Book Review – Wife Rape

Raquel Kennedy Bergen in her book Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers analyzes how women experience wife rape and explains the insufficient and inadequate response of service providers to rape survivors. Bergen became interested in the subject of wife rape as an undergraduate when she had to write a senior thesis on a topic of her choosing. Her research revealed that only a handful of sources of information were available and quickly learned that there was a lack of information on this subject not only in academic circles, but also among practitioners and victims.

During her graduate years, she volunteered at battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers where several women informally shared with her their personal accounts of the pain and agony they had suffered with their partners. Other women consented to a formal interview hoping their stories would be heard and that other victims would come to understand their distress. Bergen attempts to raise awareness about wife rape through her interviews with 621 service providers, staff members of a battered women’s shelter and a rape crisis center, and 40 survivors of wife rape.

She claims that battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers are not being effective when addressing and responding to rape victims. Moreover, she claims that society still considers marital rape a new phenomenon and there is still much debate about the criminality of such behavior. In fact, she states that although raping one’s wife is a crime in all 50 states, in most states a husband is exempt from prosecution in some situations such as the wife is mentally or physically impaired, unconscious, or asleep.

The author indicates that the solution to the problem of wife rape is the complete eradication of the economic, political, and social oppression of all women. She defines wife rape, investigates causes and outlines some efforts at coping wife rape; describes two agencies’ response and suggests policy changes. DESCRIPTIVE OVERVIEW In Chapter One Bergen begins with a discussion of the problem of wife rape.

She provides a brief historical overview of wife rape highlighting the development of the marital rape exemption legislation, with was based on the notation that a wife was the property of the husband and therefore could not be rape by him. She also makes remarks about the lack of public attention in wife rape because of the legal indistinctness of the problem. Prior to 1971, there was minimum information on sexual assault in general and the first article to appear in a magazine was titled “Legal Rape” and appeared in Family Circle in 1979.

The foundation of this lack of information can be traced back to statements made by Sir Matthew Hale, Chief Justice in 17th century England. Hale wrote, “The husband cannot be guilty of rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given herself in kind unto the husband which she cannot retract” (3). Between 1979 and 1992, articles on wife rape were published occasionally and focused primarily on state legislation changes.

Between 1993 and 1994, the number of articles in journals increased mainly as a result of the infamous case of John and Lorena Bobbitt (5). Furthermore, the author suggests that media and general public are not alone in neglecting the issue of wife rape and the subsequent effects of this form of assault; scholars have done the same as well. Rape in Marriage book by Diana Russell published in 1982 and License to Rape, by David Finkelhor and Kersit Yllo (1985) are based on interviews with survivors of wife rape and were instrumental in exposing the traditional tolerance of wife rape.

Beyond this research, wife rape has been relatively understudied compared to other forms of violence. The sources for this book consist of data collected of 621 service providers in two national directories. Each agency was asked about the services it offers to wife rape survivors and analysis of the responses. Also, 37 service providers were interviewed about their interaction with wife rape survivors and such interviews were supplemented with her 18 months of participant observation at a rate crises center Women Against Sexual Assault (WASA) and battered women’s shelter.

Above all the most important source of data came from the interviews conducted with 40 survivors of wife rape, who had been raped by their partners at least once; make the core of this book. However, it is important to note that the 40 interviewed survivors were more likely to assess the services of the agencies positively than those women who Bergen was unable to make contact might be those who were truly dissatisfied and could provide a more negative assessment of the agencies’ services.

The author also defines wife rape “as any unwanted intercourse or penetration (vaginal, anal, or oral) obtained by force or threat of force or when the woman is unable to give affirmative consent” and “it extends beyond those legally married to include partners considered married under common law and those who have had an ongoing intimate relationship”(8). Chapter Two provides a more comprehensive understanding of women’s experiences of wife rape by focusing on the nature of this type of sexual violence and how victims cope with it.

