Sunday 29 March 2020

Sexual assault within a marriage is no laughing matter

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

It is obvious that all the laws on domestic violence in the world cannot forcibly change the mentality of the way people view this issue, especially when it comes to the hot topic of sexual violence and rape that occur within a marriage.

Nothing brought this home more than this week’s report from Court in which a 71-year-old man was found guilty and sentenced to one year in jail for forcing his 68-year-old wife to watch porn while he inserted objects into her private parts against her will. The woman managed to get away, ran out into the street naked and begged for help.

The online comments which ensued under this story ranged from hilarity (because apparently the thought of elderly people still having sex is considered by some to be a subject of ridicule) to actually feeling sorry for the man who was, after all, “only” trying to experiment, and anyway they were married for 42 years so the woman must have been happy with the situation.

After reading the outrageous justifications for the man’s behaviour, and the sheer lack of compassion towards the woman, I could only stare dumbfounded at my laptop screen. Where to begin?

First of all, it was deeply disturbing to read the flippant comments, even by women, who were basically asking what all the fuss was about, and that this was a private matter, without even stopping to think that they were in fact condoning marital rape. One even went so far as to say that “at least he turned to his wife for sex, instead of becoming a pedophile”. The more I read, the more I felt despair at how people such as this have understood absolutely nothing about the horrible things which can happen inside a marriage where a woman has been subjected to humiliating acts by her controlling husband, probably for many long years, until she finally could not take it any more.

Now some have pointed out that those making these jokes and statements were deliberately trolling in order to provoke outraged reactions. But even if this is the case, doesn’t it also speak volumes at how lightly the issue of sexual violence is treated?

In the news reports where the description of what the man did was more explicit, the comments became even worse, which leads me to the conclusion that certain stories should have the comment function switched off, even on Facebook. Not everyone was this insensitive, of course, and there were those who spoke out forcibly against the pathetic comments, but still, the very fact that people thought nothing of actually writing such comments in the first place, under their own name, makes the mind boggle. In fact, their blase’ approach to the incident seemed to echo the husband himself, who, according to one reporter’s description, sat in the dock completely perplexed as to why he was being charged in the first place. He then admitted that there was nothing he could do about his sexual behaviour, adding however, that he had always given his wife money.

It is the kind of reasoning which is probably typical of that generation, where a man got married and simply assumed “ownership” of his wife, who now belonged to him body and soul, obliged to do his bidding both inside and outside the bedroom. I’m sure that, if we had to dig deeper, we would find that this is no isolated case, but that there have been many other women in this age group who were subjected to this kind of degrading treatment by their husbands, and simply accepted it, maybe even thinking that it was the price one had to pay for marriage. One must remember that sex was not spoken about at all 50-some years ago, and no private intimate details were ever discussed between women to share and compare what goes on between the sheets. So how would a woman born, raised and socially conditioned in times which are very different to the ones we are living in today have the assertiveness and self-confidence to tell her husband ‘no’ if she does not want to do something?

Those who were so casually dissecting, mocking and dismissing this story are clearly not grasping the crucial issue: that even if you are married to someone, you do not have to submit to sex or any type of sexual acts, including watching porn, if you do not want to. Consent is required no matter what, because in a loving, mutually respectful relationship, both sides have to be willing – anything other than that, is rape and sexual assault.

If this story has taught us anything it is that for a lot of people who so blithely and cruelly comment online, it seems that the dignity of the human being (whether man or woman) means very little. It has also shown that we have a long way to go when it comes to truly understanding the real meaning of consent, and how domestic violence and controlling behaviour can take many shapes and forms and can happen at any age.

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