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Monday, June 28, 2021

New law strengthens marital rape victims' rights

Assembly approves removal of spousal exemption from rape law

With final votes in both chambers, the General Assembly approved legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert E. Craven and Sen. Dawn Euer to allow criminal charges to be brought when a person is raped by their spouse while the victim is incapacitated.

State law includes an exemption for spouses in the part of state’s first-degree sexual assault law that addresses situations when the victim is incapacitated, disabled or helpless. The legislation (2021-S 0834, 2021-H 6155), which will now be sent to the governor, eliminates that exemption.

“Consent always matters. A person who cannot consent because they are unconscious, drugged or disabled deserves to be protected from anyone who would abuse them in that state, spouse or not. That’s rape no matter who you are, and refusing to recognize it as such is leaving victims subject to repeated abuse. Our state must bring this ancient law into the 21st century and recognize that consent is every person’s inalienable right,” said Senator Euer (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown). 

“Just as we no longer tolerate onerous laws that treat women as the property of their husbands, we have to eliminate the spousal exemption in our rape law. Marriage is not giving up the right to your bodily autonomy. Eliminating the spousal exemption is affirming the human rights that belong to every single person.”

Said Chairman Craven (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown), “This legislation is long overdue because no one, whether they are married or not, should fall victim to sexual assault if they are incapacitated and unable to give consent. The law we are amending is an arcane rule that runs counter to the women’s rights we are trying to support and bring into the 21st century. No longer will this gross legal loophole be utilized to protect rapists and sexual abusers who target their spouses from the accountability and justice that these vile individuals deserve for their heinous actions.”

Rhode Island is one of many states that still have laws that sometimes prevent spousal rape from being prosecuted, often based on a notion set in English law in the 1670s stating that marriage conveys irrevocable consent.

According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDM), 10 to 14 percent of married women in the United States have been raped by their husbands. While it took until 1993 for all 50 states to recognize marital rape in at least some form as a criminal act, many states, including Rhode Island, still allow exemptions in situations where the victim is unable to provide consent, such as when the victim is asleep or unconscious. Victims of marital rape are likely to be victimized over and over, according to the NRCDM.

The bill is supported by Day One, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities.

It is cosponsored in the House by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick), Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence), and Rep. Gregg Amore (D-Dist. 65, East Providence).

Senate cosponsors include Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick), Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence), Senate President Pro Tempore Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick), Sen. Bridget G. Valverde (D-Dist. 35, North Kingstown, East Greenwich, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Sen. Alana M. DiMario (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown), Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), Sen. Valarie J. Lawson (D-Dist. 14, East Providence), Sen. Sandra Cano (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket) and Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence).