In 2006, it was estimated that marital rape could be prosecuted in at least 104 countries (in four of these countries, marital rape could be prosecuted only when the spouses were judicially separated), and since 2006 several other countries have outlawed spousal rape. In many countries it is not clear if marital rape may or may not be prosecuted under ordinary rape laws. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia made spousal rape illegal before 1970, but other countries in Western Europe and the English-speaking Western World outlawed it much later, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. Most developing countries outlawed it in the 1990s and 2000s.
Rape by a spouse, partner or ex-partner is more often associated with physical violence.While rape by a stranger is highly traumatic, it is typically a one-time event and is clearly understood as rape. In the case of rape by a spouse or long term sexual partner, the history of the relationship affects the victim’s reactions. Marital rape may occur as part of an abusive relationship. Trauma from the rape adds to the effect of other abusive acts or abusive and demeaning talk. Furthermore, marital rape is rarely a one-time event, but a repeated if not frequent occurrence. Whether it takes place once or is part of an established pattern of domestic violence, trauma from rape has serious long term consequences for victims regardless of whether the assault is prosecuted or not.
Many United States rape statutes formerly precluded the prosecution of spouses, including estranged or even legally separated couples. In 1975, South Dakota removed this exception. In 1993, North Carolina became the last state to remove the spousal exemption. However, as of 1999, 33 of 50 U.S. states regarded spousal rape as a lesser crime [Bergen, 1999]. The perpetrator may be charged with related crimes such as assault, battery, or spousal abuse. There are other criminal charges that may be inapplicable to married couples. For example, in the U.S., there is a marriage exemption to the charge of statutory rape even if one of the spouses is under the age of consent in the jurisdiction where the sexual act takes place.