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Minnesota House agrees: Spousal rape counts as criminal sexual conduct

Rep. Zack Stephenson: "It's just wrong."

Rep. Zack Stephenson: "It's just wrong." Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

On Thursday, in a rare display, the Minnesota House voted 130-0 to pass a bill. It was supposed to eliminate a clause that, in some cases, prevents rapists from being prosecuted for criminal sexual conduct – as long as the person they raped was a partner or spouse. The corrective bill was originally put forward by Coon Rapids Democrat Zack Stephenson.

The vote brings mixed feelings for many. Pride, for one, certainly. It’s heartening to see 130 members of the Minnesota House agreeing wholeheartedly to overturn something archaic and wrongheaded.

But the fact that we have yet to do so until now -- that we are even discussing whether the rape of a spouse counts as criminal sexual conduct -- is a depressing reality check.

Until 1979, most state definitions of rape specifically excluded spouses. Things began to change in the fall of that year, when a bartender from Salem, Massachusetts broke into the house he used to share with his wife and assaulted her. At the time, the two were in the midst of a divorce.

What followed is believed to be the first ever conviction for spousal rape in the United States. By 1983, 17 states had ditched language in their statutes that protected spouses from prosecution. But change came slowly. As Time magazine reports, it was still common to hear the “oft-cited” joke: “But if you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape?”

It took until 1993 for marital rape to become illegal in all 50 states. But in several states -- including our own -- it’s charged under a different code than any other kind of rape. It’s as if being sexually assaulted by someone with whom you are “cohabiting in an ongoing voluntary relationship,” as the law currently puts it, is somehow different -- lesser -- than being raped by anyone else.

The bill needs only pass just as neatly through the Republican-controlled Senate to become law. Stephenson says this could have happened last session, if it hadn’t been rolled into a massive conglomerate spending bill with other unrelated legislation. He’s “feeling positive” it will make it this year, provided it gets its own clean bill. He says if it does, it will result in seven additional convictions of criminal sexual conduct a year.

If you need any proof that the thinking behind that statute is still out there in this day and age, look no further than a 2015 remark from now-President Donald Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen.

At the time, Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana, was going public about an incident between herself and Trump in 1989 that had left her feeling “violated.” She once used the word “rape” to describe it. Cohen’s response was this:

“You’re talking about the frontrunner for the GOP, presidential candidate, as well as a private individual who never raped anybody,” he said. “And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse… It is true. You cannot rape your spouse. And there’s very clear case law.”

Cohen later backpedaled, saying, “in my moment of shock and anger, I made an inarticulate comment -- which I do not believe -- and which I apologize for entirely.”