionist12 and sex role socialization13 theories are grounded in traditional roles of power or traditional sex role beliefs. Each of these theories attempts to explain the important underlying forces at play with sexual violence; however, as previously noted, there remains limited exploration of more comprehensive theoretical models that consider a socioecological perspective incorporating the various layers of individual, couple, and societal contributing factors.11

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