Violence Against Women

Trump Lawyer Gets Marital Rape So Wrong

Recently Michael Cohen, special counsel for the Trump Organization, in denying a story by Daily Beast reporters Tim Mak and Brandy Zadrozny that claimed Donald Trump had raped his first wide, Ivana, said: “Of course, understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse.”

Although Ivana denied this claim, Cohen’s gross misunderstanding of marital rape is cause for alarm. Cohen’s remarks have many feminists hoping to set the record straight; marital rape is illegal in all 50 states.

Ms Magazine Spring 2011


Feminists fought in the 1970s to change laws regarding marital rape, and the first success came in 1976 when a law was enacted in Nebraska making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife. Although narrow in its definition of rape, this law was a reflection of the rapidly shifting paradigm around the topic of rape and where it falls as a crime. For over a century, rape had been considered a “crime of passion,” which was believed to be “understandable,” and given significantly less punishment than other crimes like murder or theft. The feminist intent, along with shifting the blame from the victim to the perpetrator, was to have rape seen as an act of violence.

Prior to the 1970s, rape within the confines of marriage was excluded from laws against rape. State-by-state campaigns, led largely by the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women, demanded that rape be recognized for what it is, regardless of a person’s marital status. The view that rape is an act of violence, in which a person uses sex as a weapon to hurt, humiliate, or exhibit power over someone, was one that was fought for and popularized by feminists, and slowly adopted into state law. By 1993, all 50 states had outlawed rape within marriage, although a handful of states still prosecute marital rape differently than rape outside the context of marriage. For these states, laws against marital rape are often more narrow than other sex laws, and include shorter or more lenient penalties.

Misunderstandings about what constitutes rape and sexual assault, as well as what consent means, are considered by many to be contributing factors in rape culture- but changing definitions of rape has been a long and sluggish process. As recently as 2012, the FBI definition of rape read “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will,” and had not been changed since 1929. Thanks in part to the “Rape is Rape” campaign led by the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. Magazine, the new definition is much more broad, including persons of all genders, and says rape is “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without consent of the victim.” Although this definition still leaves out some concepts of comprehensive consent, it was applauded as a hard-won leap in the right direction.

As always, there is still much further to go. Insufficient data exist on the prevalence of spousal rape, and few cases are every brought to trail. And, as Trump’s lawyer Cohen demonstrated when he claimed that “you can’t rape your spouse,” public education on rape and consent is still greatly needed.

Media Resources: The Daily Beast 7/27/15; CNN 7/28/15; Huffington Post 12/15/11; Feminist Newswire 1/9/12; Health Research Funding 10/9/14;

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