What To Do If You’re a Victim of Marital Rape

by | Nov 16, 2022 | Abuse | 27 comments

Recovery from Marital Rape
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There is little more devastating to a marriage than rape.

This month, on the blog, we’re talking about how to recover from sexual problems in your marriage, and I want to spend this week talking about marital rape. On Monday, I talked about the dynamics in evangelical teachings that enable marital rape. Today I want to address women who are victims of marital rape, and then on Friday we’ll talk to men who realize they’ve been perpetrators.

First, a caveat: many women feel coerced into sex, but it is not their husbands doing the coercing. It is the messages they hear in their head from our evangelical resources–you need to have sex with him every 72 hours no matter what; you need to make sure you take care of his sexual needs, even when on your period or postpartum; you need to have sex so he doesn’t watch porn or lust. You need to fill up his cup.

This is still very traumatic, but it may not be your husband saying these things, and he may be appalled to know this is what is motivating initiating sex. If you think that’s you, please read The Great Sex Rescue!

But then there are women whose husbands are coercing them, as we talked about on Monday. What are they to do?

Do you need to contact law enforcement or get to safety?

Only you can answer that, but some women are so unsafe at home that calling a domestic violence hotline is warranted, and even seeking temporary shelter. In most jurisdictions, marital rape is a crime and can be prosecuted (although this rarely, rarely happens, and it would usually have to be a violent rape).

If you feel like you are in imminent danger, please reach out and get some help.

If you believe you may be a vitim of abuse, please contact your local Domestic Violence Hotline

  • Canada: 800.799.SAFE (7233)
  • United States: 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).
  • United Kingdom: 08 08 16 89 111
  • Australia: 1 800 737 732
  • New Zealand: 0800 456 450
  • Kenya: 0-800-720-072
  • Nigeria: 0800 033 3333
  • South Africa: 0800 428 428

In our post on Monday, we looked at two dynamics around marital rape: First, when a husband is revelling in the control and power he has over her and is being outright abusive, and second, when he may be coercing her without realizing it, because he’s been taught that God wants him to use his wife for sex (or a similar reason). The first definitely rises to the level of needing a domestic violence hotline; the second also may.

If you are in the first case (and for many in the second case), your goal should be to get to safety now.

However, many women in the second case wonder if their marriage can be saved.

Their husbands aren’t necessarily trying to control them; but they don’t understand what healthy sexuality looks like, they feel entitled, and they’ve hurt their wives.

Can this get better? I think it’s really difficult, but  I have heard from many couples who have worked through these steps because he has owned what he has done. So if a marriage is to recover, here’s what that would look like:

Safety is a prerequisite to a healthy marriage and a healthy sex life.

In our four-point plan to recover from sexual problems, safety is step #2 (after redefining sex to include intimacy and her needs, rather than making it a male entitlement to her body). Where there is no safety, there can be no intimacy and no thriving.

Some women may not feel like they need a domestic violence shelter, but they still do not feel safe. If marital rape has been a part of your marriage, it’s imperative that you work towards your safety. Thus, recovery is focused on your safety.

The marital rape must stop.

Whatever dynamics are present that makes sex coercive must stop immediately. It must be something that is in the past.

In some cases, when women speak up and say, “You may no longer treat me this way,” he does listen. Awesome! Then you can start to move on to the next step.

But I hear from readers where he doesn’t. So she puts down boundaries that she will no longer have sex with him–and this is where the conflict often really starts and when counseling is often sought.

This dynamic is key to understand, because it shows a huge red flag: many of the women who write to me report that their husbands demanded they go to counseling with a pastor or a counselor not to work through marital rape, but to address the sexless marriage.

Please seek a counselor who understands abuse dynamics and marital rape. It is very unwise to see a pastor for this type of counseling. It is also unwise (and dangerous) to seek couples counseling when there is abuse involved. It is better to see a counselor on your own to work through what you’ve experienced and decide how you want to handle it. We have a post on how to vet licensed counselors here.

