11.11.1990

Do not violate marriage

Do not violate marriage
 
MANY people must have felt uneasy at the Law Commission's proposal last week that a new offence of marital rape be put on the statute book. The last time it was considered by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, in 1984, they were divided on the issue and voted against changing the law, on the grounds that a man could already be prosecuted for the offence of indecent assault and violence against his wife. That this law can be used in cases where a husband forces himself on an estranged wife has been shown by the imprisonment of a man for this offence in July of this year.
 
In view of the effectiveness of this law, therefore, it is strange that the Law Commission should announce that a change of words to include "marital rape" would mean "an end to the immunity enjoyed by husbands for centuries". It is that rheto­ric, with its almost subliminal implication that husbands enjoy raping their wives, that alerts one to the presence of ideas hostile to the traditional concept of mar­riage. Certainly a part of the legal profes­sion seems prepared to argue that rape is simply unwanted sex, regardless of whether it involves strangers on a train or a husband and wife in their own bed. This should, indeed, give us pause for thought.
 
Can it possibly be accurate to call by the same word an act which has such profoundly different connotations within marriage and outside it? Words have immense power to influence the way we see and experience reality, which is why we have a wide vocabulary that distin­guishes minutely between things in the interest of truth.
 
The word “rape" has achieved its ominous and fearful sound because it contains all the terror and loathing women feel for the violent interloper who breaches the boundaries set up by culture, law and reli­gion to protect them. In the old days, rape carried the added danger of the woman conceiving a fatherless child as a result of the attack and, even today, it can mean the trauma of abortion or a fatal disease like Aids. The implications are as horren­dous now as they have ever been and explain why, in the past, the offence car­ried the death penalty.
 
Within marriage, sexual assault must be different because, although real hatred may be present, it is hatred for someone once loved. The sexual act, though unwanted, was once freely given and part of something generous and wonderful; a joint enterprise that went sadly and badly wrong. The husband, however hated he becomes, was once the woman's choice, and any assault he perpetrates on her must be painfully compounded of ele­ments, in both parties, of that failed love and the aggression and frustration it induces. On those grounds alone it deserves a different name from the one we give to the silent, unknown predator who climbs in through the bedroom win­dow or stalks the streets at night intent only to gratify his own perverted desires.
 
However, there is more to the feeling of unease at this proposed change of title
than a merely academic dissatisfaction with its linguistic accuracy. One is aware that a subtle assault is being mounted on the whole concept of the family as an institution that represents love and security.
 
No doubt one can argue that marriage is not always a haven of these things, but that is no reason to taint the name itself with the vile associations of "marital rape". One can imagine the outcry if a new category of "Social Services rape" were to be proposed because of the number of unsavoury cases that have come to light over the years in various children's homes!
 
Bringing the concept of rape into mar­riage is mischievous in two ways. In the first place, it poses insuperable problems as to literal proof of the act itself, but, more importantly, it implies that married men and women have no more claim on one another than the rapist and his victim. By placing rape in marriage, the dark and terrifying figure of the rapist is given his spectral place within the comfort and security of the normal home, and his shadow is cast on us all.
 
One suspects, in this proposed change, the influence of a lobby that has a deep- seated repugnance for marriage and sees all men as potential rapists. I think it was Fay Weldon who remarked about some of the feminists she knew that, if they were men, they would be rapists. Perhaps this explains the source of our unease. Such feminists are seeing themselves whenever they look at men. Are not the rest of us being forced to share that nightmare vision?