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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.69 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2013




Spousal rape: A challenge for pastoral counsellors



James A. Glanville; Yolanda Dreyer

Department of Practical Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to




This article reflects on the criticism regarding the pastoral counsellor's dealings with spousal rape victims. It argues that counsellors should be sensitive not to be biased, either personally or theologically, and should have an understanding of the biopsychosocial (biological, psychological and social) impact of spousal rape, such as rape-related post-traumatic stress and other related illnesses such as depression, victimisation and stigmatisation. The pastoral counsellors should be aware of the legal and medical ramifications of spousal rape and have knowledge of the correct referral resources and procedures (trusted professionals, shelters and support structures). They should be self-aware and understand the effect that gender or previous traumatic personal experiences may have on their reactions. The article consists of the following sections: the phenomenon 'rape'; acquaintance rape; spousal rape; post-traumatic stress; post-traumatic stress disorder; rape trauma syndrome; cognitive behavioural therapy; spirituality; doctrinal matters; social system of patriarchy; a pastoral counselling model; self-care.




Recent crime statistics indicate that there is still a high incidence of rape reported in South Africa. The latest statistics (April 2011 - March 2012) from the South African Police Services (2012:1) indicate that 64 514 cases of sexual assault were reported during this time period. The present lack of supportive rape intervention resources and services in South Africa is likely to exacerbate the post-traumatic stress women experience due to rape.

Any aid to the well-being of spousal rape victims is multifaceted and involves aspects such as individual care and therapy; community involvement; mentorship programmes; gender related issues and the integration and application of theological perspectives. Furthermore, the interpersonal characteristics and dynamics of the individuals involved in the healing of the spousal rape victims are significant. The greatest asset to pastoral counselling is therefore the person of the pastoral counsellor. Tan (2011:16) characterises four distinctives of pastoral counsellors: they have unique assumptions which are based on biblical principles and teaching; they have unique goals, not only to alleviate psychological suffering but also to facilitate spiritual growth; they have unique methods which may differ from standard counselling methods and techniques and which add the use of scripture and prayer; they have a unique giftedness, are called by God and equipped by God's Spirit. It then follows that pastoral counsellors have a unique role to play in the well-being of the victim of spousal rape.


The pastoral counsellor and criticism

There has been much criticism regarding the pastoral counsellor's dealings with spousal rape victims for good reason. They are not always considered to be a viable resource for such individuals. A South African study (Rasool et al. 2003:102) revealed that whilst a number of women felt that the church played a positive role in their lives, they did not feel the church was effective in dealing with issues of violence against women. According to West (2004:42), pastoral counsellors sometimes perpetuate cultural attitudes that encourage shame and silence regarding rape. Smith (1998:341) applies this finding specifically to evangelicals: 'Because evangelicals often see themselves as more righteous than non-Christians, they often discourage victims from seeking help in secular agencies should the church prove incapable of handling the assault.' Whilst clergy often think that only they should help, they tend to experience a degree of anxiety when doing so (see Nason-Clark 1997:64). Further, it would seem that not all assistance offered by pastoral counsellors is useful. Delaphane and Delaphane (2004:158) put it as follows: 'Probably the most damaging pastoral response to a victim of rape is that of judgementalism or questioning as to what she did to invite the act.' Scholtz (2004:209) concurs and points out that, rape victims rarely have the support of religious leaders and thinkers. Andersen's (2007:71) assessment of the aforementioned approach is that it perpetuates the problem, 'amounting to nothing less than church-sanctioned oppression.' Bergen (1996:52) indicates that support for women in violent relationships is not always forthcoming from pastoral counsellors. In some cases, the advice given to a victim is to 'obey your husband' and not refuse him sexual intercourse. This merely serves to exacerbate the problem of spousal rape.

In my own research, victims of spousal rape had negative perceptions of pastoral counsellors. Those who had been counselled by pastoral counsellors reported that they received little assistance.

This does not suggest that pastoral counsellors have no role to play in the healing of spousal rape victims. Rather, pastoral counsellors should ideally have a vital role to play in their healing process. In order to be effective however, certain guidelines need to be adhered to. Pastoral counsellors should have a thorough knowledge of the dynamics of rape in general and spousal rape in particular. They should not be biased, either personally or theologically and should have an understanding of the biopsychosocial (biological, psychological and social) impact of spousal rape, such as rape-related post-traumatic stress or other related illnesses such as depression, victimisation and stigmatisation. Pastoral counsellors should be aware of the legal and medical ramifications of spousal rape and have knowledge of the correct referral resources and procedures (trusted professionals, shelters and support structures). They should be self-aware and understand the effect that gender or previous traumatic personal experiences may have on their reactions and interactions with rape victims.


