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This Byte describes non-consensual sex and sexual assault, and may be triggering for some readers.

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Having a trusting, equal, and loving intimate relationship between two people can be a wonderful thing. However, many relationships and marriages can start out loving but take on a physically, sexually, or psychologically violent nature. Often, the consent of a woman isn't taken seriously. In fact, nearly 1 out of every 3 women worldwide experience assault at the hands of their intimate partner.

Intimate partner violence includes physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, or controlling behaviors. Sometimes existing partner engages in this violence, and other times, a former partner who feels rejected.

Is non-consensual sex a type of intimate partner violence?

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Intimacy in a marital relationship is inevitable at most times. A lot of romantic partnerships and marriages are commitments that provide a couple with an opportunity to grow. They are also regarded as an emotional and spiritual union of two people where the relationship transcends into something much more than a mere physical union.

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However, intimate partner violence begins when one of the two parties involved in the relationship fails to seek permission from their partner for performing any act that involves the couple. A mutual agreement between partners to engage in any sexual activity is sometimes brushed aside intentionally, which leads to spousal violence in the form of non-consensual sex.

In many cultures, a wife sexually satisfying her partner is considered an unspoken duty, so when a woman reports sexual abuse in her marriage by her husband, it's often ignored, shunned, or silenced. Nonetheless, pressurizing or manipulating a person into unwanted sexual activity or intercourse is assault, even if you're married.

Is any non-consensual sexual act by a spouse or partner considered sexual abuse?

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Any unwanted sexual activity, especially intercourse forced onto you or not involving your consent — even within a marriage — is sexual abuse.

However, this may or may not be overtly violent or even obvious. The use of power and dominance isn't the only aspect that makes this assault an infringement of someone's bodily autonomy. In fact, sexual violence within a marriage can be deceptive, disguised, and devious.

It can also mean:

  • the use of drugs to make you lose consciousness, psychological and emotional bullying, or threatening you with harm just to have sexual intercourse or seek pleasure and satisfaction without you allowing it.

  • forcing you into a certain type of sexual position that you're uncomfortable with or forcing you to have sex without a condom.

Quiz

Malik has been complaining about the lack of intimacy from his wife Asiya, who is 6 months pregnant. Although Asiya doesn't feel like having sex, she does it anyway so that her husband sees her as a "dutiful wife". Is this assault?

Why does it happen?

There can a number of reasons for non-consensual sexual behavior. While these causes may vary from one case to another, the answer always remains the same: it's NOT the victim's fault!

Flaticon Icon While intimate partner violence isn't restricted to women only, its recurrence shows that in most cases, women have been subjected to this assault at the hands of their spouses and partners.

The prevalence of sexual assault within marriages might be an effect of how scarcely cases are reported to authorities. With the social taboos surrounding sex and sexual consent, people deny talking about unwanted sex in a marriage, let alone acknowledge it as a criminal offence.

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In other instances, religious notions of marriage and conventional patriarchy step in. Women are led to believe that purposefully denying their husbands sex makes them "unfair wives".

Other causes can include, but aren't restricted to:

  • lack of awareness about individual human and legal rights

  • low levels of education

  • acceptance of violence

  • childhood traumas

  • spouse's desire to assert authority and power

  • drug abuse

  • weak judicial policies

  • flawed law enforcement

What is the impact of sexual assault within marriages?

It's a myth that marital sexual abuse is a less serious crime with fewer traumatic effects than other forms of sexual assault.

While sexual assault by a stranger is certainly traumatic, people enduring assault from a spouse or partner can also exhibit adverse and lifelong effects like STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

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  • injuries to the vaginal and anal area

  • soreness and muscle bruising

  • pelvic inflammation and vaginal stretching

  • bladder infections and STIs such as HIV

  • depression, anxiety, insomnia

  • infertility and sexual dysfunction

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  • lack of participation in social interactions and everyday activities

  • inability to focus on work

  • familial, social, and financial isolation

  • lack of empathy and care for kids and other immediate family

  • intimacy issues

Why is there legal ambiguity around intimate partner violence?

Sexual assault in a marriage is criminalized in many countries around the world today. This is primarily because throughout history, especially after the groundbreaking efforts to enact human rights laws, mass female-led movements have also called out for women's rights around the globe.

A picture from a mass female protest with flashcards reading 'STOP BLAMING THE VICTIM' and 'Its a dress, not a yes'. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Despite these efforts, nearly 32 countries have still not criminalized marital sexual assault as a serious offence, including some noteworthy South Asian states such as China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

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In India, a number of cases have simply been closed or ruled against based on the erroneous idea that a wife's body is her husband's inherent property. According to these unjust laws, he is "entitled" to force any sexual contact as he pleases.

Others claim that sexual assault can only be claimed if the "honor" of the woman is "defiled" by any other man apart from her father or husband.

This is similar to ancient laws that regarded women as men's property. According to these laws, sexual assault wasn't possible within a marriage because a man could do whatever he wanted with his "property".

Moreover, despite the fact that a majority of countries do criminalize the act as a crime, many only partially enforce the law effectively or give proper jurisdictions to it.

Quiz

Does sexual assault perpetuate rape culture within societies where it's not penalized?

Take Action

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So what should you do if you — or people you know — have faced or are facing intimate partner violence or non-consensual sex within a relationship?

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This Byte has been authored by

SK

Saba Khalid

Founder & CEO at Aurat Raaj

IA

Irum Ansari

Social & Public Policy Researcher