Passion 4 Dancing

Conflict about the definition of marital rape is a red flag that you will not be safe long-term.

In the discussion over my post on marital rape, one woman relayed a story where her counselor and her husband are both pushing back, saying that it’s unfair and hurtful to say that her husband raped her. They are saying that counseling can’t move forward when she has that kind of attitude towards a husband.

If you are being asked to justify why it was marital rape, and if your husband or a counselor or authority figure is trying to talk you out of it being marital rape, that is not a safe situation for you to be in.

Let’s make it simple:

What is the definition of rape?

Sexual assault is any sexual activity that occurs without consent.

Consent is taken away in a variety of ways, and most criminal codes list them. In general, if she has sex to avoid a negative repercussion from her husband, then sex is being coerced, and it is therefore assault.

When sexual assault involves penetration of some kind, then the correct word is “rape.”

Thus, penetration without consent is rape.

Rape is an ugly word. People do not like to admit that they may have raped someone. But not all rape looks the same. Yes, we can argue whether the negative repercussions she was experiencing rose to the level of coercion, of course. But here’s the thing: If she felt coerced, she likely was being coerced. If she felt like she couldn’t say no, she likely couldn’t say no. 

Even if that is not how he experienced the same interaction, it should matter to him that she felt this way. If he is a safe husband, he would not be concerned with technicalities, like whether or not it rose to the level of marital rape. He would be absolutely devastated that his wife felt like she had been raped, and he would want to make sure she never, ever felt that way again.

I want to say, too, that obviously there are different levels of marital rape, and some are worse than others. Saying that she feels like she was raped does not mean that she is saying he is the worst rapist ever. She is simply saying that she did not feel safe and had her autonomy taken away from her. This should matter.

The focus of marital repair should be your feelings of safety, not his feelings of hurt.

If, instead of addressing your very real concerns that you were coerced, your husband puts his energy into talking you out of how bad it really was, that is a red flag.

If the focus of the conversation becomes, “how could you ever accuse me of something like that?”, then that is a red flag that this marriage is not safe.

If the focus of the conversation becomes, “you may say you felt unloved and distant from me, but what about what you’re doing to me now by painting me as this monster?” that’s a red flag.

To repair, your safety must be the focus.

If your husband is engaging in DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), claiming that he is actually the victim because of how much you are hurting him by accusing him of this, or claiming that you withheld love from him by refusing sex, and so he reacted out of hurt, then he is not a safe person for you. He is abusive.

I know that’s hard to hear. I know most women who are victims and are just trying to make sense of this are trying so hard. They are often going to counseling, wondering if they are crazy, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt and be kind and address their own stuff.

But you were the one who was raped. That is a huge violation. That is traumatic.

The main sign that the marriage is able to repaired will be that your husband owns what he did, and makes that the focus of the work you are doing. His focus should be on how to make you feel safe and how to rebuild trust, not on justifying anything he did.

Going around and around in counseling is likely to retraumatize you and is often not productive. If he doesn’t get it, and he doesn’t own what he did, then please seek counseling to help you figure out your next steps and what you’re willing to put up with. Please seek counseling to help you draw boundaries. But don’t keep going around and around and working on communication and working on conflict resolution, when the real issue is that he raped you and won’t admit it or deal with it.

A husband dedicated to repair will own the pain he caused.

If the marriage is to be repaired, a husband won’t run from what he has done, but will instead listen to how he made you feel, mourn over what he did, and own it.

He will enter into this emotionally. He will allow the pain to pierce his heart.

If his focus is on, “how do we get this over with so we can get back to normal?”, even if he says he agrees that it was marital rape, he is showing that he is not safe. A safe person would be first and foremost concerned about your well-being and would want to help you process any trauma and rebuild safety.

A husband dedicated to repair will give safety time to be rebuilt.

He will understand that he has caused great pain, and that pain takes a long time to heal. He will  understand that he caused a huge rift, and that intimacy can’t be built without trust being rebuilt.

