How The Church Can Better Respond To The Scourge Of Marital Rape
By Mary E. DeMuth
In releasing my recent book about sexual abuse and how the church can redemptively respond to it, I formed a launch team. What surprised me was just how many women kept their stories private, afraid to share about something that’s seldom talked about: marital rape. Once I asked the question, several communicated with me privately of the hell they experienced within the their marriages.
What grieved me was the church’s response to their outcries:
- It’s not rape if you’re married.
- Isn’t it your marital duty to submit to your husband?
- Maybe if you “gave out” more, he wouldn’t have to demand the way he did.
- Perhaps this is about you not opening yourself up enough to the sexual experience. Are you a prude?
- Are you sure it happened? Or are you being dramatic?
- If you speak out about this, you’ll damage your husband’s reputation.
Rape is about power and control. Even in marriage, the sexual relationship must involve consent. If a spouse says no, that no means no. One survivor found solace through an interaction with a detective when she reported abuse. He asked, “Did you want it to happen?” She replied no. He responded, “Then it was rape.”
She later said, “It would have been helpful for me to understand that concept earlier: that you don’t have to scream and fight for it to ‘count’ as rape.”
This concept is so hush-hush that many women don’t have words to describe what they walked through until a legal professional or investigator mentions it. One woman heard “marital rape” when she pursued a protection order against her spouse. “That was the first time I heard the term, but I instantly recognized those were the words to describe what happened.”
Another victim aptly stated, “I now understand that rape and marriage should never be in the same sentence, and it shouldn’t have happened even one time.” She searched the scriptures about a wife’s body being the possession of the husband: “Those verses include that a husband’s body also belongs to his wife. That he is to love her like the church. I cannot honestly find anything in the Bible that justifies a many having his way with his wife any time he pleases, yet that’s what we’ve been taught.”
Another survivor of marital rape echoed this. “At the time, I did not understand it to be rape. I was under the misleading teaching that my body belonged to him.”
Many women reported porn at the heart of their husband’s sex addiction and demand for sex without consent. Women were forced to perform sexual acts they felt uncomfortable with (that mimicked the hard core nature of what their partners watched), and believed they could not say no because being married implied consent—to everything demanded. One woman shared, “At some point a focus on rape became a part of my husband’s fantasy . . . He would often say during sex that all women wanted to be tied up and raped. Every time, I verbally disagreed.”
Some women married their rapists, having grown up in a culture that deified spousal virginity. So when a boyfriend forcefully violated, a victim would shift the blame to herself, worried that she was “damaged goods” and then marry her rapist.
So much of this misunderstanding of terms boils down to theology. And when the church responds the way it historically has to women raped in marriage, it continues to perpetrate further harm against the survivor and propagate a distortion of the marital relationship. While there are important ways to look at this hermeneutically, I find that simply looking at the nature of Jesus empowers a proper, empathetic response.
We see this beautifully in Jesus’s telling of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. The crime victim, a Jew, is beaten and stolen from, and left for dead. Two Jewish leaders (his countrymen!) take note of him, but continue on their way. It is the outsider (a Samaritan) who takes care of the crime victim, offering help, compassion, and compensation.
Sadly, this same pattern of response is in effect today. In our churches, women are bleeding, hurting, and broken in the aftermath of marital rape, and the very church leaders who should empathetically respond treat their outcry as an inconvenience. It is only those on the outside (law enforcement, the press, social media) who offer language to describe what happened and practical help in moving forward.
This should not be. In this story, Jesus reminds us that the only proper response to a crime (and marital rape is a crime) should be:
- I notice you and see your obvious condition.
- I am not only deeply grieved by what happened, but I am going to inconvenience myself to help you.
- I will act with justice to this injustice.
- I refuse to blame you for being attacked. The blame rests on the one who stole.
Jesus tells us to be like the Samaritan, to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 NRSV). If we, as His body, follow the pattern of the religious leaders in the story, we will not represent the heart of Jesus. Instead, the church must be the hands and feet of the One who left the pristine beauty of heaven to walk among us, empathize with our plight, and remedy our need for deliverance. Jesus was and is the Good Samaritan in that way. To be His followers is to treat those who suffer in this world with compassionate action.
Mary DeMuth is the author of 40 books, including her latest, We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis. If you’re struggling with how to walk through your own abuse, get a 21 days of emails from Mary about what she’s learned on the healing journey here: http://www.wetoo.org/21days . Learn more about the book here: http://www.wetoo.org.