VOICES: A marriage license shouldn’t be a defense to abuse

A marriage license shouldn’t be a defense to rape in Ohio. But in some circumstances, it is. Although the U.S. made strides to criminalize spousal rape in the late 20th century, loopholes still exist that help perpetrators escape accountability. Ohio is in the minority of states with such a loophole still on its books. Fortunately, efforts to close this loophole are gaining momentum.

On Wednesday, Nov. 29, the Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 161 (“Eliminate spousal exceptions for certain sex offenses”), sponsored by Representative Jessica Miranda and Representative Brett Hillyer. This significant vote follows decades of advocacy to pass this initiative in Ohio. In fact, lawmakers and advocates in Ohio have tried and failed to close the harmful spousal rape loophole since 1985.

Under current Ohio law, certain sex crimes are exempt from prosecution if the perpetrator is married to the victim. So, if a married person drugs their spouse and sexually assaults them, this would not be a crime. However, the same actions committed outside of a marriage, say, between dating partners, would be considered a crime and subject to prosecution. It is inexplicable that disparities exist between prosecution of sex crimes and other forms of domestic violence. What has someone’s marital status got to do with the criminal nature of their spouse’s behavior? Assault, stalking, homicide, and other crimes against a person may be prosecuted without regard to the marital status of the parties. Singling out sexual violence as a type of crime that married people should have less protection from is egregious.

In my time advocating for an end to this loophole, I’ve encountered countless Ohioans who express shock and disgust when they learn that this loophole still exists in our state. Its continued existence reinforces a false narrative that spousal sexual violence is somehow less serious than other forms of sexual violence — it is not. The reality is married persons do not forfeit their rights to bodily autonomy and safety once they get married. The impacts of spousal rape are also severe and long-lasting. Sexual violence in a relationship is rarely an isolated incident; it often occurs alongside other forms of abusive behavior, including physical and emotional abuse. We know that more than half of female survivors of rape report being raped by an intimate partner and that victims report repeat victimization in that relationship, higher levels of physical injury, longer lasting trauma, and psychological distress.

A person’s legal relationship to the person who harms them should never limit their options for safety, accountability, or healing in the aftermath of sexual assault. No person is the physical property of their spouse, and married people need the same options following a sexual assault as everybody else. Current Ohio law takes away a spouse’s right to consent, regardless of whether they are willing or not. It’s time to finally change that — because a marriage license is not a license to abuse.

House Bill 161 has now moved to the Ohio Senate, where it is assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration. We are now advocating for state Senators to begin hearings and pass the legislation expeditiously.

If interested in supporting the bill, you can contact members of the Senate Judiciary Committee here: https://ohiosenate.gov/committees/judiciary

You can also find your Senator here: https://ohiosenate.gov/members/district-map.

Emily Gemar is the Director of Public Policy for the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

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