He will understand that you have trauma that he caused, and he will want to give you space to process that trauma.

If he is pressuring you to resume sex again because “I said I was sorry,” or “I can never make it up to you, so why are you still punishing me?” then, again, that is a red flag that he does not understand what he has done.

I get so many emails from women trying to repair marriages after marital rape where the husband doesn’t understand the gravity of it.

Often the women ask for a magic way to explain that this was actually rape, as if saying the right words would finally penetrate. Or they say that he agrees it was rape, but now sexual feelings just haven’t come back for her, she still recoils at his touch, but everyone is telling her that she has to forgive and move on.

Please hear me on this: If you are still having symptoms of trauma, then this is not healed. You cannot move on without your trauma being fully dealt with and without your husband proving to you that he is safe. If he hasn’t shown that, then he will be retraumatizing you over and over again every time he complains that you haven’t forgiven him, or that your marriage isn’t back to what it used to be.

You simply cannot create a healthy sex life and marriage without safety. You can’t. And if you’ve been a victim of marital rape, and then your husband has not responded appropriately when this has been brought up; has not emotionally owned it; has not given you time to repair–then you simply can’t be safe.

You can’t.

It’s not your fault. It’s not that you haven’t done the work.

It’s that unless he emotionally feels the gravity of what he did, you have no way of knowing that he won’t do it again.

If you’ve been trying to get him to understand, and he just doesn’t, some good resources for you are:

 

 

A word to counselors and pastors helping women who say they’re the victims of marital rape

I hear from so many women who tell me that when they go for help, often several sessions are spent trying to talk her out of calling it rape. Sometimes they agree that is may be rape, but they worry that calling it that may make it harder to heal the marriage. And sometimes they genuinely don’t think it is.

If a woman feels she has been raped in her marriage, the trauma is immense.

Why would you try to talk her out of that trauma, instead of actually helping her heal from that trauma and be safe?

Getting her to say, “okay, maybe it wasn’t rape” may make her stay in the marriage longer, but it won’t make her heal and it won’t help her feel safe. It will just slowly kill her inside.

If a woman says she feels like she is being raped, then your first priority shouldn’t be to talk her out of it. It should be making sure she is safe. And then, if you are going to address rebuilding the marriage, the focus needs to be on helping the husband own what he did, not making her understand her husband better.

Please get this right. I wish you could all see the emails I get from women in agony who are being treated so badly in counseling. If you want marriages healed, don’t shortcut the hard stuff. Deal with it. And make sure she’s safe. Ultimately, that’s what God will hold you responsible for.

On Friday I’ll talk to the guys who realize now that they have been coercing their wives. We’ll look at how they can take the steps to repair, and also how they can process that they’ve done something that they feel so terrible about.

But for today, please remember: Marital rape is all too common in evangelical marriages. We’ve been doing research on this, and it looks like it affects between 15-25% of marriages. There is a lot of trauma out there. We need to start talking about rape in a whole new way, because our resources are actually making the problem worse (as I showed on our marital rape post). 

So buy The Great Sex Rescue. Let’s have these conversations. Instead of trying to convince people they weren’t raped, let’s help people identify what coercion looks like in marriage. This matters. 

"A groundbreaking look into what true, sacred biblical sexuality is intended to be. A must-read." - Rachael Denhollander

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Great Sex Rescue
Recovery from Marital Rape

What do you think? How can we help people better process marital rape? How can we help them understand that it may be a part of their story? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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27 Comments

  1. Nathan

    > > THE FOCUS OF MARITAL REPAIR SHOULD BE YOUR FEELINGS OF SAFETY, NOT HIS FEELINGS OF HURT.

    And this can be a problem in some circles, where the first reaction is often “protect the face of the church” and “protect the image and feelings of the husband”, while helping the wife to heal may not even be on the list.

    In so many minds, the focus is on the outer display instead of inner feelings and well being.

