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.
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.
You may also enjoy:
- Why biblical counseling can harm sexual trauma survivors
- You’re not methadone for his porn addiction (podcast)
- Gody sex is mutual sex
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.
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.
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!
The Sexual Recovery Series--Digging Yourself out of the Pit
- A 4 -Point Plan to Sexual Recovery
- Redefining Sex: Seeing Sex as an Expression of your Relationship, Not an Individual Need
- What Sexual Recovery Looks Like
- Safety and Intimacy: You'll Never Have an Intimate Sex Life without Feeling Safe First
- When Sex Has Become One-Sided, Leaving Her Feeling Used
- 2 Kinds of Marital Rape
- How to Recover from Marital Rape (if it's possible)
- Why Christians Often Don't Understand Consent
- 5 Next Steps if You Realize You've Coerced Your Wife into Sex
- Does 1 Corinthians 7 Mean that She Has No Sexual Autonomy?
- How to Regain Sexual Autonomy (coming soon)
- How to Slowly Start to Rebuild Safe Sex (coming soon)
- PODCAST: A Path forward Addressing Sexual Shame (with Jay Stringer)
- PODCAST: The Myth of the Magic Penis (and a call for integrated sex)
- PODCAST: Learned Helplessness and Sex (coming soon)