Marital and Intimate Partner Sexual Assault
last updated August 2013
Intimate partner sexual assault is an assault that is committed by a current or past spouse or boyfriend. Forced intercourse within a marriage is often called "marital rape." Like other forms of domestic violence, marital rape is about exerting power and control over one’s partner. Historically, marital or intimate partner rape was not considered a crime. In many countries, including the United States, rape was traditionally defined as forced sexual conduct with someone other than one's wife. As a matter of law, rape could not occur within a marital relationship; the consent of the wife to the sexual contact was presumed.[1] In recent years, there has been marked progress in removing such marital exemptions from rape statutes.
As of 2011, at least 52 countries had explicitly made marital rape a criminal offense,[2] and according to a 2006 report from the UN Secretary-General, at least 104 countries criminalize marital rape—if not under explicit marital rape statutes, then under general rape laws.[3] Yet, despite the trend on the books, legal systems in many countries continue to reflect the belief that rape within a marriage is not rape. Regardless of the extent to which marital rape is defined or recognized by law, in practice, it is rarely reported, prosecuted, or punished. Many women throughout the world do not know that marital rape is illegal and even when it is known, cultural norms and social stigmas discourage reporting. Law enforcement and prosecutors are often unwilling to respond to complaints and when they do, the burden is placed on the victim to prove the act was illegal, which generally requires visible physical injuries to prove lack of consent or resistance. In addition, Dorothy Thomas and Robin Levi report that marital rape is prosecuted and punished less often and less severely than are other crimes, in large part because of assumptions that women are complicit in or in some way provoked the assault.[4] 
The laws of many countries, particularly in the Middle East, but also throughout the world, implicitly exclude marital rape from the definition of sexual assault by providing that the perpetrator may be exonerated if he later marries his victim.[5] In 2010, Amnesty International condemned Denmark’s Penal Code for allowing for a reduced or remitted punishment for perpetrators who enter into or continue a marriage after rape.[6] As of 2011, similar marriage-after-rape exceptions also remained in force in Venezuela and Bulgaria.[7] Such laws illustrate clearly the principle that men are assumed to have unlimited sexual access to their wives, thus negating the existence of rape and sexual abuse within marriage. In a number of countries in CEE/FSU, even where the law does not officially allow a rapist to avoid prosecution if he marries his victim, in practice, the victim's family will often pressure her to marry the rapist and withdraw the charges of sexual assault. In Armenia, "[f]amilies and victims of rape usually try to force the perpetrator to marry the victim because rape victims will have less chance of marrying later." In Uzbekistan, while marriage of the victim and the perpetrator is not enough to discontinue the case, "[i]n practice though, offenders escape criminal prosecution when all sides collude to arrange the marriage of the perpetrator and victim."[8]
Following this same vein, countries where forced and child marriage are prevalent also implicitly condone marital rape. While forced and child marriages, as well as early motherhood, are becoming increasingly less common among the wealthiest sectors of society in all regions of the world, they persist in Africa and South Asia, as well as certain areas of the Former Soviet Union. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that 142 million girls will be married over the next decade if current trends continue (equates to approximately 39,000 per day).[9] Because young married girls have little or no power in relation to their husbands, they are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence,[10]    
Legal Limitations to Prosecuting Marital Rape
In addition to the evidentiary hurdles women face in proving marital rape, many countries continue to place additional legal limitations on women's protection from rape within marriage. For example, in some parts of the United States, married women have a shorter time period within which to bring charges against their husband for rape. As described in a paper by Kersti Yllo, the "restricted time frames for reporting marital rape rest on the premise that wives will fabricate rape charges in order to advantage themselves in divorce proceedings if not legally prevented from doing so."[11]
In some countries in CEE/FSU, while marital rape is not excluded from the definition of sexual assault, prosecutions for marital rape can be commenced only on a complaint by or with the approval of the victim, even when such complaint or approval is not otherwise required. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) addresses this issue by including in article 55 that parties shall ensure that investigations into or prosecution of marital rape are “not wholly dependent upon a report or complaint filed by a victim.”[12] (The Istanbul Convention was opened for signature in 2011, but had not yet entered into force as of August 2013).
