Sexual Assault Apparently Only Crime Where Ignorance of the Law Is an Acceptable Excuse

sexual assault

“Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.” Even those of us who do not work in the legal field know this axiom. Even if you didn’t pay attention to the speed limit sign on the side of the road, you can still be busted for speeding. However, there exists one area in which ignorance of the law apparently does serve as an excuse — marital rape.

Rape is rape, period. Having sex with someone without their consent should be considered a crime in all circumstances regardless of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. Still, some jurisdictions cling to the religious belief that a wife is a man’s property to do with what he will. Such was the case of an Ottawa man found not guilty of sexual assault even though he had raped his wife multiple times without her consent.

Failure to Establish Mens Rea

The legal concept of mens rea means the perpetrator has knowledge their act is criminal and nevertheless forms the intent to commit the illegal act. For example, if an individual accidentally hits someone with their car, they have committed a crime, but as there was no intent, the charges will be far lesser than they would be if that same individual deliberately crashed into someone with the intent to cause them harm. One act would be considered negligent, the other deliberate.

In the Ottawa case, the man’s attorney successfully argued that the man had no intent to rape his wife as he did not know that forcing his wife into sex without her consent was rape. The victim said she had sex with the perpetrator on several occasions when she did not consent, but she thought it was his “right” as a husband to have sex with her whenever he wanted.

It wasn’t until the couple separated and were in the midst of a dispute over their children that the victim discovered that she did, in fact, have the right to refuse sex with her husband. She subsequently filed a report with police regarding a 2002 incident where he grabbed her wrist, threw her down, and proceeded to have sex with her despite her asking him to stop three times.

No Knowledge, No Crime?

The idea that this was not considered rape is absurd. Anyone who hears a woman specifically say “no,” not once but multiple times, and who continues to force himself on her knows perfectly well they are committing a crime.

In the Ottawa case, even though the judge admitted marriage was not a shield against rape allegations, he nevertheless found that the prosecution failed to prove rape occurred beyond and above any reasonable doubt. He also stated that the allegations happened during a contentious part of the couple’s marriage, casting doubt on the veracity of the woman’s claims.

The Persistent Myths Surrounding Sexual Assault

One persistent myth surrounding sexual assault is that the victim is lying about the events that occurred. Assaults that leave few or no physical scars create a “he said/she said” scenario. This myth, however, is the reason many sexual assault victims fail to come forward. The hypocrisy here could not be more blatant. If someone accused another of stealing their wallet, but there was no evidence, the victim of the theft would nevertheless be believed.

Only in cases of sexual assault does it seem that we suspect the victim of complicity in her victimization. One need only look to the numerous women who were allegedly victims of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein to see how women are so often shamed into silence about their assault. People willingly believe a man’s statement that no rape occurred, and easily dismiss a woman’s claims that an assault did, in fact, happen. For example, Donald Trump rose to the presidency despite multiple accusations of sexual assault.

Legal Changes Are Needed

While spousal rape is illegal in all states, that doesn’t mean perpetrators are always punished. In Connecticut, for example, spousal rape can only be prosecuted if the use of force is involved. In Minnesota, spousal rape is only prosecuted if the victim was rendered completely helpless. All in all, 13 states still require some sort of additional proof before a man who rapes his spouse can be punished for the crime.

We Need to Believe Women

It is ludicrous rape remains the only crime where the burden of proof rests on the victim to show the crime occurred, not on the defendant to prove they didn’t do it. This idea is backwards, and it makes a mockery of the legal system.

To fix this dichotomy, we need simply to start believing women who are victims of sexual assault just as we believe victims of other crimes, such as theft and embezzlement. We need to enforce the attitude that no one would go through the humiliation of reporting a rape if one did not in fact occur. Above all, we need to put the perpetrators of sexual assault behind bars, so we send a clear societal message that having sex with someone without their consent is never, ever okay.

Kate Harveston is a political writer with an interest in social justice and progressive change. She has a background in journalism and Criminal Justice, so she enjoys anything related to law, politics, culture and the written word. In her spare time, her favorite activity is reading dystopian fiction. If you like her work, you can subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased, or follow her on Twitter for updates!


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