Wifely Duty: Rape Culture and Marital Rape

“By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.” -Phyllis Schlafly

Continuing the discussion of rape in the context of relationships, in the season 2 episode The Mountain King, Mad Men did a fantastic job portraying marital rape.


Legally, there was no such thing as marital rape in 1962, when this show is set.

Originally, all 50 states legally defined rape as sexual intercourse with a female, not a spouse, forcibly and against her will (Russell 1990). It was not until late in the 1970s, during the second women’s rights movement, that state courts and legislatures began abolishing the marital rape exemptions (Bergen 1996). As of 2002, however, only 24 states and the District of Columbia had abolished completely their marital rape exemptions.

But it’s events like these that were all too common that led to there being laws against it. However, where you really see rape culture come into play is in the reactions to this scene, and the many people that didn’t see it as rape at all. Christina Hendricks, the actress that plays Joan, gave an interview where she said:

What’s astounding is when people say things like, ‘Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?’ Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers,” says Hendricks. “I’m like, ‘What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!’ It illustrates how similar people are today, because we’re still questioning whether it’s a rape. It’s almost like, ‘Why didn’t you just say bad date?’

There is no question to me whether or not this is a rape. Look at the progression of these stills and tell me if this looks at all consensual.


When her hand becomes a fist, and then she resigns herself to staring blankly at the desk, my heart broke.

Here are some comments that I found around the internet regarding that “Joan rape” scene (all emphasis mine):

“I thought Joan’s fiance was a real jerk. I don’t think he had any right to practically raping her.”

Yes, “practically” raping her. When someone ignores your “no” and forces you to the ground, that’s “practically” consensual, right?

Next. comment:
It. Is. Very. Tricky. I think the answer is Yes, definitely, she was raped, but what made it a rape instead of her just “not into it” with her fiance is that there was force and she said NO repeatedly with clearly stated reasons. There was a moment when then line DEFINITELY crossed.”

It is very tricky? No, no it’s not. Yes, she was raped. But who the fuck cares what made her just “not into it” versus rape? The point is that she wasn’t into it, resisted, and was forced anyway. Why don’t YOU tell me where the “very tricky” part in that scene was?

I’ll wait. I’m listening.

“Why did Joan say no? I mean, it doesnt really matter. No means no and she had every right to not want to do it. But it seems out of character for Joan.”

Oh, this is a fun one! The “it seems so out of character” excuse! So, I go home with a guy one night. And maybe another night. And another, too. Then one night, I decide I don’t want to go home with this person. Because, judging by pattern, this is “out of character” for me, it’s okay/justified when someone forces themselves on me?


“I have been wondering about whether “one no is (always) enough”… Are there types of “no”s? Obviously, I can see how a “pornification” concept would explain a frat-boy date-rapist being unable to understand a woman’s forceful rejections, especially when she initially seemed playful and receptive (“Dr Harris, are you trying to examine me?”).”

Playful and receptive (“Dr. Harris, are you trying to examine me?”) are very different than aggressive and entitled. Flirtation and dirty talk in your place of employment in no way equals being okay with, and asking for, sex in your boss’ office. Frat-boy-date-rape is one thing; a husband blatantly raping his wife/fiance on TV is another.

AMC’s own site wouldn’t even use the word “rape” in describing the scene. What did they call it?

Joan’s inappropriately aggressive fiancee had the Talk forum up in arms this week.

“Inappropriately aggressive.” Yes, rapists are *just* “inappropriately aggressive.” Especially the ones that force themselves onto their partners. “Inappropriately aggressive.” I’ll be sure to tell my nightmares and terrors that the man was just “inappropriately aggressive” with me, hence the reason I was raped by someone I knew well.

However, pop culture portrayals of “wifely duty,” while extraordinarily outdated and damaging, still to some extent, affect our feelings about things.

Women still write columns that say things like this:

“Have you ever noticed that although you might not have been thinking sexual thoughts or feeling particularly sexy, if you push yourself to ‘get started’ when your spouse approaches you, it feels good, and you find yourself getting into it?”

FYI, even when a woman is being rape, her body will lubricate as a way to protect itself. It’s a defense mechanism that protects the vagina from too much tearing or damage. So, the “she liked it” defense? Not gonna fly.

“In the old days, of course, there was the wifely duty. A housewife understood that in addition to ironing her husband’s shirts and cooking the Sunday roast, she was—with some regularity—going to have relations with the man of the house. Perhaps, as some feminists would have us believe, these were grimly efficient interludes during which the poor humped-upon wife stared at the ceiling and silently composed the grocery list. Or perhaps not. Maybe, as Davis and her “new” findings suggest, once you get the canoe out in the water, everybody starts happily paddling.”

