Despite what films and TV shows might have you believe, rapists aren’t always strangers who lurk down dark alleyways wielding knives. In fact, 91% of female sexual assault victims know their attackers, and in some of those cases, the attackers are their own husbands.
While marriage vows entail a lot of commitments, they don’t sign anybody up to have sex they do not consent to. Somehow, the law only recognised this in 1991, when the highest court in the land ruled: “It cannot seriously be maintained that by marriage a wife submits herself irrevocably to sexual intercourse in all circumstances.” Prior to this, it was believed that a woman consented to all future sexual activity with her husband through the contract of marriage.
Marital rape became officially enshrined in law 12 years later, when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 explicitly listed the act as illegal. Yet just a week ago, in 2019, a judge told a court he “cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife.”
Mr Justice Hayden’s comments were made in relation to an ongoing case that will decide whether a man can continue having sex with his wife of over two decades, after council officials claimed she may be incapable of giving consent due to mental illness and learning difficulties.
The judge’s belief that any man has a “right” to have sex with a woman sounds shocking and antiquated. Worryingly, though, his thoughts actually reflect the misguided view of 25% of Britons, who believe that non-consensual sex within a marriage doesn’t count as rape.
But nobody knows more than a woman who has gone through it herself just how traumatic rape within a marriage can be.
In 2012, Charlotte was living in the UK with her new husband, Callum*. Originally from the USA, Charlotte had moved to Britain to study at university while her English husband, who was eight years older than her, worked as a data analyst. They married, 18 months after meeting, in Charlotte’s hometown of New York.
"I was aware that things had moved pretty fast, but we were really in love and I wanted our relationship to be official. It was a big change over such a short space of time, but I wanted to be with him, and I wanted to stay in the UK once I had finished my degree, so it made sense to us," Charlotte tells Cosmopolitan UK.
Things between Charlotte and Callum were good to begin with. So good, in fact, that when Callum first raped her six months after their wedding day, she didn't realise at first that anything was wrong.
"I had spent the afternoon drinking with my friends. It was a Friday and Callum came to meet me when he finished work. I got a lot more drunk than I expected, whereas he'd only had one drink before taking me home," she says, recalling: "We were both in a really pleasant mood.
"The next thing I remember was lying on our bed, with him next to me. None of this was distressing; as far as I was concerned, I was safe at home with my husband."
Callum started to kiss Charlotte, who reciprocated, but after a few minutes she could feel that he wanted more. "I told him that I didn’t feel like having sex and just wanted to sleep. I'd had a lot to drink and I was dipping in and out of consciousness," she says.
Sleep quickly got the better of her, and Charlotte fell asleep, fully clothed, next to her husband. When she awoke the next day, she was naked from the waist down.
"I recall brief flashes of opening my eyes and seeing him on top of me. I was vaguely aware of my body being moved, but I was too drunk to respond," Charlotte remembers. "In the innermost part of me I was conscious of what was happening, but the rest of my brain was just black.
The following morning, waking up to find herself only semi-clothed, Charlotte's first thought was how embarrassed she was at being so drunk the night before.
"I felt slightly sore between my legs, and when I checked I could tell there was semen on the inside of my legs and a little blood on the bedsheets," she recalls. But despite having no clear recollection of having had sex, and knowing full well that she had explicitly refused, Charlotte didn’t feel shocked or upset.
"When Callum woke up, I simply asked him if we'd had sex and he casually said yes. According to him, he only realised halfway through that I was asleep so he 'quickly finished' and then went to sleep himself," says Charlotte. "The way he informed me of it was so calm and matter-of-fact."
As the days went on, Charlotte began to feel uneasy about what had happened. She felt disrespected, mostly, but despite this, the idea that she may have been raped never even crossed her mind. Callum's subsequent behaviour continued to be so ordinary that Charlotte pushed any worries to the back of her head, and the couple carried on as normal.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the first time Callum would rape her.
"Initially, whenever I chose not to have sex with him, he would pester me repeatedly until I gave in. It genuinely felt easier to just let him get on with it than contest it, because he wouldn’t let me sleep or get on with my work until he got what he wanted," recalls Charlotte.
But a few months down the line came the turning point, when she finally became conscious of exactly what her husband was doing to her.
"I was getting towards the end of my second year at university and I was swamped with work," says Charlotte. "Callum came over to me and began kissing my neck. I told him to stop as I needed to concentrate, but he carried on until I lost my temper and had to push him off me.
"He laughed in my face, pulled my body towards him and raped me in the living room."
Callum wasn’t physically violent towards Charlotte, and she didn’t fight back. But that doesn't mean it wasn't rape.
"I just lay there, unresponsive and waited for it to end. At that moment, everything clicked into place. I had been being sexually abused in my own home, by my own husband, for months - and it had taken me a long time to realise it."
Charlotte eventually left her husband some months later, and says he still refuses to accept any wrongdoing. "He is of the opinion that we were married, and because I'd had sex with him once, that was a pass for any time he wanted to have sex with me in the future," she says.
It's this assumption - that consent ever extends beyond each individual time it's given - that is so damaging. It's a clear misunderstanding of the definition of rape, and it's why Judge Hayden's comments strike such a chord with women like Charlotte, who have experienced the repercussions of it first-hand.
"It is such an antiquated, misogynistic and disgraceful view that needs a strong reaction," says Charlotte."It is absolutely not okay to have sex with someone just because they have had sex with you in the past, even if you are married.
"If you have any doubt that the person you are having sex with isn’t 100% consenting, or in a reasonable state of mind in which to consent, then just don’t have sex with them. Your sexual needs should not be more important than your respect for your partner."
And really, it's as simple as that.
*Name and some details have been changed.
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