I was looking around online for information about marital rape exceptions. I know that may sound odd, but I was thinking of writing an article about marriage equality as a follow up to a piece I wrote a few years ago about same sex marriage that caused a minor pile up on the information super highway. I wanted to know, just how equal are we in marriage?
Here’s what I found. There have been prohibitions against marital rape in all 50 U.S. states since 1993. That means that up until just 23 years ago, it was legal for a man to rape his wife in some parts of the U.S.
But then I found something that surprised me. Idaho, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Connecticut, Nevada, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina treat marital rape and non-marital rape differently.
The worst offender is South Carolina. There, the state metes out a lesser sentence for spousal rape. And, in order to establish that legal rape occurred, the court holds the accuser to a higher standard. She must prove “use of aggravated force, defined as the use of a weapon or the the use or threat of use of physical force or physical violence of a high and aggravated nature [emphasis mine]…”
The law not only institutionalizes a double standard providing greater leeway and a lesser penalty for a spouse who rapes, it also leaves room for subjectivity. Who gets to decide whether or not the force or violence threatened or used was of a “high” nature? A court does.
I’ll say it again. A court does. I don’t know a single rape survivor who would call this circumstance anything but deeply troubling.
Years ago, when I was very young, I wrote an article that was really more of a rant about the European wedding tradition that has been passed down as the most common wedding ceremony in the U.S. I did the predictable take down of the veil and white dress as symbols of virginity, a state of being that would often have required proof at one time. I also dug into the language of marriage. “Husband” is a verb as is the word “wive.” But in traditional usage, only a man can husband or wive, and he can as easily husband a cow as a woman. And of course, who could overlook the fact that the bride’s father traditionally “gives her away,” and that the bride’s family also usually pays for the wedding in a tradition that goes all the way back to the days when women were considered chattel.
My article was rejected as too academic, and having nothing to do with the contemporary reality of marriage. Institutions change over time to reflect changing attitudes and, importantly, changing power relations, I was told. Today, wearing a white dress is entirely optional and not significant of anything unless that’s your choice.
I accepted the criticism. I still do. It’s all too easy to exaggerate circumstances by ignoring subjectivity, complexity, grey areas, and, maybe most importantly, the tendency of people to subvert institutions to their own needs and wants. But, reading about the South Carolina marital rape prohibition (or is it really more of an exception?), I find myself wondering if my critic also exaggerated, if inadvertently.
Violence is how power inequality is ultimately enforced. Lascivious looks, cat calls, whistles, these mean to intimidate but they are not sticks or stones. They intimidate nonetheless because they signify that the targets of such unwanted attention are on the downside of unequal power relations. No child who has ever been spanked is ignorant of the fact that unequal relationships of power are ultimately enforced with violence.
Why has power become so invisible to so many of us? Without power, all we have is permission or the lack thereof.
We need to #makeinjusticevisible.