    Reply
    • K

      Sheila,

      What would you say in the circumstance where marital rape has happened and the husband is so disturbed by what he has done that he hates his own sexuality. He completely withdraws from his wife and suppresses all sexual feeling and attraction because it has become such a negative thing in his eyes. Its been nearly 6 years and we live in a sexless marriage because of it. I feel like I’m screaming on the inside for some attention from him, but he’s too afraid to give it. I know this is a bit of an anomaly, since men by what you are saying usually don’t respond that way. I feel so alone in this. How many people would look at me like I’m crazy if I told them my husband is scared of sex? And there doesn’t seem to be any help out there for this situation. Would you Sheila be able to talk about that scenario in some way?

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Actually, I don’t think it’s that much of an anomaly! I’ve heard from many men saying exactly this. They’re so devastated, and they feel as if their sexuality caused so much pain that they would rather turn it off. You are definitely not crazy. It’s a common dynamic, and I’ll address it as part of my post on Friday.

        But quickly, I’ll just say that talking about goals and what wholeness looks like, and whether intimacy is possible. And reminding him that he hurt her through raping her; if he shuts himself off, he’s continuing the hurt, but in a different way. It’s often easier to punish yourself than do the hard work of healing. And if he’s truly serious about being sorry, then it’s time to do the hard work of forgiving yourself and rediscovering intimacy, because it can be done. Jesus offers second chances. Jesus loves rebuilding relationships. If we continue to punish ourselves, we cut ourselves off, and our spouses off, from the wholeness that Jesus wants for us.

        Reply
      • Connie

        My h acted exactly like that, but it turned out to be a huge pity party, or temper tantrum to get me to back off and go back to the way it was. He didn’t want to do the work of admit to any fault.

        Reply
        • Suzanne

          Thank you so much for this work you are doing. I have been married for 30 years to the same man, and in the last two years or so I have developed a sex aversion from all of the years of coercion. I have never been able to really make sense of it or put words to it. I am thankful to have found your resources.
          My husbands mantra is “why do I have to beg for sex” when the reality is I have sex with him mostly in order to not experience the verbal abuse, shaming and anger because “I never want to have sex”Sometimes I can relax to enjoy sex but mostly it is stressful. I can see how the years of this has taken its toll on our marriage-which is generally good-but we have this dark part of our marriage. I feel used, and I’m made to feel like it’s my fault, but now my eyes have been opened. It should not be like this and it’s actually embarrassing to have come this far in our marriage and to not have known or had words for it and found out that it’s not all that uncommon. I will be doing deep into your help and books, and hopefully find professional help in my area.

          Reply
          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Oh, Suzanne, I’m so sorry you’ve endured this! If you have to have sex to keep him from being bad to you, that is coercion and it isn’t okay. I hope you can get some help.

          • Saved ByGrace

            Sadly I can totally relate to this, I’m sorry youve been enduring it too 🤗

  2. Rebecca

    There is so much helpful information to digest in this article. Thank you for being so thorough on this topic, Sheila.

    Reply
  3. Elm

    Sheila, where did you source the phone numbers you’ve listed in the post? The number for ™ Australia ” is to a service in one state, Victoria. It’s certainly not a national service.

    Could you at least update that section with the name and website of the services listed? That could provide readers eith additional ways of contacting these organisations (eg email and online chat because phoning may not be safe or feasible), and access information in other languages.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Absolutely! I tried to Google it and that’s what I’ve found. Do you know the correct number for Australia?

      Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Thank you! I’ll change it now!

          Reply
          • Elm

            The Services Australia site is another good resource. It also has a “quick exit” button that instantly changes the web page to something generic. It’s crucial to raise awareness and have these sorts of precautions in place when dealing with family, domestic, and intimate partner violence.