Response by Law Enforcement
Research has indicated that the police response to marital rape is also inadequate. One study described by Raquel Bergen found that "when police officers learn that the assailant is the woman's husband, they may fail to respond to a call from a victim of marital rape, refuse to allow a woman to file a complaint, and/or refuse to accompany her to the hospital to collect medical evidence." In investigating sexual violence in Russia, Human Rights Watch similarly found that "[t]he police are particularly likely to reject complaints of sexual violence from married women and single women who have been sexually active. In order to discourage these women from seeking redress, the police often suggest that their complaints are frivolous or groundless."[13] 
In part, the lower penalties that apply to marital rape are founded on the myth that because the husband and wife already have an intimate relationship, the act of forced intercourse is less traumatic for the victim when it occurs within a relationship. As Yllo argues, however, "[t]he shock, terror, and betrayal of wife rape are often exacerbated rather than mitigated by the marital relationship." Bergen's research indicates that victims of marital rape appear to suffer particularly severe psychological consequences.[14] 
The myth that the absence of physical injuries or resistance on the part of the victim indicates consent is particularly damaging in the context of intimate partner assault. Often, the response to sexual violence by an intimate partner involves "appeasement" coping or survival strategies. These strategies—such as giving in or avoiding one threat by submitting to a less harmful one—are frequently used by the victims of intimate partner sexual violence, for a number of reasons:
Women found that trying to talk their husband out of it was ineffective and that running away and hiding brought about broken doors. Some did threaten to leave, some did leave temporarily, some did leave and divorce, and some did use violence. But, overall, the decisions to choose appeasement over outright resistance revolved on several perceptions: the perception of the husband's strength, the presumption that if the wife resisted she would be hurt even worse (especially if there was a history of battering), that resistance prolonged the assault, that appeasement protected the children, that unless she was ready to leave she would have to face the man again, that it was good to "keep the peace," and that she believed herself to be wrong, at fault.[15]
Even as state governments take steps to recognize marital rape, victims’ fear of reprisal, shame, cultural acceptance, and lack of knowledge of the law continue to contribute to the low number of cases reported and prosecuted worldwide. NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina report that “a sense of shame among rape victims and the failure of police to treat spousal rape as a serious offense inhibited the effective enforcement of the law.” In Serbia, the Women against Violence Network report that women fear reprisals and that, on numerous occasions, women were killed after reporting offenses. In Turkey, NGOs report that societal acceptance of domestic violence contributes to underreporting. A 2005 World Health Organization study of ten countries found that between 10%–20% of women in the provincial sites of Bangladesh, Peru, and the United Republic of Tanzania, and in Ethiopia and Samoa felt they had no right, under any circumstance, including abuse, to refuse sex with their partner.[16] Nearly half to more than half of the women surveyed in some of these same countries believed their husbands would be justified in beating them if they refused sex.[17]
Harm to Victims
According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), marital rape may result in more damage than stranger rape because victims are pressured to stay with their abusive partner, victims may have difficulty identifying the act as a crime or their partner as a criminal, there are potential negative impacts on children living in the home, and there is a higher likelihood of repeat assault.
Often, though not always, sexual assault by intimate partners is accompanied by other forms of domestic violence. Sexual assault is one of the abusive behaviors used by a batterer to maintain establish and maintain power and control over his partner. "Women are often raped as a continuation of a beating, threatened with more violence if they fail to comply with their husband's sexual requests, or forced to have sex to oblige the abuser's need to 'make up' after a beating."[18] Research indicates that men who both batter and rape are more likely to severely injure or kill their wives.
Although marital rape and domestic violence are often associated, researchers also emphasize the need to recognize the existence of marital rape in situations not involving other forms of domestic violence.In part, it is necessary to understand marital rape as a problem distinct from domestic abuse "because for many women who are battered and raped, the sexual violence is particularly devastating and that trauma must be addressed specifically by service providers." One study found that forty percent of the women questioned had experienced "force-only rape," in which their husbands used only the amount of force that was necessary to coerce sexual contact, but did not otherwise batter their wives.[19]
For more information, see the recommendation on defining marital rape as sexual assault in the 2010 United Nations Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women.[20]

[1] Raquel Kennedy Bergen, “Marital Rape” (1999), accessed July 25, 2013
[2] UN Women, “2011-2012 Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice” (2012), accessed July 24, 2013,
[3] UN General Assembly, “In-depth study on all forms of violence against women,” Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/61/122/Add.1, at 89, 6 July 2006, accessed July 25, 2013,
[4] International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, “Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States,” 149, 487 (2000).
[5] UN Women, “2011-2012 Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice” (2012), accessed July 24, 2013,
[6] Amnesty International, “Denmark: Human rights violations and concerns in the context of counter-terrorism, immigration-detention, forcible return of rejected asylum-seekers and violence against women,” submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review (2011), accessed July 25, 2013,
[7] U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “Venezuela: Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2011” (2011), accessed July 25, 2013,
[8] International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States, 46, 505 (2000).
[9] UNFPA, Marrying too Young: End Child Marriage, 6 (2012), accessed August 6, 2013,; International Center for Research on Women, “Child Marriage Facts and Figures,” accessed August 6, 2013,
[10] International Center for Research on Women, Child Marriage and Domestic Violence, 1 (2006), accessed August 6, 2013,
[11] Kersti Yllo, Marital Rape (1996), accessed July 29, 2013,
[12] Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, Art. 55, opened for signature 12 April 2011.
[13] Dorothy Q. Thomas & Robin S. Levi, “Common Abuses Against Women,” in Women and International Human Rights Law, vol. 1, 139, 149 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999); Raquel Kennedy Bergen, Marital Rape (1999); Human Rights Watch, Russia Too Little, Too Late: State Response to Violence Against  Women , vol. 9, no. 13 (December 1997).
[14] Kersti Yllo, Marital Rape (1996), accessed July 29, 2013,; Raquel Kennedy Bergen, Marital Rape (1999), accessed July 29, 2013,
[15] Carol J. Adams, "I Just Raped My Wife! What Are You Going to Do About It, Pastor"?: The Church and Sexual Violence, in Transforming a Rape Culture 57, 76-77 (Emilie Buchwald et al. eds., 1993).
[16] World Health Organization, Summary Report: WHO Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women, 11 (2005).
[17] Ibid.
[18] Carol J. Adams, "I Just Raped My Wife! What Are You Going to Do About It, Pastor"?: The Church and Sexual Violence, in Transforming a Rape Culture 57, 65 (Emilie Buchwald et al. eds., 1993).
[19] Raquel Kennedy Bergen, Marital Rape (1999), accessed July 29, 2013,
[20] Division for the Advancement of Women, Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women (2010), accessed August 14, 2013,