Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers.
Some people believe that rape is not possible in a marriage. They believe ideas such as when you marry, you give your body to your spouse, and they have an entitlement to it. Some people still carry the historical concept of coverture, that a woman is her husband's property upon marriage, or believe that a couple is a union upon marriage and because one cannot rape itself, you have come together as one.
None of the previously mentioned situations are what a marriage should be. Marriage should be the legal recognition of a dedicated, long-term, committed relationship between two people that involves trust, respect, care, communication, and effort. Upon marriage, each individual is still their own person that possesses bodily autonomy and is required to give and expected to receive respect. There is no such thing as owing sex, giving your body away, or being property. If you are marrying someone and expecting possession or say over their body, that is not marriage. That is controlling, abusive and, potentially, violent.
While marital rape was made illegal in the U.S. in 1986 (let's also note 1986—that was very recent), 13 states have appalling loopholes that treat marital rape differently than rape between unmarried people. Some states do not have one code of laws for all rape, but two separate codes of law for rape and marital rape, and the requirements to qualify as marital rape are much less extensive than the requirements are to qualify as rape for unmarried people. Some states only classify marital rape as involving force or threat of force, excluding situations such as mental illness, mental or physical disability, intoxication, no consent, or unconsciousness.
Let's look at some specific states. Marital rape is barely illegal in Ohio, where anything outside of "force or threat of force" is only illegal if the spouses are not living together. Ohio allows the drugging of a spouse, sex with them while asleep, unconscious, or any other instances where consent cannot be given. Sex with minors is also not covered, as the age to marry in Ohio is 16, with no minimum if the female is pregnant. The introduction of House Bill 97 attempted to revise the law to make all rape illegal in Ohio in 2017, but it failed to receive Republican support.
In South Carolina, for example, marital rape's punishment is less than unmarried rape. It is only punishable for up to ten years, while rape between unmarried people is punishable for up to 30 years.
In Connecticut, marital rape is defined as only involving force or threat of force, while unmarried rape involves a whole list of offenses such as the victim is physically helpless, drugged, or mentally incapacitated. Connecticut also omits sex with minors, which spouses are exempt from, and Connecticut has no minimum age to marry with parental and judicial consent.
In Idaho, women cannot rape. Only men can legally be convicted of rape. Rape has ten circumstances in Idaho's statutes, however, only four legally count as rape when it's between married people. When it's between married people, Idaho excludes if the victim was unconscious, sleeping, temporarily and permanently has a mental disability or illness, asleep, thought the perpetrator was someone else due to purposeful misleading from the perpetrator, or the victim is a minor. Idaho has no minimum age to marry with parental and judicial consent, and the proposed bill to set that age at 16 with the court and parental permission failed in the Idaho State House in February of 2019.
In Michigan, a "person may not be charged or convicted solely because his or her legal spouse is under the age of 16, mentally incapable, or mentally incapacitated." Michigan also has no legal minimum age for marriage with parental and judicial consent.
Spouses in both Michigan and Idaho are exempt from the legal age of consent. This legally allows adults to have sex with children, like a 48-year-old man who married a 15-year-old bride in Michigan.
We need more dialogue in this nation about the legislation for sexual assault in spousal relationships. Marriage should not be a loss of autonomy nor legal protection. Marriage should be a happy, safe relationship for all that has legal protection for all.