  4. Anonymous

    As a wife, this post seems, to me, oversimplified. It’s either black or white but, in reality, there’s a lot of gray. By this post, every husband will, at some point, be a rapist. A couple goes into it with good intentions but because of bad teaching from the church along with ignorance about sex and what defines a good relationship, the wife ends up feeling used without the husband even knowing he’s used her or coerced her. If people were just taught God’s true meaning of sex, this dynamic would not happen. Not sure how this dynamic can be fixed since there are too many layers causing the problem.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think in the couples that I’ve seen where it is fixed, when the husband owns it quickly, when he really connects emotionally with how much she’s been hurt, when he doesn’t make excuses but tries to fix it–it actually can be fixed. There was a woman on Facebook sharing her story of that today too.

      I also don’t think that every woman feels raped. Some feel used and taken for granted, yes, but that is different from feeling coerced. Again, we need to see this in the broader context of the post from Monday, too. It’s hard to write everything in one place!

      Reply
    • Angharad

      It’s both troubling and sad that you assume that every husband will ‘at some point’ coerce his wife into having sex. Marriage does not have to be like that – and a healthy marriage shouldn’t be. (And while feeling that sex is ‘just for him’ and doesn’t make her feel good is also not part of a healthy marriage, that is not the same as rape.)

      Reply
      • Saved ByGrace

        Agree and there’s a big difference between “please honey, I really want to have that closeness with you” and the mentality of “you better put out or you’ll pay tomorrow” (whether it be in angry words, silent treatment, the look or verbal harassment). To feel you have to or everyone in the house will pay is an abusive coercion.

        Reply
    • D

      I have been married for 22 years to the same amazing man and I have never once felt coerced. It’s sad that you think every man must somehow be guilty of this at some point.

      Men are capable of being decent and we should really start expecting it, requiring it, demanding it. My husband is appalled that there are so many men out there who are apparently ok with having sex with their wives even if the wives are not 100% willing.

      Reply
  5. Suzanne

    “Some feel used and taken for granted, yes, but that is different from feeling coerced.” Exactly this. I have never felt like I was coerced into sex. If my husband asked and I said no, then no meant no and he did not ever push or beg or tell me I was wrong. My husband is also agnostic, no ties to any religious teaching. So many men are good men who understand that no doesn’t mean maybe if I keep harassing or if I refuse to be nice without a forced yes. Have I felt used before, sure, but I did it to myself, I would say yes when my heart and head were not at all in a place they needed to be to be receptive and enjoy myself. This wasn’t my husbands fault, but it not being his fault didn’t stop me from feeling used.

    Reply
  6. Jen

    This, exactly, is the fruit of Every Man’s Battle and other books like it. You tell a wife that her husband struggles to control himself sexually simply because he is a man, and she is instantly unsafe. INSTANTLY UNSAFE. You literally remove the possibility of safety in that marriage.

    Add to that, then, the laundry list of things a wife must do to help her husband be a grown up and what every women In the culture must do to help this boy keep his hands out of his pants, and marriage itself becomes traumatic. The man reading the book feels validated because the struggle can truly be real, but the wife’s actions become the answer. That validated man now has a person to blame instead of tools to learn self-control.

    I remember the relief my husband had when he read about other men struggling , too, and if those books had gone on with real, safe advice for how to heal, that would have been great. But what we both took away from these books was the things I had to do to help him have self-control. After hearing these messages, every sexual encounter became coercion because that message was in my head. And that message was in his head.

    My husband controlling himself became a two person job.

    Every time I had sex with my husband I was checking a box, seeing the activity as not creating intimacy but as securing my safety because if I didn’t sleep with him he would cheat on me. And then that would be my fault, too. So sex became a way for me to create my own safety since these authors’ ideas, and my husband’s choices. had already removed safety from the marriage.

    I never once heard about my right to be safe in my own home or my value or the personally responsibility my husband had to behave like the Christian man he claimed to be. Or how about cherishing your wife? Not once.

    This whole wider conversation-TGSR and all the discussions since then – is blowing wide open a specific level of hell that has been injected into marriages. It’s not surprising, then, that I got to a place where I wondered why I’d ever gotten married and determined that, if I were ever in the position, I would never marry again. What in the world does the kind of marriage these people teach offer to women? The only thing I can think of is legitimate children.

