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Too Many People Don’t Know Marital Rape Is Rape

A lawyer for Donald Trump apologized Tuesday for saying “by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse,” in response to resurfaced allegations that the Republican presidential candidate raped his former wife Ivana Trump in 1989. Although the comments were promptly criticized, the U.S. legal system and the U.S. public have been slow to recognize marital rape as rape.

In legal terms, Michael Cohen, special counsel to Trump, was wrong, as media reports were quick to point out. Raping a spouse is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia — but has been since only 1993, when North Carolina became the last state to criminalize marital rape. In 1975, South Dakota became the first state to criminalize spousal rape — before that year, all states had an “exception” for marital rape, meaning it was legal. Today, several states still treat marital rape under a different section of the criminal code than rape outside of marriage.

Research suggests that the relationship of the victim and the perpetrator affects how people view rape. A 2008 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence asked 85 undergraduate students and 44 alumni from a small U.S. liberal arts college about what constitutes rape. Respondents were given several short narratives that described sexual assaults — the narratives differed from each other only in their description of the victim-perpetrator relationship (e.g. “her husband” was replaced with “her neighbor”). The study found respondents were more likely to say “it wasn’t really rape” and “he didn’t mean to” in cases of marital rape rather than acquaintance rape. The authors cite four other studies that found a difference in attitudes toward rape depending on the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.

Rape by an intimate partner is prevalent in the United States. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interviewed 16,507 U.S. adults in the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and found that nearly 1 in 10 women (9.4 percent) had been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime. It also found that 16.9 percent of women and 8.0 percent of men had experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner at some point in their lives.

To speak with someone who is trained to help with sexual violence issues, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online at

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.