Michelle McCormick has a first-hand understanding of the physical abuse, coercive control and sexual violence that occurs within some marriages.
McCormick, program director at the YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment in Topeka, has worked with individuals who have suffered sexual battery at the hands of their spouse, which is a growing problem across the country. According to data compiled by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 51.1 percent of women victims reported being sexually assaulted by an intimate partner.
Marital rape is illegal under Kansas law, but spouses are still vulnerable to other sexual abuse at the hands of a legal partner.
“As we’ve started to come to grips in our country with how much trauma and abuse occurs due to the lack of understanding or misguided beliefs about consent, it seems unconscionable to me to allow this law to stand,” McCormick said.
The Legislature failed to act on a bill this session that would have addressed this problem. House Bill 2079, sponsored by Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, would have removed a spousal exception for sexual battery in the state of Kansas.
Parker said he felt compelled to draft the bill after hearing concerns from a representative of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, an organization serving six counties in Kansas and Missouri.
“They had just mentioned a few of the things that they were looking at policy-wise,“ Parker said. “They had just said, ‘Hey, this is a statute that really needs to be changed so we correct this.’ ”
The proposed legislation sends a message of support to domestic violence victims, Parker said.
“Marriage should not absolve offenders of guilt nor deprive victims of justice,” Parker said. “It is time to make this law reflect our values as Kansans.”
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, said the current law is old-fashioned.
“I think that it is a very antiquated notion that marriage equals consent,” Clayton said. “Marriage does not equal sexual consent. It does not equal that. I did not consent to my husband doing God only knows what to me when I said ‘I do.’ That wasn’t in my vows. But according to the state of Kansas, I was essentially consenting to be open to that.”
Clayton said she doesn’t think Kansans are aware of these various implications when signing a marriage certificate.
“I don’t think that people realize that when they’re planning their weddings and their receptions and sitting down with their clergymen,” she said. “They don’t realize that they are consenting to that sort of thing. So that’s the problem.”
Instead of deterring people from marriage, Clayton said, she would rather encourage Kansans to enter into a safe institution of marriage with this change.
Mary Stafford, a Kansas social worker and advocate for domestic violence survivors, said the bill would have protected people within a marriage from potential violent acts.
“House Bill 2079 sends a clear message to survivors that they are entitled to bodily autonomy, sexual boundaries and safety, and that a marriage license is not a forfeiture of their basic human rights,” Stafford said.
Victoria Pickering, MOCSA director of advocacy, said the proposed change to the law is long overdue.
“The importance of removing this language is both practical and symbolic,” she said. “Passing HB 2079 sends a clear message to Kansans — that violence is no less harmful when it happens at the hands of someone a victim loves and trusts. It sends the message that the state of Kansas has a vested interest in ensuring that our citizens are safe in their homes. I believe this is a message that truly represents our values and our priorities.”
Kate Heinen, MOCSA coordinator of community engagement, said victims often share that a partner or spouse was their abuser.
Current law is problematic, Heinen said, because a spouse can’t be charged with sexual battery, even when marriage is the only thing preventing the abuse from being a crime. She encouraged married individuals who suffer abuse to use sexual assault response centers such as MOCSA for assistance.
Parker said there were no opponents to the bill in committee hearings. He plans to reintroduce a bill centered around this consent law in the next legislative session.
“My plan is probably to get a bipartisan group to sponsor it,” Parker said.