In at least ten states, what I survived might not legally be considered rape. The only thing that would help my case is that we were living separately. But even then, a rape charge still might be thrown out since I had not yet filed for divorce or separation. States such as Maryland, Nevada, Mississippi, and Oklahoma extend protections to spouses that make it next to impossible to be found guilty of rape, even if a husband has drugged his wife. In these states, a man cannot be found guilty of raping his wife, unless there is “threat of force.” Meaning that, for many legislators in the United States, the rape I survived was not violent enough to be a crime simply because my rapist was my husband.
This all goes back to England in the 1600s when Sir Matthew Hale stated that husbands can never be guilty of rape because, “by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given up herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract.” Nothing similar is stated in the history of law regarding the husband. And this legal conception of a wife as a man’s property, rather than an autonomous human being who deserves her own say, goes back at least to the Bible.
Coverture, a cornerstone of these sexist laws, guaranteed for hundreds of years that once a woman married, she lost her right to own property and engage in business for herself. If you are someone else’s property, ownership is barred to you. Even the ownership of your own body. But in 1966 Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black penned a dissenting opinion in United States v. Yazell that challenged this view of women. He stated that it was time to do away with “the old common-law fiction that the husband and wife are one. This rule has worked out in reality to mean that though the husband and wife are one, the one is the husband.” And in 1979, the United States witnessed its first marital rape conviction.
Things have been changing for decades, but it is slow going. We dismantle these laws stone by stone, one state at a time. Just this month (May 2019), Minnesota passed a bill ensuring that marital rape can now be tried by the same legal standards as any other rape. Ohio is also currently revisiting marital rape laws, though efforts there to pretend it is a partisan issue may kill the bill before it passes.
* * *
But the law is one thing. Reality is another.
How can I explain what happened next? How can I explain the numbness? The indifference? The shutting down? How can I explain that I stopped making choices?
I can only tell you that I knew, deep in my bones and blood, that my life was over. It no longer mattered what I did. Things would never change. And I didn’t feel anything again for a long time. I didn’t even feel enough to care whether I lived or died. I was no longer alive at all.
I don’t remember moving out of my brother’s apartment. I don’t remember how everything went back to the way it had been before. I only know that it did.
I do remember telling my roommate Mike that I was going back to Top, and he said, “Sure. Top’s a nice guy.”
Which was what everyone said.
So, you see, I knew it wasn’t a rape. Of course he hadn’t raped me. How could he have? He was such a nice guy, and everybody loved him, and something was wrong with me because I didn’t.
* * *
So when I came around a corner at the restaurant and found Top holding one of his waitresses close, I didn’t think that looks like an assault. She was facing the computer monitor, standing stiff and straight, as he stood behind her and pushed her against the counter. But I didn’t think he’s at it again. He had his hands firmly on her hips as he ran his lips up and down the nape of her neck. But I didn’t think she needs help. I was fairly certain that he was shoving his erection inside his pants against her butt cheeks, but I didn’t think jesus christ, this is disgusting. I’m calling the cops.
He turned and saw me, and the waitress bolted into the kitchen. But he stayed there for a second, holding his position for a beat, staring me down. With the glare of a vampire whose feast had been interrupted. And then, when I went on standing there, somewhere between a flashback and dissociation and a panic attack, he locked himself in the bathroom.
I only thought he was cheating on me because I was such a useless, good for nothing nobody. When I saw her the next day, I wanted to ask, Is it an affair, or did he assault you? But her hand was shaking as she passed me a glass of water, and mine was shaking as I took it, and neither one of us was in any position to help the other.
I did try to talk to Top about it.
I saw you. I said. What were you thinking? She’s your employee. She’s more than 12 years younger than you.
And he traded off which answer he chose, juggling them like beanbags. It was always one or the other.
I don’t remember anything. I was drunk.
As his drinking shifted from heavy to alcoholic, I told myself it must be because it was so hard being married to me. Which was what he told me, too.
I never thought it was because he couldn’t live with the monster he had become. I never thought I had grown to hate myself because deep down, I still knew I deserved basic safety and dignity, and I was angry at myself for making the same choices my mother had. For sacrificing my well-being just as she had, so that I could make excuses for an abuser. I never thought about the world beyond this nightmare I lived in.
I simply never thought about the truth at all.