No means no; there is no loophole or exception found in a marriage contract.
Any type of sexual intimacy without the consent of both parties is rape. In a marriage, this identifies as marital rape and is a serious form of domestic violence.
What is consent?
According to BYU-Idaho’s Sexual Harassment Policy, “Consent is the affirmative, voluntary agreement by word or action to engage in specific sexual activity.”
Consent is clear, continuous, coherent and freely given.
Silence, or the absence of a “no,” is not consent. No sexual activity should take place without the clear indication of a “yes,” whether that be verbal or through body language.
“‘No’ and ‘I don’t know’ mean no,” said Emily Brumbaugh, a sexual assault support counselor at BYU-I. “So, until you know it’s a yes, then it’s a no.”
Consent is needed before every sexual act transpires. If a person gives consent once, that doesn’t establish consent for future acts. Additionally, once consent is given, it may be withdrawn at any time.
Both people must be conscious and capable of giving consent. If someone is sleeping or incapacitated in any way, they are not capable of resisting or giving consent.
According to the BYU-I Counseling Center, “Some think that if the victim didn’t resist, that it doesn’t count as abuse. That’s not true. This myth is hurtful because it makes it more difficult for the victim to speak out and more likely that they will blame themselves. Whether they were intoxicated or felt pressured, intimidated or obligated to act a certain way, sexual assault/abuse is never the victim’s fault.”
Consent should be communicated both freely and willingly. Incessantly pressuring someone to engage in sexual activity until they agree is not consent. Likewise, if someone agrees to engage in sexual activity under threats, duress or force, it is not consent.
Marital rape is common, yet it is scarcely reported or discussed.
According to data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Between 10 and 14 percent of married women will be raped at some point during their marriages.”
Data from the NCADV further reveals that the number of married women who report being raped by their husbands is small, making it the most underreported type of sexual assault.
Part of the reason why this form of sexual assault is underreported and rarely discussed stems from common misconceptions about marital consent.
“The most common (misconception) is that getting married is consent, and that’s just absolutely false,” Brumbaugh said. “The other misconception that I hear — and it really can go both ways — is if one spouse wants to engage in physical intimacy, you have to at all cost as if that’s your duty or obligation, and that is just not accurate.”
Until recent years, people saw marital rape as an oxymoron. In fact, cases of sexual assault involving a married couple were often overlooked.
According to criminaldefenselawyer.com, “Until the 1970’s, the rape laws in every state in the union included an exception if the rapist and the victim were husband and wife.”
It wasn’t until 1993 that every state finally abolished the marital rape exception.
It’s more than just physical
Honoring consent within a marriage involves more than just the physical aspect of the relationship. Leisa Watkins, a marriage and family therapist, described how consent also involves mutual decision-making and agreements.
“It’s not just the physical acts,” Watkins said. “Are you preparing to have a child, and your partner doesn’t want children right now? Are you thinking of taking a job in another part of the country, and your partner isn’t? Everything should be a mutual decision. There’s two minds that need to be in agreement on every aspect of your marriage. That’s in the bedroom, outside of the bedroom, in the home and in the family.”
Healthy consent in every aspect of marriage builds a foundation of mutual respect and trust.
“When we have consent in a marriage, whether that’s consent over who’s doing what chores, intimacy or anything like that, then it just makes it that much stronger,” Brumbaugh said. “It also will build intimacy, and it will build trust. It will just make that foundation even stronger.”
Marriage is a consensual partnership; so when a couple weds, they become partners, not property. This partnership requires mutual respect and does not erase either person’s individuality.
“I like to frame it in terms of respect,” Brumbaugh said. “How do you know that you are respecting each other as individuals and as people? Anytime someone’s treating somebody like an object instead of a person, that’s a problem. If we’re treating individuals as individuals with dynamic feelings and emotions and all of those rich things that make us alive, we’re in a much better spot.”
In a healthy, consensual marriage, spouses work together to strengthen each other — both as individuals and as a couple.
“It’s really important for a healthy relationship to be able to be individuals,” Brumbaugh said. “I am me, my husband is him and we are strong alone. And when we come together, we’re united, we’re stronger and we can do more together. We never lose our complete sense of self, we just have created a stronger identity in our marriage, and then we can kind of pendulum it back and forth — being strong individuals and coming together and being stronger. When we honor that, it’s a better relationship.”
A lack of mutual respect can lead to problems with trust and consent. As these problems become more severe, they could elicit a broken marriage.
