Of course not, right? Or maybe it’s not as simple as that. Donald Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, has previously made claims, albeit he’s since apologized for said statements, that by the very definition of rape, one cannot rape their spouse. Not exactly something you expect to hear, especially coming from one of a presidential candidate’s top advisors.
Cohen’s statements came after allegations resurfaced from Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana Trump, who once described an incident between her and Trump as rape. The allegations were made during the couple’s divorce proceedings back in the early 90’s, but with all the media attention surrounding Trump’s controversial comments about women and sexual assault and his bid for presidential candidacy, these allegations came to light again. It was then that Cohen publicly responded to these claims by saying,
“You cannot rape your spouse. And there’s very clear case law.”
Is There Really Case Law to Back Up That Claim?
Historically, yes, but the laws have since changed, making Cohen’s statement false. English common law long held that it was legally impossible for a man to rape his wife. Some states even held specific statutory exemptions in place just for spouses.
It was the idea that marriage constituted permanent consent and it wasn’t until the late 70’s that case law began to suggest a different trend. It was in 1979 when the first conviction for spousal rape was handed down and by 1983, 17 states had removed their laws exempting spouses from the crime of rape.
There’s Still Some Holes in the Law
Fortunately, in 1993, North Carolina became the last state to withdraw their rape exemption for married couples. Even though marital rape is now illegal in all 50 states, unfortunately there are still some holes in the laws that provide room for exceptions (exceptions, not exemptions).
For example, Connecticut law states only husbands or wives raped “by the use of force” can bring charges against their spouse. Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Carolina all follow suit with similar laws. Shockingly, Virginia allows husbands who rape their wives to escape prosecution if they agree to undergo therapy.
The federal government made rape illegal in 1986, but that only applied to cases that took place on publicly-owned land. Really? Rape is any sexual intercourse that’s nonconsensual, so why exactly would the fact of marriage, or taking place on publicly-owned land for that matter, make the idea of consent any different?
Despite That It’s Illegal, It Can Be Harder to Prove and Bias Still Exists
Proving sexual assault is difficult enough, because it’s typically based on circumstantial evidence. When you add in the fact that a couple is married, proving sexual assault can become even more difficult because there’s a bias that some level of consent exists between spouses. That seems to be the obvious reason why some states require rape between spouses to be proved by a use of force.
Forcing someone to have sex is by its very nature, use of force, regardless of whether that “force” is considered physical force that could cause harm under the meaning of the law. This seems like a silly distinction to put into law in the first place. Even so, there are still states that treat sexual assault cases differently for married couples. For example, some states require shorter reporting time periods for spousal assault, while others require the victims to prove the spouse used more force than they would have used had the couple not been married. Say what?
Even jurors still struggle with the idea of convicting a spouse for marital rape. NBC Dateline aired an interview with Lisa Yumi Mitchell, a juror in a spousal rape case, where Mitchell professed the struggle she had with convicting a spouse for rape because she assumes sex is somewhat regular in a marriage. Mitchell, like many others, held a presumptive bias of consent.
It seems our society has a long way to go in this regard, but even with the prejudice surrounding marital rape and the difficulties in proving it, Michael Cohen’s statements that you can’t rape a spouse are inherently false. Consent is consent and when it isn’t there, the sex is always illegal.
Authored by Ashley Roncevic, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law