Bill to rid Ohio of spousal rape exception receives support in state Senate

Sexual assault examination kit. (photo from Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance)

This story mentions rape and sexual assault. If you or someone you know needs help, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673.

Survivors of sexual assault perpetrated by their spouses had a simple request for the Ohio Legislature with regard to a loophole in state law that keeps their spouses from being held accountable.

“Please help us,” Sarah Tucker said.

Tucker said she not only endured rape from her former husband, but also a lack of action by law enforcement because of an exception for married couples within Ohio sex offense laws.

While she was finally able to separate herself from her spouse, Tucker still has not received the justice she demands for herself and for her kids. Her journey out of the situation included mental health treatment and other assistance to deal with the “lasting effects of this trauma.”

“Going through something like this changes a person, changes them to lose faith in the justice system, changes how they see themselves, changes how they face new relationships,” Tucker told the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee heard proponent testimony recently on House Bill 161, which would eliminate spousal exceptions to rape, sexual battery, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, gross sexual imposition and sexual imposition, according to the language of the bill.

“The spousal exception for rape is distinct from the others because it currently applies only if the spouse lives with the offender,” according to an analysis of the bill by the Legislative Service Commission. “Under the bill, a person could be convicted of rape involving the spouse, regardless of whether the spouse lives with or apart from the offender.”

HB 161 would also allow an individual to testify against their spouse in the prosecution of one of the crimes listed in the bill, and allows testimony “concerning a communication made by one to the other in a case involving any of those offenses, as well as public indecency,” the LSC analysis stated.

Ohio currently stands as one of only 11 states who still holds an exception for marriage in rape and sexual assault cases, according to the bill’s sponsors.

Those who advocate for rape and sexual assault survivors see the bill as necessary closure of loose ends that can leave law enforcement without options, and survivors with even less.

“There can be many obstacles in the path of justice for survivors of sexual violence, but to not even have the option of justice is negligent and re-traumatizing for Ohio survivors,” said Rebecca Peckinpaugh, a licensed social worker and director for Allen County and Putnam County’s Crime Victim Services, and regional director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

Maria York, policy director for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network said in her 10 years as a victim advocate prior to working for ODVN, intimate partner sexual assault and spousal sex offenses were seen “repeatedly.”

“The law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office, did a fantastic job trying to get justice for victims, but unfortunately the law isn’t there,” York told the Senate committee.

She cited data from the National Institute of Justice, which found 40% to 45% of women in abusive relationships experience sexual assault from a partner.

The need for a resolution is increasing in the state as well, according to Davina Cooper, director of rural services for Women Helping Women, a rape crisis center serving Adams, Brown, Butler, Clermont and Hamilton counties.

“Intimate partner violence is a public health epidemic that impacts the lives of survivors, their children, family members and the community,” Cooper said.

The center saw a 25% increase in “hospital response for sexual assault by a spouse” in 2023, according to Cooper. That number was the highest in WHW’s history, and necessitated an increase in staff for rural programming, she said.

HB 161, which has bipartisan sponsors, has already passed the Ohio House, and approval from the state Senate would take the bill to the governor’s desk for signature.


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