Among the 40 survivors there was substantial variance by race, age, and socioeconomic status. In regards to race, 60% were white, 22% were African American and 18% were Latina. The ages ranged from 18 to 61 years old and the length of time they had been with their partners ranged from 1 to 36 years. As far as socioeconomic status, 58% were considered to be middle class based on income, education and occupation and 40% lower class.

There was only one woman from the upper class which indicates that women with more resources are less likely to seek battered women’s shelters assistance. About one third of the women had attended to college or had a college degree, and 10% were either attending graduate school or held graduate degrees. 28% were employed in white-collar or professional occupations, 25% were in blue-collar occupations and 47% were unemployed (12). Women experience wife rape from quick assaults that involved minimum force to sadistic acts that lasted hours.

“Force-only” rapes are classified as women were not battered but experienced only as much force necessary to coerce into sex. In “battering rapes,” which account for the largest number of cases, women experience both physical and sexual violence in their relationships. “Obsessive rapes” described men using pornographic material and physical force which often prompt the abuser to force the victim into enacting what they had seen. The last category of rape is known as “Sadistic rape” which involves bondage and torture.

Some of the reasons for wife rape include “entitlement of sex” based on the fact that traditionally we live in a patriarchal family structure where men feel a sense of entitlement to their wives’ bodies. Another reason are “rape as punishment” to control behavior or punishment for alleged sins and “rape as a form of control,” which describes the men’s way of asserting power and claim control over wives. Thus no stereotypical depiction of the “average wife rape” materializes from these reasons.

However, the author describes some similarities on how women cope with wife rape beginning with the first incident. For instance, the vast majority of women after the first assault did not leave the relationship, tried to manage the violence but were in shock and total disbelief. These women thought the first assault was an aberrant incident that would never happen again. However, more than 80% in this scenario discovered that the first incident is not isolated incident but rather an ongoing problem.

Bergen describes the two women’s goals in managing violence are protecting oneself from injury and justifying the continuation of the relationship. During the duration of such relationship, a woman’s coping strategies often change as it becomes clear to her that she will not be able to avoid assault. Those strategies include “minimizing the risk of violence” in which women try minimize the risk that violence by physically resisting or avoiding their partners.

Nonetheless, the most popular strategy for minimizing the risk of assault was to “placate their husbands,” which included not seeing close friends, quitting jobs, distancing themselves from their families, maintaining a clean home, etc. , (29). These women also developed strategies for emotional survival after each sexual assault. Some of the women ended their relationship after the first incident of wife rape; however, the vast majority were raped multiple times and would try to “put their lives back together again” and/or would try to forget the incident.

Some women also blame themselves to some extent for their husband’s actions or would blame alcohol or drugs for their husband aggressive behavior. These women also perceived men as victims so they stayed and coped with sexual abuse. Chapter Three explores the complex process by which women defined their experiences as rape and how they end the violence. The author indicates that “the process of coping with violence, defining the abuse as rape, end ending the violence are all interconnected” (37).

If a woman does not recognize her assault as rape, she begins to cope with the violence and is less likely to end the relationship. There are three stages that outline how women define their rape experiences: first, “women must define the first incident, as lying outside the normal, acceptable, or inevitable, behavior” basically understanding the social definition of “wife rape”; second, “as abusive: contacting support services or answering research questions”; third “naming the experience as particular form of abuse” (39).

The author’s interviews with wife rape survivors revealed that redefinition was mostly generated by three factors: “1) The violence approached the level of severity they associated with stranger rape; 2) The violence became abnormal; 3) They received help from an outsider” (42). Three women in this study revealed that their circumstances of sexual assault were similar to those of a stranger rape where kidnap was involved, were taken to isolated locations and raped or batter for over a period of time.

Other women defined their rape experiences when their partners’ sexual demands changed. 40% of these women were sodomized and one third were forced to perform oral sex. Three of the women in this scenario were penetrated vaginally with objects such as weapons, feathers, brushes or food. Receiving outside help was key for the women in this study, while the media plays an important role to raise awareness and influence the audience, the contact the victims made with the service providers was even more important.

