Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Perspective on Marital Rape

In Faculty, Research on September 4, 2013 at 2:58 pm


By Hillary Haldane, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

In 1985, David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo published the groundbreaking work, License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives. Marital rape was a shocking topic at the time of publication, and continues to be unsettling today. The past year has seen an increase of attention paid to the topic of sexual assault more broadly. The U.S. Senate is currently addressing the topic of sexual assault in the military, the media has highlighted cases of sexual assault in Brazil, India, the Democratic Republic of Congo and here in the U.S., and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has made ending sexual assault a top priority.  While it is good news that the problem of sexual assault is receiving increased attention from policy makers and the public alike, the issue of marital rape has remained mostly hidden, and is a topic not widely researched, or commented upon.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation, a private foundation for research that contributes to anthropological theory, recognizes there is a gap in our understanding of marital rape across all the social sciences, and particularly in anthropology. The foundation decided to support researchers who wish to engage with this topic from a multidisciplinary perspective to encourage new theories to explain the phenomena. Anthropology has been particular reluctant to address marital rape for a number of reasons, most critically due to the discipline’s long term commitment to take seriously how people in other cultural contexts understand and explain their lives—who are we to impose a foreign concept onto behavior we find elsewhere? Our goal has always been to undercover the ways people explain their own behaviors, in their own terms, with the hope that we can learn something broadly about the human experience through cross-cultural comparison. Another reason anthropologists have been hesitant to take on this issue is our longstanding critique of cultural biases at the heart of so-called “universal” human rights frameworks.

During the last week of May, 2013, the Wenner-Gren Foundation provided the funds to bring together scholars together to discuss the topic of marital rape and explore ways anthropologists could approach the topic (or, even to consider that it is not a useful concept to adopt cross-culturally). Scholars from around the globe and a range of disciplines met for four days to discuss, and often debate, the pros and cons of the language of human rights,  the value and drawbacks of cultural relativism, and the critique of imposing  Western gender norms  into non-Western context.

The group was comprised of six anthropologists and eight other scholars from law, criminology, sociology, politics, and public health. It was an interesting exercise to bring people from very different backgrounds together on a topic as contentious and legally fraught as marital rape. It took a couple of days for people to realize that there were common goals to be found amongst the group. One issue that took a few days to work out was for the non-anthropologists to understand that even if we, the anthropologists, are taking seriously what people say about their lives and behaviors, this doesn’t mean that we then sit back and accept acts of rape or domestic violence as just “part of culture”; likewise, it took the anthropologists a few days to realize that the non-anthropologists did want to find ways to better understand what policies and programs would make a difference in people’s lives, and acknowledging that we often don’t know enough about people’s quotidian experiences to be able to judge which policy will work best.

What we ended up deciding after four days of emotional and thoughtful discussions was that starting with marital rape was probably not the way forward. We found common ground on the importance of understanding how kinship and changing marriage norms in societies transitioning from subsistence to wage labor opportunities was a good start for exploring an issue like marital rape. Our concern was centered on the idea that if you don’t understand what people’s expectations are for sexual relations in marriage, it is hard to know how well legislating behavior in marriage will work out.

My experience with the Wenner-Gren workshop was valuable for helping me to see how multidisciplinary teams can be quite successful for debating, and even addressing, problems. It would be great to see our College of Arts and Sciences bring more multidisciplinary scholars together for not only academic discussions, but for team teaching opportunities as well. The Wenner-Gren grant supported three students to attend the workshop, and in talking with the undergraduates, it was easy to see how much they had learned not only about the topic, but the different disciplinary perspectives as applied to the topic.


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