THE OUTCOME of the trial in Oregon in which a man was acquitted of raping his wife was of far less importance, except to the two people directly involved, than was the fact that the trial actually occurred. It was, so far as we know, the first of its kind. It will not be the last. The trial has raised for public discussion a question of basic human rights that wasn't mentioned much even in private-let alone emblazoned on front pages-until very recently.
The question is whether the law grants to married women less protection against violence than it grants to everyone else. All people, male and female, are protected against being beaten by anyone, including their spouses. All women are protected against being raped by anyone, except-in some states-their husbands. is there something so private about marital relations that makes resort to violence by one partner against the other acceptable when it is directed at achieving sexual intercouse?
The answer to that question seems clear to us. Indeed, the furor over the Oregon trial is downright baffling. And yet there was probably as much furor the first time a slave-owner was charged with raping a slave of the first time a husband was charged with beating his wife. The proposition that a husband cannot be held accountable for raping his wife is one of the last vestiges of an old-and, one would have thought, thoroughly discredited-idea that wives are property, to be used in any way that is pleasing to their owners.
Yet, some have argued that laws, like the one in Oregon, that permit wives to accuse their husbands of rape are wrong because they intrude into the most private of relationships. True, they do intrude in a sense, but that intrusion will occur only if one spouse chooses to waive that right of privacy.When that happens, the relationship itself will have been effectively, if not yet legally, terminated. Society does not now tolerate, if a spouse objects, the resort to beating with fist or whip merely because it occurs in a marital bedroom. It should not tolerate an even more extreme form of personal violence.
It is most unlikely that there will be a wave of cases in which one spouse charges the other with rape, even if the Oregon law is adopted nationwide. Rape is a difficult crime to prove anytime the act involves persons well known to each other, because there is often little evidence other than the conflicting testimony of the complainant and the accused. The crime will be even more difficult to prove when spouses are involved.
The difficulty in proving that rape has occurred between spouses, however, is no reason for the law to assert-as it does in most states-that such a rape cannot occur. That defies common sense. The Oregon law is aimed at protecting women against violence. It is not aimed at the marital relationship itself, as are laws in many states that make criminal certain kinds of sexual behavior.By taking a stand against violence within a marriage as well as outside of it, Oregon and the prosecutor in this case have pointed the way toward a more civilized approach in which all people have the same legal rights and protections, regardless of sex or marital status.