There are literally hundreds of rights and responsibilities granted to married partners. Tax benefits, visitation rights when a spouse is hospitalized, the right to not have to testify against one another in court are all among the many “perks” of tying the knot. Marriage also gives the legal right to engage in sexual acts, free from guilt or fear of the law.
Unfortunately this often removes the notion of consent in the moment and overrides it with the notion that consent is always granted. If a marriage is founded on mutual respect neither partner is likely to demand sex when the other is not in the mood. The hope is that all marriages are founded on such mutual respect. Sadly there is plenty of evidence that the notion of sex as a “wifely duty” can make it very difficult for a women to say no to unwanted sex.
Like many things having to do with marriage there has been evolution on this topic. Historically both the church and the state have assumed that a married woman is not entitled to consent. Which is even more egregious when one realizes that many marriages were arranged without the woman’s (or often girl’s) consent to begin with.
The good news – such as it is – for women in the United States is that in 1993 marital rape became illegal in all 50 states – albeit with many caveats.
Prior to that time the traditional definition of rape in the United States most commonly was, "sexual intercourse by a man with a female not his wife without her consent" (quoted in Barshis, 1983, p. 383). This was based on the statements of Sir Matthew Hale, Chief Justice in 17th Century England. Hale wrote, "But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto the husband which she cannot retract." Even today it is generally assumed that the wife consents because of the existing marital contract.
It may be difficult to have the conversation about consent when you are in the heat of courtship, and can’t keep your hands off of each other. But before you say, “I do,” be sure that you will still have the option to say “Not tonight.”