Trigger warning: this post includes discussion or rape, and particularly spousal rape. If this is likely to upset you, please enjoy this quokka joey instead.
Virginia state senator Richard H. “Dick” Black is running for the federal senate seat of retiring senator Frank Wolf. Black is pretty much the definition of a Tea Party culture warrior. Along with the usual stand against abortion and the becoming-usual stand against contraception, he fought to keep a statue of Abraham Lincoln out of a state park. But he’s probably gotten the most attention for his opposition to removing a state ban on spousal rape prosecution. From Mother Jones:
In 2002, as the Virginia general assembly repealed a ban on spousal rape prosecution, Black wondered if it was really possible for a husband to rape his wife. He said changing the law could cause a man “enormous fear of the damage to his reputation” if his wife ever filed a false rape claim. Last month, after the “Weekly Standard” highlighted Black’s remarks on spousal rape, a member of Black’s congressional campaign staff emailed the “Loudoun Progress” to say, “Black was not taking a position for or against marital rape.”
First, Black needs to fire his campaign staff.
Second, MoJo isn’t being quite accurate, at least if they’re referring to comments he made in this widely cited campaign video . Black was questioning how you could prove a case of marital rape “where they’re living together, sleeping in the same bed, she’s wearing a nightie, and so forth, there’s no separation or anything.”
There are a few reasons that modern politicians cite for opposing spousal rape laws. One, call it the Phyllis Schlafly reason, is that marriage contains blanket consent for sexual relations that cannot be reneged. Another is the privacy defense, which argues that marriage is a personal relationship that will be harmed by government intrusion. The third is the “vindictive wife” argument that suggests that women will use claims of rape to injure the husband.
The first argument has been rejected by the courts. The second argument is the only case where you’re likely to hear a conservative Christian argue that the government should stay out of the bedroom. The third is just plain horrible. Black’s argument is a species of the third.
While the Schlafly argument eliminates marital rape by making it a contradiction in terms, the other two seek to diminish it by comparing it to two other problems. Essentially they try to throw suspicion onto either the government or women. These latter arguments fail by not making light of the damage done while being either paranoid or misogynistic.
As uncomfortable as they are to talk about, spousal rape laws are important, for more than just the obvious reason. The idea that the husband essentially owned his wife’s sexuality was almost unquestioned until the feminist movement of the nineteenth century, but neither that movement nor the modern feminist movement has been very successful in removing legal exemptions for spousal rape.
As Jill Elaine Hasday points out in her article, “Contest and Consent: A Legal History of Marital Rape,” many states have quietly maintained the sorts of exemption that Black was defending by making the laws gender neutral and thus immune to heightened scrutiny. Only by bringing attention to the problem is anything likely to change.