What is a biblical perspective on marital/spousal rape?
Marital rape occurs when one spouse forces the other to engage in unwanted sexual activity. It is non-consensual penetrative sex (vaginal, oral, anal) occurring within a marriage relationship. Most often the non-consenting partner is forced through violence or threats of violence, although other forms of coercion may be used. Sometimes the rape will be presented as "make-up sex" following a physical or verbal altercation. While not always the case, it seems that marital rape is more likely to be a pattern within a marriage than a one-time occurrence. It is also likely that other forms of domestic violence are present in the relationship.
The legal acknowledgement of spousal rape is relatively new. Some countries still do not recognize the possibility for rape within marriage. Historically, sex has been seen as something husbands always desire and to which wives must always submit. Others have believed that marriage is implicit consent to sex at any time. While some countries criminalized marital rape earlier than 1970, most Western countries did not discuss marital rape in their laws until the 1980s and 1990s. The exact definitions and provisions vary; some removed clauses that would restrict rape to an extramarital offense whereas others distinguish marital rape as a separate crime.
Victims of spousal rape face unique challenges. Emotionally and psychologically, rape within a marriage is received differently from stranger or even acquaintance rape. Sex is meant to be a unifying and beautiful event in marriage, not a venue for violence and coercion. Because of the intimacy of the marriage relationship, wounds from spousal rape can be broader than wounds from a more distant relationship.
Some have used passages like 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 and Ephesians 5:22 to claim that the Bible does not recognize marital rape and that wives must always consent to sex. Using these passages in that way is a gross misinterpretation and misuse of the Word of God. Ephesians 5 discusses mutual submission built on a foundation of love and respect. It compares the relationship between husband and wife to that between Christ and the Church. Jesus never forces the Church to submit to His desires – let alone use violence. Rather, He willingly sacrificed Himself to save us and lovingly beckons believers to obedience for our own benefit (Mark 10:43-45; John 10:18; John 15:1-17; Philippians 2:3-11; 1 John 3:16-18). Rape is a selfish and violent act; Jesus Christ is neither selfish nor violent.
First Corinthians 7:1-5 also talks about mutuality. Verses 3-5 say, "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." Paul clearly states that both husband and wife should give the other their sexual rights. Neither husband nor wife should deprive the other sexually. He clearly states that the wife's body belongs to the husband and also that the husband's body belongs to the wife – but that this is a willing giving of themselves, never a taking, which rape always is. One does not rule over the other; both husband and wife are given the same instructions and are expected to come to a place of agreement on sexual matters.
Sex is meant to be an expression of the oneness that is marriage (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; 1 Corinthians 6:16). Marriage is upheld as a unique institution that is not only foundational to society but images Christ and the Church. Violence of any kind has no place in a marriage. Sexual violence is especially damaging because it confounds the very core of the marriage bond.
If anyone has made sexual contact with you without your consent, please seek help. If you are currently in danger of being forced to have sex, or if forced sex is an established pattern between you and another person, call the police and get out of the situation as soon as it is safe for you to do so. There is absolutely nothing wrong with calling the police against a spouse or partner—rape is a felony and should be handled by law enforcement. If you need help knowing what to do in your particular situation, RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network is always available online at their website (https://www.rainn.org) and private chat option, or on the phone at 1-800-656-4673.
If you are not in the United States, you can find a listing of international resources for assault and rape victims here: https://rainn.org/get-help/sexual-assault-and-rape-international-resources.
In addition to practical matters of removing oneself from the situation, receiving any medical care necessary, and potentially taking legal action, other recovery is needed. Victims of marital rape will very likely require counseling. The emotional and psychological implications of spousal rape can have long-lasting effects. The abused / raped spouse should not feel pressured to return to the abuser without first receiving extensive input and counsel from licensed counselors, government authorities, and trustworthy friends who understand the situation. Spiritually, victims may doubt God's goodness and His trustworthiness. Learning to feel safe with God, coming to believe that He is loving and gentle, and coming to trust Him will take time. He is willing and able to bring healing and forgiveness. Do not be afraid to take that time, or to walk beside someone who is asking hard questions about their faith.
Perpetrators of marital rape will need to come to recognize their own sin, repent, and get the help they need. Reasons a person might commit spousal rape are varied. In God, there is healing for past hurts, forgiveness for sins, and hope for a new future.
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