The pastoral counsellor and rape

Whilst rape is not an unknown phenomenon, there are possible misunderstandings as to what exactly constitutes rape. A possible reason for this is that the definition of rape has changed over the years. Purdy (2004:122) believes that rape 'was used to define the act wherein one man damaged the property of another.' This definition is neither useful nor adequate, as it violates the rights and personhood of women. A number of different factors may contribute to the confusion of defining rape in appropriate terms; the relationship between rape victim and perpetrator; the circumstances in which the rape occurred; whether or not a woman is considered to be compliant and the age of the rape victim.

A general understanding of rape today is that it is considered to be a forceful and violent act, committed mainly by individuals who are unknown to the victim, who have no other agenda than to assert their authority and dominate and control women (see Tasman & Mohr 2011:409; Van Niekerk 2006:1). This study considers the previous definitions to be lacking and holds to the definition of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007: 'Any person (A) who unlawfully and intentionally commits an act of sexual penetration with a complainant (B), without the consent of B, is guilty of the offence of rape' (South Africa Government 2007:20). This definition takes into consideration that rape is unlawful, due to the fact that it involves a lack of sexual consent. It also recognises that rape can transcend age, class, social or gender boundaries. It views rape as an intended act committed by a perpetrator and/or perpetrators. Secondly, rape may or may not consist of force and/or violence. Thirdly, consent is considered to have been denied if the victim was mentally impaired. This could have been due to the use of medication, intoxication, mental retardation or fear and intimidation. Finally, rape may occur between partners who are married to each other, or between acquaintances and strangers.

Apart for the various ways in which rape may be defined, there are also a number of theories with regard to rape (see Ellis 1989; Burgess-Jackson 1996). Whilst there is not one theory which definitively explains the phenomenon rape, each theory adds value to the explanation of why rape is perpetrated by men against women. This study associates itself with the Social Learning Theory in particular and proposes that men act out violence and rape women because they have learnt this through exposure to other men who have abused women and also to a generally disrespectful and derogatory view of women. This could be due to their own individual childhood experiences or due to exposure to bad social practices where women have been viewed as being the property of men. According to Wiehe and Richards (1995:71), children exposed to emotional trauma often learn patterns of violence, including sexual violence and then duplicate this violence whilst they are still young and into their adult lives.

Myths regarding rape are also a factor with regard to the understanding of this phenomenon. Whether these myths are held by the victims, perpetrators or society, they are damaging to both victims and society in general and cause confusion, blame and guilt. A clear understanding of the nature and dynamics of rape is therefore necessary in order to appropriately address this phenomenon.

Certain factors complicate the phenomenon of rape, one such factor being that of the legal system. This includes the victim's interaction with the police, prosecutors, as well as the dynamics of the trial. The judgement pronounced at the rape trial also significantly influences the future well-being of the rape victim. The legal system may in fact cause the rape victim to undergo a form of secondary traumatisation. This study uses the term 'secondary traumatisation', to refer to any ongoing trauma due to the victim's interaction with those involved in the initial traumatic event (viz. the perpetrator or perpetrators) and with additional persons and institutions (such as the legal system).

The justice system places a legal burden on women to demonstrate the lack of consent to sexual intercourse, or it is de facto assumed that they have in fact consented. McGregor (2005:105) therefore poses the question: 'Is consent a useful concept, one that helps distinguishes lawful from unlawful conduct?'

If consent is then a vital factor with regard to rape, the question of what constitutes consent needs to be addressed. Consent is to be understood as permission being expressed either by attitude or other means of other verbal or nonverbal communication. Consent must also be distinguished from an undirected action (i.e. action that is not made with intent). Importantly, consent is not simply the absence of refusal or resistance and can be withdrawn at any time.

In light of the aforementioned (amongst others not addressed in this article), it is not surprising that many women who have been raped choose not to lay charges against their perpetrators. Smythe and Waterhouse (2008:200) refer to the 2005 National Youth Victimisation Study (see Leoschut & Burton 2006) and draw attention to the fact that of the 83.2% sexual assault victims who shared their experience with someone, only 11.3% reported the assault to the police.

Every rape victim has the possibility of suffering long-term negative physical, psychological, social and spiritual side effects. Rape victims are predisposed to suicide attempts, clinical depression, panic, anxiety, phobias and traumatic stress symptoms (Bachar & Koss 2002:898). According to Astbury (2006):

Of all the traumatic stressors researched so far, including natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, it is the 'man-made' trauma of sexual violence that most strongly predicts the subsequent development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (p. 5)

Astbury (2006:5) also believes that rape victims constitute the single largest group suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This fact is reinforced by Vetten (2007:23), who notes that rape victims are six times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some or other point in their lives.