“If you’re not treating your partner with the love, honor and respect you promised, you don’t have a marriage, you have a contract, and contracts don’t last very long,” Watkins said. “They get broken easily. In a marriage, we’re both putting in our 100%. And we’re both striving to ensure that our partner feels like they’re the most important person on this earth to us.”
Clear and thoughtful communication plays a vital role in a healthy, consensual relationship.
“It’s helpful if you’re having ongoing conversations and checking in with each other,” Brumbaugh said. “It really is knowing that, yes we are married, and we are still individuals. We need to make sure we’re completely comfortable and onboard with what’s happening and that we’re not trying to coerce or manipulate either partner into an action.”
Two important aspects of healthy communication include honesty and vulnerability. Being open with each other throughout the relationship is the only way to build trust and deeply connect. It also helps couples to be present and aware of each other’s needs and desires.
Terry Gaspard, a licensed clinical social worker, told Huffpost, “In my over 20 years of counseling couples, I’ve come to realize that vulnerability is the key to a lasting union and that shame and fear are two of the main reasons why couples get entrenched in power struggles that can lead to divorce. Opening up to our partner can make us feel vulnerable and exposed, but it is the most important ingredient of a trusting, intimate relationship.”
When discussing intimacy, it is important to be open and find a balance between assertiveness and graciousness.
“Sometimes assertiveness gets a bad rep,” Brumbaugh said. “Assertiveness is not aggressive, and it’s not anger. It’s just understanding yourself and understanding where you want to go. So the more that we can really understand healthy assertiveness, the more we will be better advocates for ourselves. We can be firm and gracious.”
For people who may find it difficult to discuss intimacy, Brumbaugh suggests to start with small, non-threatening conversations.
“If you struggle to have those conversations, then pick something that’s less threatening,” Brumbaugh said. “You can start by having conversations about where you want to eat. Then own up to your feelings. Something less threatening can help build stamina.”
For people who struggle to be assertive and find it difficult to say no to their partner when they don’t want to engage in sexual activities, Watkins suggests a change of perspective.
“Look at it from your partner’s point of view,” Watkins said. “If your partner knew that how you felt by giving in (to an unwanted sexual act) was unclean, resentful, angry, bitter or any of those other negative emotions that eat away at your self esteem, would they be pushing so hard? They wouldn’t be because you told them how their demands were making you feel.”
Watkins explained that if a person doesn’t say no when they don’t want to engage in a sexual activity, they are putting their partner in a bad position. She encouraged people to speak up.
“Tell them, so they can learn to give you what you need,” Watkins said. “That’s a partnership. It’s not an, ‘I give and you take.'”
Because consent and intimacy are such important key elements of a happy marriage, couples should discuss them before marriage. This will establish a foundation of communication and help them understand each other’s needs early on in the relationship.
The damages of marital rape
When the boundaries of consent are broken in a marriage, trust and respect within the marriage dwindle and mental health deteriorates.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, “Studies indicate that women are especially traumatized by a rape at the hands of a spouse. They are violated by someone with whom they share their lives, homes, and possibly children. In addition to violation of their bodies, they are faced with a betrayal of trust and intimacy.”
The damages can be physical, resulting in injuries, or psychological, resulting in anxiety, depression, humiliation, guilt or fear.
“It is destructive to a relationship, and it’s destructive to the psyche,” Watkins said. “I have yet to meet a rape victim who did not have at least one level of PTSD. And once that develops, you’ve got anxiety, depression, negative thinking, poor self-esteem and fear. While that may not be the intent of the partner who wants to be intimate, that is the result.”
Broken consent can also lead to an unhealthy power dynamic within the relationship.
“Anytime that you’re using intimacy as a form of power, whether it’s withholding or demanding, that’s not healthy,” Brumbaugh said. “It can get into a power dynamic where one is above the other, and someone has more power in the relationship, then that can present problematic dynamics.”
Healing and resources
Because it is common for victims to feel guilt or shame, it is important to remember that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
There is help available for people struggling with physical and/or psychological effects. They do not have to combat the negative effects alone.
The BYU-I Counseling Center has a list of both on-campus and local resources.
RAINN offers help through a safe and private hotline where people can talk with support specialists through online messaging or over the phone.
Help can also come from family, friends, support groups or shelters.
Though speaking up isn’t always easy, it opens the door to recovery and support. If you or someone you know is struggling from the effects of sexual assault, don’t be afraid to speak up and reach out.