Marital rape and the socialisation of sex – is there room for consent? 

The article below is the part 2 of a two-part series discussing the legal and social perspective on the rape and specifically marital rape. This article focuses on the social and medical aspect of marital rape.

TW: Rape, abuse.

During a conversation with her granddaughter, Lakshmi* had to answer some inquisitive questions that came up. Her granddaughter wanted to know more about her thatha (grandfather). Little did she know that she would reflect on what she now understands as a painful memory. “Back in the day, we weren’t allowed to even look at our husbands directly.. We were there to serve them and nothing else. I know thatha wanted to speak to me but he would always be bullied by his peers for doing so. We were never allowed to sleep in the same room. I would sleep in the kitchen with the rest of the women of the household and thatha on the porch. The nights he wanted to use me, he’d pick me up from the kitchen and take me to the backyard. It used to be painful but that was what ought to be done. I didn’t know anything more.” She tears as she goes back a little in time. Her granddaughter, a little confused at what she just heard, asks her paati about her thoughts on marital rape. Lakshmi by now knows that what happened to her was not okay. 

Lakshmi’s story is only one of several. Most women, especially older women don’t have the chance to reflect or understand what happened to them. To them, pain was normal. Tolerance made a good wife. It took me a while to understand that marital rape is barely spoken about and operates in disguise through multiple layers of culture and socialisation. As Bell Hooks says, being oppressed means the absence of choice. And that’s the unfortunate reality for many women, added with other layers of structural trauma and violence if that woman is in the margins of the society.  

Marital rape is often hard to comprehend because marriage is perceived to be a contract of permanent consent. Combined with the perception of sex as a source of procreation and not pleasure, it is considered the duty of the woman to procreate and hence adhere to the forces of the husband regardless of how painful it is. While speaking to women about their understanding of marital rape, it was seen that it was understood only in retrospect. Dutiful wives have never had the chance to even think of sex as a form of pleasure, as something that they can have a say on. Sex is normalized as unconsented and painful. It doesn’t help at all when the state doesn’t recognize it to be a problem as well. It is trauma that has been and still is silenced and carried over for generations. 

Vidhya Dinakaran, a mental health professional at International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) says, “The families, sometimes even the woman herself, feels so guilty for having felt uncomfortable that they don’t even want to recognize it as intrusion let alone rape. So ingrained is the notion of what a woman needs to be.” She further adds, “Marital rape is undermined due to shocking assumptions that in a marital relationship sex is a given and that it falls under the roles and duties of a being. It also reiterates the toxic notion that men are owed the sex they demand, if they are to become the ‘provider’ for the woman after marriage. By attaching no recognition to this, the ideas of ownership experienced by the perpetrator and the misogyny is only bolstered. Let alone laws, humiliation and family honour attached to this instills fear and provides no space for condemning this act. This presents as a disguised evil that strips a woman of her dignity hiding under the misconception that, marriage forever equals consensus and reinforces the socially constructed idea of roles and duties.”

Sexist socialisation that roots from patriarchy have clouded the way we understand sex and pleasure. Part of understanding patriarchy is also that it operates in several layers and multiple intersections. It is upheld by powerful cultural norms and is sustained by education, tradition and other systems. This seeps into how we have taught to understand romantic partnerships and our right to consent and determination.

Women have been conditioned to put love, selflessness and care before anything else. So when it comes to sexual intercourse within a marriage, tolerance is what is taught to young women. It is that pain is inevitable. So, rape within the structure of marriage in many contexts has been unfortunately normalized. It allows no room for dissent and no protection for the pained. I can’t help but wonder, if men were socialized to desire love as much as they were taught to desire sex, the cultural revolution we would witness. 


*Lakshmi is a fictionalised name

The writer of the article, Meera Viswanathan, a mental health professional, is part of the Board of Directors in the MSAAW Foundation.

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