The author describes how several of the interviewed women did not begin to redefine their experiences as rape until they entered a battered women’s shelter and were asked specific questions about their experiences of forced sex in their relationships. They also had difficulty elaborating their incidents as wife rape because their partners were the aggressors; however, they had taken an important step to redefine their own experiences in their own terms and were proactively seeking help to end violence.

The women in this study turned to different sources for support such as religious advisers, family members, friends, and the police, as well as women’s organizations. There are several consequences related to wife rape. The physical effects include nausea, vomiting, soreness, bruising, muscles tension, headaches, fatigue, vaginal stretching, miscarriages, stillbirths, bladder infections, and sometimes infertility. The short-term emotional effects include anxiety, shock, intense fear, depression, and suicidal tendencies.

According to Berger, “the survivors of wife rape seem to suffer even more traumatic consequences than stranger rape survivors” (59) because they live in constant terror and experience ongoing flashbacks about their assaults. A common concern revealed by many women in this study was that they would experience long-term sexual dysfunctions. Nonetheless, despite the terrors the women this example endured, all of them were proud of the fact they survived and twelve of them have become advocates for other abused women and two have been actively involved in campaigning to change legislation on domestic violence and sexual assault.

Chapter Four compares the wife rape survey response of two specific non-profit organizations – a battered women’s shelter (Refuge) and a rape crisis center (WASA). Both are similar with regard to their mission statements, scope of services, and the types of assistance they formally offer to wife rape survivors. Refuge was founded in the early 1980s to provide services such as emergency housing, food, and advocacy to abused women.

Refuge’s goal is to resocialize battered women to “produce strong and independent women” (68) but its collective representation of the victim only allows for women to be admitted in the center if they had endured severe emotional and physical harm. Refuge’s staff had not been properly educated on the subject of wife rape and how victims should be managed. One third of them defined wife rape as a problem for rape crisis centers and argued that Refuge should not be responsible for this problem because these

women did not fit the agenda of definition of rape. In fact such rape victims were not battered women and a rape crisis center should handle this problem. In addition, frontline staff felt inadequately prepared to deal with this issue and had the perception that these women were more fragile and vulnerable than battered women, therefore, required more attention and support. Some of the staff felt they should claim ownership of wife rape because it was a domestic violence type of problem.

Others believed that WASA was the agency primarily responsible for providing services for all rape survivors, including wife rape survivors. The author indicates that it an erroneous statement since Refuge provided more services than WASA to wife rape survivors during the 2-year period she studied and survivors of domestic violence were mistakenly treated as battered women completely ignoring the sexual assault so that they fit the organization’s collective representation of the victim. WASA was founded more than 40 years ago as one of the first rape crisis centers in the nation.

It is designed to provide emotional support to survivors of rape, help them to navigate the criminal justice system, escorting victims to local hospitals, providing rape prevention programs to the community in addition to offering temporary housing. Compared with Refuge, WASA was a much smaller agency. At the time of Bergen’s data collection, WASA’s president did not construct wife rape as a serious social problem that the agency should be responsible for in addressing because wife rape was considered to be less serious than stranger rape and ultimately it was a form of domestic violence thus it was not WASA’s problem.

The agency did not have any type of information on wife rape or educational tools on this issue. However, the staff of WASA shared a collective definition of wife rape as a serious social problem and was willing to claim ownership of the problem and provide services to the victims but the president was not in agreement. In managing wife rape at WASA, the strategy was to refer these women elsewhere for services. Of the 40 interviewed victims, 14 contacted WASA at some point for assistance and 72% were not provided services but were referred to other organizations.

During Bergen’s 2-year period that she analyzed the agency files, WASA staff members documented 56 calls from women who claimed to be reaped and /or battered by their partners. Of this total, 29 women (52%) were directly referred to other agencies for assistance; in fact most were referred to Refuge (82). Furthermore, during this period not a single survivor of wife rape was provided with shelter at WASA and at Refuge women were often turned away because of insufficient space.