Acquaintance rape

According to Wiehe and Richards (1995:10-14), the majority of rapes (50% - 85%) are carried out by a known acquaintance and in a familiar residence (61%). Further, victims of acquaintance rape are less likely to seek support from friends, family, crisis centres and the police than those who are victims of a stranger rape. The complications of acquaintance rape are compounded if a rapist interacts within the victim's immediate social circle. There are heightened feelings of fear, guilt, anger, frustration, shame and self-blame for the victim of acquaintance rape (see Easteal 1998:18; Leslie 2003:6). The extent of psychological injury may be greater than that of stranger-raped victims, who may be safer to openly discuss their ordeal with others, thereby releasing pent-up emotions. Finally, it appears easier for the court to acknowledge stranger rape than acquaintance rape (see Leslie 2003:5), which results in acquaintance rape having a lower conviction rate than stranger rape.

Spousal rape

Spousal rape differs from acquaintance rape in that the victim not only knows the perpetrator but the spousal perpetrator is meant to be regarded as her life partner. This severely affects the spousal rape victim's ability to trust, et cetera.

Spousal rape is considered to be a foreign concept in the scriptures. One of the reasons suggested for this, is that the wife is recognised as being the property of the husband and as such, has no authority to deny sexual intercourse with her husband. Emmerson (1995:382) indicates that this is not in accordance with the teachings of God in the Old Testament (see Goldingay 2009:355). Nevertheless there is much narrative in the Old Testament that demonstrates that husbands abused their God-given responsibilities and treated their wives as possessions (see Gn 12:14-19). Patriarchy is further promoted in the New Testament however, husbands have again misappropriated the system and have abused their wives. This concept of biblical patriarchy is discussed below.

According to Naylor (2008:26), the marital rape exemption has been abolished in South Africa in 1993 under the Prevention of Family Violence Act. It was therefore not until recently that it was possible for a man in South Africa to be charged with the rape of his wife. The occurrence of spousal rape has been perceived to be low, yet the Centre for the Study of Violence & Reconciliation (CSVR) (2001:4) reports:

National statistics supplied by the South African Police Services (SAPS) National Crime Information Centre indicate that approximately 1% of rapes reported during 1996 and 1997 were perpetrated by husbands upon wives. (p. 4)

This may be considered to be a low percentage however spousal rape is also the least likely category of rape to be reported to the police (Tjaden & Thoennes 2000:49).

Bergen (2006:6) found that some spousal rape victims do not consider their experiences as being rape, due to the common perception that only stranger rape is 'real rape' and that sex in marriage is culturally considered obligatory. This implies that spousal rape does not only take place within a radical breakdown of the marriage relationship itself, but that it is also often linked to other forms of domestic violence. Pastoral counsellors should therefore not consider spousal rape as merely another manifestation of domestic violence. This is not always the case.

The Development Research Africa and CSIR Defence, Peace, Safety and Security Unit (2008) finds that:

there is a high level of awareness of the criminality of domestic violence among respondents in this study - with 92% believing that what had been done to them was a crime. However, very few respondents understood that forced sex within a relationship or with someone known to them respondent is rape. (p. 73)

Gelles (1997:77) points out that between 10% and 14% of married women have experienced rape in marriage. Randall and Haskell (1995; cf. Bergen 2006:1) found that 30% of women, who were sexually assaulted as adults, were actually sexually assaulted by their intimate partners. Further, Mahoney and Williams (2007:7) estimate that 'one in ten to one in seven married women will experience a rape by a husband.'

An additional issue regarding victims of spousal rape, according to Kernsmith (2008:58), is that 70% to 85% of spousal rape victims experience more than one rape and 30% to 55% report in excess of 20 incidences (see Greenberg, Bruess & Conklin 2010:540). Spousal rape frequently involves intense physical and psychological injury. According to Mahoney & Williams (2007:3), 'many victims of wife rape also suffer severe physical injuries and endure multiple rapes throughout their marriages.' Whilst spousal rape victims also suffer other forms of domestic violence, spousal rape must be addressed as a distinctive issue and not merely an extension of domestic violence as a whole.

Spousal rape has severe and prolonged psychological traumatic consequences for wives, including the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (Weaver et al. 2007:478). According to Plichta and Falik (2001:251), victims of spousal rape are more often diagnosed with depression or anxiety than are victims of physical violence or sexual