Ah, yes. I want to compare sex with my husband to paddling a canoe. How… romantic? Pleasurable?

“To many contemporary women, however, the notion that sex might have any function other than personal fulfillment (and the occasional bit of carefully scheduled baby making) is a violation of the very tenets of the sexual revolution that so deeply shaped their attitudes on such matters. Under these conditions, pity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day’s end.”

Ah, yes. Pity the poor man who wants to have sex with the woman who has no desire to! God forbid women only had sex when they enjoyed it! What, you mean everyone doesn’t just suck it up and “take one for the team” all the time?

“Whatever happened to wifely duty?”

Fuck off.

And men write columns that say things like this:

“Compared to most womens sexual nature, mens sexual nature is far closer to that of animals. So what? That is the way he is made. Blame God and nature. Telling your husband to control it is a fine idea. But he already does. Every man who is sexually faithful to his wife already engages in daily heroic self-control. He has married knowing he will have to deny his sexual natures desire for variety for the rest of his life. To ask that he also regularly deny himself sex with the one woman in the world with whom he is permitted sex is asking far too much.”

Apparently, staying faithful to your wife is now HEROIC.

“But, to repeat the key point, rejection of sex should happen infrequently. And it should almost never be dependent on mood…At the same time, men need to recognize that complete sexual fulfillment is unattainable in this world.”

Women: you should hardly EVER turn your husband down. And if you do, it should not be because you’re not in the mood.

So it should be because… what? You’re sick? In the hospital?

“Why would a loving, wise woman allow mood to determine whether or not she will give her husband one of the most important expressions of love she can show him? What else in life, of such significance, do we allow to be governed by mood? Why do we assume that it is terribly irresponsible for a man to refuse to go to work because he is not in the mood, but a woman can — indeed, ought to — refuse sex because she is not in the mood? Why?”

Hear that, women? SEX IS YOUR JOB. Submit.

It just perpetuates the idea that sex is a duty in a marriage or a relationship. It’s an obligation, and something that you should just shut up and live with, whether you want it or not. Look, I get the fact that sometimes, you compromise with your partner and have sex when you might not want to. But our misconceptions of “wifely duty,” instead of propelling us forward, this crap holds us back.

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  1. Sa
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    This was a very informative post, well-written and well-researched. I live in a country where marital rape wasn't recognized until the 90's, so this is a painful topic for me. The number of times I have heard people accuse women of sabotaging their relationships because they refused to "lie down and think of England" is revolting.

  2. sarahbear
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    I have never understood why it's so difficult to recognize that situation as rape. It was pretty clear to me that's what it was and watching that clip gave me chills.

    The quotes from other comments and blogs? Disgusting. I think that when men who are as pig-headed and insensitive as the ones who's blogs you quoted go on to suggest that it's a heroic feat for a man to be faithful to his wife. To suggest that all men are rabid and frothing at the mouth if they don't get the sex they deserve for merely existing. Those types of men make me sick, and I think they make -real- men sick too, because they attempt to lump all men together. Because they can't control their own impulses they want to try to say 'everyone else is doing it' to try and deflect some of the blame off of their poor choices.

    Great post, Brit.

  3. mrs. m
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    i'm happy to know that my husband not fucking every woman that walks back him is a heroic effort.

    where are the men who write with their brains rather than their cocks? not ALL men are looking to get laid every second of every waking moment.

    also, i will have to remember that i was "practically abused" as a child.

    sheesh, what century are we in again?

  4. The Duchess
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    This is simultaneously sad and hilarious.
    Not even just from the woman's point of view. It makes men look just as bad as the women who are ignoring their "duties."

    Really? Do you think most men would consider themselves heroes and that they have the right to force their wives? That they're never not in the mood when their wives are?

    And anyone who could watch that scene and feel that there is any ambiguity on what happened is absolutely ridiculous. Rape is rape. Period.

  5. Another Suburban Mom
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I think that the whole concept of the "duty" fuck is wrong. How much fun can sex be when one person is lying there wishing it would end.

    However discussions about sex and libido can be a challenging topic for the most enlightened of couples so there is a long road to hoe there.

  6. Advizor
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    I liked this post a great deal. Thanks.

    You used a phrase I'm not familiar with, "*WARNING* CLIP MAY BE TRIGGERING*"

    What does that mean?

  7. BritniNo Gravatar
    Posted February 19, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Advizor, it means that it may be triggering for rape victims, i.e. may upset them, trigger flashbacks, etc.

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