    My husband and I are on the journey to a real marriage. We’re dumping the hellish teachings from these people and trying to create real intimacy. There is so much trauma work to do. And – spoiler alert- these teachings don’t work. My husband cheated and lied for decades in spite of all the coerced sex I gave him. The difficult part now is trusting that he truly understands the depth of the destruction he’s caused. I’m glad you pointed that out so well because I hadn’t been able to verbalize it yet.

    I do believe he didn’t set out to torture me and destroy our relationship, but that’s what he did. I am witnessing levels of grief that, honestly, I didn’t think he was capable of. Self awareness and reflection has not been this man’s M.O. So, hoping that he is on the right track of owning his stuff, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Friday.

    Thanks again for doing this life saving work.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, wow, Jen, thanks for sharing your story! This is really powerful.

      I want to point out something. You said, “if I were ever in the position, I would never marry again.” Interestingly, Every Man’s Battle tells stories of them telling their wives that this is “how men are” and the wives themselves say, “if I had known this, I wouldn’t have gotten married.” They admit it in their very books! But they don’t see this as a wake up call that maybe what they’re teaching is poison. They think that women just need to understand more how men are.

      Reply
  7. Stefanie

    Another commenter mentioned shades of gray. Yes, my husband never set out to coerce me into sex. The church coerced me, and my religious programming coerced me. (The religious programming that told me I was always one slip up away from eternal damnation. I was so careful to stay on the narrow path.) And the damage is real, and I have a lot of the same trauma symptoms as if my husband had coerced me.

    But also, when I told him 18 months ago that over the course of our (at the time) 10 year marriage, that I had only 3 orgasms, his response was more about him than about me and my trauma and my safety. He immediately went into his own insecurities and feeling inadequate, and that prevented him from showing up for me in the way I needed him to. It’s very difficult to work on your own issues if whenever you tell your husband you don’t want to have sex, he takes it as a personal rejection and then you are left to try to assuage his hurt feelings or feel guilty for refusing sex.

    Reply
  8. Cynthia

    Thanks for this important post.

    “Counselling” gets used as a catch-all recommendation, and we don’t always do a good job of specifying exactly what the purpose of the counselling is, or what type of counselling is needed.

    In this sort of situation, you are probably looking at 3 types:

    1. Individual counselling for her, which needs to be trauma-informed and which helps her to process her trauma, prioritizes her safety and helps her to be able to move forward and plan for the future.

    2. Individual counselling for him, which should address his abusive behavior. In order for this to be at all effective, the counsellor needs to know exactly what the abusive behavior was, and the husband needs to acknowledge that this is what happened and that there is a problem to address. The counsellor should have training in dealing with people who have engaged in partner abuse, and it would also be helpful to find someone with training in sexual abuse and with some of the religious aspects involved (not a Christian counsellor, but someone who would be familiar with some of the toxic attitudes taught in some of these circles).

    3. Couples counselling – this is something that generally comes AFTER individual counselling, because it is not designed to deal with things that are clearly a serious flaw and safety concern with one party. The goal of this counselling is usually to save a marriage, but frankly, not all marriages should be saved, and someone needs to be safe for this to be considered. Abuse is an abuser problem, not a relationship problem. Couples counselling really only comes into play when there is a willingness to openly and honestly discuss what has happened, to take responsibility and get individual help to address and stop abusive behavior, and to work on making things better and rebuilding trust.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    I really wish I had known this 25 years ago.
    Thank you for the work you are doing. It’s incredibly valuable.

    Reply
  10. Morticia

    This series has been really eye opening and helpful to me. Thankyou! I’m finally not feeling so confused.

    Reply
  11. Lynn

    Please pray for me. This is my life. I’ve tried explaining how i feel to my husband and family but he thinks I’m punishing him for cheating on me years ago. I’m just tired of living like this but since he’s not cheating anymore I have no recourse. I’ve been told that telling him no is a sin. I’m just tired.

    Reply

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