How to recognize sexual abuse in marriage

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Written by Janai Smith and Jacquelyn Birkeland

Note: The name of the student has been changed for safety reasons. “Katie” is used in replace of the student’s real name.

Katie, a former BYU-Idaho student, did not know the man she had just married.

“He was like a new person before we even left the temple parking lot,” Katie said. “I was terrified of the commitment I had made because I had never seen that side of him in the two years we were together.”

Katie’s new husband seemingly changed overnight. From a caring boyfriend and best friend of two years, he suddenly became a controlling and manipulative husband. During their one-year marriage, he abused Katie emotionally, verbally and sexually.

Unfortunately, Katie isn’t the only woman who has suffered from sexual abuse within her marriage.

According to a research study published on the National Library of Medicine, between 14 and 25% of women are sexually abused by intimate partners and marital rape is the most underreported form of sexual assault.

The same study also found that women who are sexually abused by intimate partners suffer long-lasting physical and mental health problems. These women even have higher rates of depression and anxiety than women who were raped by a non-intimate partner.

According to a different research study by VAWnet, “Approximately 10-14% of married women are raped by their husbands in the United States. Approximately one-third of women report having ‘unwanted sex’ with their partners.”

One of the biggest issues surrounding sexual abuse in marriage is the lack of information. Many women in sexually abusive situations don’t understand what is happening until the abuse has progressed and become extremely damaging.

“I had no idea what was happening to me until I was completely out of the relationship and I realized I had a lot of sexual trauma that was very scarring,” Katie said. “I didn’t know that I fit into the category of marital rape until I went to a psychiatrist who specializes in women’s PTSD. As I told her that I would just agree to have sex with (my husband) because I knew I would get shunned or he was going to be incredibly upset … she looked at me and was like, ‘That’s rape. That is marital rape.'”

When a couple gets married, the lines regarding sexual abuse get blurred. Sacrifice and compromise is a healthy part of marriage in many situations, but at what point does the situation become abusive? Recognizing the difference between compromise and force can be difficult to distinguish.

VAWnet also states that marital rape was not a crime in all 50 states until 1993. There are still 30 states that give some exemptions to husbands in rape prosecution. In many of the 30 states, “a husband is exempt when he does not have to use force because his wife is most vulnerable (e.g., she is mentally or physically impaired, unconscious, asleep, etc.) and is unable to consent.”

The study goes on to say women who are raped by a spouse are likely to be raped 20 or more times.

Idaho didn’t update its marital rape law until April 8 of this year.

“Sex isn’t something that is very openly talked about in our community and I think that is something that really should change,” Katie said. “I grew up in a family where we were pretty open about that and even then, we still didn’t know what was going on.”

According to the World Health Organization, having sexual health is related to receiving comprehensive and good information about sex, as well as a knowledge of the risks involved and vulnerabilities one may face.

One way to help prevent sexually abusive marriages is to teach people how to recognize when a relationship begins to become unhealthy. What are the warning signs? What does it look like?

Sexual abuse in marriage can look like many different things:

1. Intimacy starvation

Intimacy starvation is when a narcissistic partner starves their partner of intimacy and the only time they feel intimate is during sex. Step one of this process is typically isolation. They are told no one will love them and the only time they feel intimate or loved is when they are having sex with their partner.

Intimacy starvation can look like touch deprivation. This is when a spouse may withhold hugs, holding hands or kisses. It may mean that the only time they touch is during sex. Touch deprivation can include symptoms such as feelings of depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and stress.

According to Medical News Today, research shows that physical touch helps humans feel comfort, security and satisfaction. Without touch, it can result in the symptoms mentioned above.

2. Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is often linked to sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is a way to control a partner through emotional manipulation. This can make a partner feel embarrassment, shame, blame, guilt and criticism. This abuse can have lasting effects on a person’s mental health and self-esteem.


“(My husband) started asking for really inappropriate things and he would compare me to pornography,” Katie said. “He would have me sit down and watch it with him and analyze my body versus the girls he would see on TV and asked me why I didn’t look like them, why I didn’t act like them, why I wasn’t like them.”

Katie first reported how she felt to her family because she didn’t understand what she was going through. She only knew she was depressed. The first indicator to her was that she stopped undressing around her husband, she also couldn’t change in front of him because she felt ashamed and embarrassed. These are some of the effects of emotional abuse.

Throughout the relationship, Katie thought she was being selfish by not having sex with her husband. In a loving and healthy relationship, a partner doesn’t feel forced into having sex because of shame and guilt. Feelings of shame and guilt aren’t normal and can be indicators of sexual or emotional abuse.

3. Threats and punishments

Katie referred to one instance where her husband molested her. She had told him that she appreciated the gesture but she wasn’t feeling comfortable with it in the moment. When she told him this, he shunned her for three days.

“It was like I didn’t exist,” she said.

If an intimate partner, whether the man or the woman, threatens to withhold sex for any reason, demands sex or makes threats if you don’t have sex, it is recommended to find outside help.

“Anytime that you’re using intimacy as a form of power, whether it’s withholding or demanding, that’s not healthy,” said Emily Brumbaugh, a sexual assault support counselor at BYU-I.

In Katie’s case, her husband threatened her with isolation and neglect if she didn’t have sex with him when he wanted it.

4. Lack of consent (emotional and verbal)

“If I could say one statement to the world about this, it would be that verbal consent is not emotional consent,” Katie said.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about sexual abuse is the need to verbally say “no.” However, a woman doesn’t have to say “no” for it to be marital rape.

According to Psychology Today, plenty of women today believe it is their duty as a wife to have sex whenever and however their husband wants. This obligation can lead women to deny they were raped by a spouse.

“What I see a lot in therapy is that there’s this misconception that marriage is a free pass,” said Leisa Watkins, a marriage and family therapist. “It’s not. You’re still in charge of your own temple; you’re in charge of your own body. You don’t give that up at marriage. Just because you said ‘I do,’ or just because you consented to a marriage. You’re still in charge of keeping that temple.”

She continued, “Rape is rape. Within the marriage or outside of the marriage, it is a violation of the body without person’s consent.”

A common misconception is that in order for sexual acts to be considered rape, some form of physical force needs to be involved, but many cases don’t look like that. Marital rape involves verbal and emotional manipulation. Just because someone doesn’t say “no” doesn’t mean that it is not rape.

“I said yes because I felt like I could not say no,” Katie said. “I knew that wasn’t an option unless I accepted the consequences … so I said yes. But, that doesn’t mean emotionally I was saying ‘yes’ so I still had to process that as rape.”

For more information about what consent looks like and ways to help prevent miscommunication in marriage, read the Scroll article, “Marriage Consent“.

5. Being objectified

We should never make an intimate partner feel like an object.

“Anytime someone’s treating somebody like an object instead of a person, that’s probably your biggest red flag,” Brumbaugh said. “If we’re treating individuals as individuals with dynamic feelings and emotions and all of those rich things that make us alive over an object, then we’re in a much better spot.”

According to a research study by Frontiers in Psychology, sexual objectification has been studied for over 20 years and it has a negative effect on women’s health, motivations, affections, and cognitive, behavioral and social spheres.

How to get help

If you have experienced any of these warning signs in your marriage, don’t be afraid to get help.

The BYU-I Counseling Center has a list of both on-campus and local resources you can go to. You may also want to seek help from family, friends, support groups or your bishop.

The Family Crisis Center in Rexburg has a 24-hour crisis line you can call during an emergency. You can also set up an appointment to speak with a counselor or therapist.

RAINN, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, offers help through a safe and private hotline where people can talk with support specialists through online messaging or over the phone. You can call them at 1-800-656-4673.