Thus, the end result is that survivors of wife rape may feel neglected, isolated and uncomfortable with service providers, who are supposed to play a key role in helping them to recover from the trauma they have endured. Chapter Five outlines the process in providing services to wives survivors including current trends and future directions. Bergen’s study revealed that battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers frequently fail to provide several services to survivors of wife rape.

About 34% of the agencies do not provide outreach to wife rape survivors or educational programs on this problem. In addition, education to agency’s staff members is another key deficiency. Half of battered women’s agencies staff provide training on wife rape and do not know how to effectively counsel survivors of wife rape. There is also evidence that most service providers have not claimed ownership of the problem of wife rape. Less than half (42%) of service providers even ask women experiencing wife rape.

Given the inadequate response of service providers to this issue the author makes the following recommendations: “Outreach” to survivors of wife rape to legitimize the experiences of these women and provide them with the knowledge that it is not a personal problem. “Training Staff and Volunteers,” should be educated about the prevalence of wife rape, how to identify survivors and resources available for them. “Asking Sensitive Questions” is necessary to understand to help women name their experiences and thus validate their feelings and help them heal.

Bottom line, in order for service providers to meet the needs of wire rape survivors they must claim ownership of this problem and proactively offer numerous services for the victims. The author survey revealed that no one type of organization is necessarily best to help these women and the ideal situation would be for these providers to work together to eliminate this heinous form of violence against women. CRITICAL ANALYSIS Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers readability was clear, thoughtful and engaging for a general audience.

The content flow was good and even though the author added some editorial comments that I found them to be irrelevant but still interesting. The book is composed of many detailed examples of wife rapes from the 40 survivors that were interviewed and their personal experiences when dealing with services provides; however, I would have liked the author to also include data on those women who failed to get support from the system or perhaps rejected any type of aid and continued to endure their partners sexual abuse.

The factual support in her assertions is very well reinforced with personal observations, self-experience through her time as observer at the battered women’s shelters and rape crisis, as well as her interactions and interviews with the victims and surveys from Refuge and WASA. Bergen also includes relevant statistics to support each one of her attestations and provides enough evidence to point out the service provider deficit response in terms of wife rape.

For instance, 24% of rape crisis centers either do not allow marital rape survivors into their support groups or do not have established groups that would welcome these women. Therefore it is unclear whether survivors of wife who contact such organizations are merely denied services or are refereed elsewhere for assistance (104). Appendix A provides a detailed resource guide by state for survivors of wife rape and points out those agencies that indicated provide support to victims. Appendix B instructs audience where to call for more information pertaining to legal guidance and marital rape awareness material.

Appendix C provides a state law chart that indicates 33 states still have some exemptions from prosecuting husbands for rape and 17 states and the District of Columbia, there are no exceptions from rape prosecution granted to husbands under law. Appendix D outlines the methods used to conduct her research and describes how her main obstacle in gathering the data was locating women to interview about their experiences of wife rape. Ultimately, she was successful in interviewing 7 women from WASA, 21 from Refuge, 7 who had contacted both agencies for support, and 5 women who were helped by another women’s agency.

CONCLUDING REMARKS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Despite the fact that marital rape has not been prosecuted for long in the United States, it is clearly a serious crime that needs public attention. The author’s research indicates that women who are raped by their partners are likely to experience multiple assaults and often suffer severe long-term physical and emotional consequences. Such rape can be even more damaging than rape by a stranger because a wife lives with her assailant and she may live in constant terror of another assault whether she is awake or sleep.

The author clearly points out the broken process from the services providers in terms of wife rape response and assistance and the fact that more research should continue to done in order to try to determine the prevalence of this problem in society. The author describes wife rape without monotony and the brief narratives of the interviewed victims are really heart breaking. I would recommend this book to any women who may possibly be experiencing wife rape. The valuable resources outlined in the appendixes are key to get the necessary assistance and support they would need.