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Marital rape is technically illegal in all 50 states, but some have legal exemptions that make it difficult to prosecute offenders.
As of Monday, Minnesotans who rape their spouses can be charged with sexual assault, following the repeal of a statute that had previously made it difficult to prosecute such cases.
The legislative change, approved unanimously by Minnesota lawmakers and signed by Gov. Tim Walz in May, was pushed by Jenny Teeson, who discovered she had been drugged and sexually assaulted by her now ex-husband only after finding video of the incident on her laptop.
Teeson gave the video to law enforcement, who charged her husband with third-degree criminal sexual assault. But prosecutors later dropped that case due to the state’s “voluntary relationship” clause, which stated that “a person does not commit criminal sexual conduct … if the actor and complainant were adults cohabiting in an ongoing voluntary sexual relationship at the time of the alleged offense, or if the complainant is the actor’s legal spouse.”
Teeson’s husband eventually pleaded guilty to invasion of privacy and served 30 days in jail. Teeson later went public with her story, prompting lawmakers to call for a repeal of the statute.
“It’s an antiquated, outdated piece of law that has no place in Minnesota,” Rep. Zack Stephenson, lead sponsor of the House bill, said after the chamber passed the legislation unanimously. “I’m excited to get it removed from the books altogether so that everyone can get justice.”
More than 18% of women and 8% of men have been victims of sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Marital rape is technically illegal in all 50 states, but nearly a dozen still provide some sort of legal loophole for people who rape their spouses.
In Virginia, for example, a perpetrator can undergo therapy in lieu of other punishment, provided “the court finds such action will promote maintenance of the family unit and be in the best interest of the complaining witness.” In South Carolina, victims of marital rape must report their attacks within 30 days, and the assault must qualify as “aggravated force,” including the use of a weapon or physical violence of a “high and aggravated nature,” to be eligible for prosecution.
Efforts to repeal or update statutes have failed in other states. Lawmakers in Ohio have tried twice to change the state’s law, which prevents attackers from being prosecuted for spousal rape if there’s no threat of force, meaning a victim could be drugged and penetrated with no chance for legal recourse. State Reps. Kristin Boggs and Tavia Galonski, both Democrats, last month introduced a third bill to change the law, which is currently awaiting a hearing before the House criminal justice committee.
It’s unclear if the effort will have success this time. At least one Republican signed onto the measure, and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association supports the legislation after opposing previous iterations. But Boggs told the Associated Press that she’s not optimistic about its chances, despite her straightforward intentions in drafting it.
“Our rationale for introducing this legislation," she said, "is simply that your legal relationship to another human being shouldn’t give you permission to rape them."
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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