A Global First at Wheaton

The Sociology and Anthropology Departments recently sponsored an international, interdisciplinary conference on “Global Perspectives on Sexual Violence in Marriage.” Despite the growing international attention to various forms of violence against women, the issue of marital rape has been ignored by scholars, policy makers and practitioners. The silence surrounding sexual violence in marriage was broken when fourteen scholars from around the world gathered at Wheaton this May. The Wheaton Workshop, supported by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was the first ever to focus on marital rape as a global problem, a startling fact given the social suffering it causes.

Professor of Sociology Kersti Yllo and Associate Professor of Anthropology Gabriela Torres were the organizers of the intensive workshop. Their goal was to bring together anthropologists, sociologists, legal scholars and public health and human rights proponents to develop an approach to this very intimate form of violence that is understood very differently in different cultural contexts. Even the very definition of marital rape is highly contested. Marital rape is legal in much of the world and was criminalized in the US and UK only in the last decades of the twentieth century, even as it is significantly implicated in the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The three days of discussion were intense but productive as scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds put forth their views. Sociologists, who work primarily within their own societies, don’t hesitate to label this form of violence a “social problem”, whereas anthropologists take a more cultural relativist approach and cautioned against facile applications of Western theoretical explanations. We debated conceptions of the self, body, gender, consent, and intimacy in the context of rapid global changes in the very nature of marriage. Human Rights and Public Health programs that seek to redress women’s suffering were identified as necessary but also suspect in the extension of US/European conceptions of self, body and sexual autonomy. The role of states in supporting intimate partner sexual violence through judicial structures and social services was also an important focus.

The Wheaton Workshop involved challenging conversations and productive collaborations. The Marital Rape Network , an ongoing scholarly collaboration and listserv, grew out of our meeting and we are already advancing new research on marital rape in several countries. We will be presenting at scholarly conferences as well as collaborating on a book entitled Global Perspectives on Marital Rape. One of the reasons that the conference was so positive and productive was that Wheaton provided a beautiful and relaxing context for our work. The atmosphere, cookouts, lobster dinner, and music by Wheaton’s own Matthew Allen and Julie Searles set the stage for developing a shared commitment to addressing a significant global problem.