Grant funds global perspective on violence

Professors Kersti Yillo, M. Gabriela Torres
Professors Kersti Yllo (left) and M. Gabriela Torres enjoy collaborating on research projects.

Two Wheaton professors have won a prestigious grant to help them shed new light on a rarely discussed, frequently misunderstood form of intimate violence: marital rape.

Professor of Sociology Kersti Yllo and Assistant Professor of Anthropology M. Gabriela Torres will use the $18,760 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which funds anthropological research, to produce a three-day workshop at Wheaton in May 2013 called Global Perspectives on Sexual Violence in Marriage. Twenty scholars from around the world will meet to share their perspectives on the way different cultures view rape by a spouse.

“Marital rape is the most widespread form of gender-based violence that remains legal in many countries and culturally condoned in most,” Yllo said, calling it “a significant human rights and public health crisis” that’s been studied less frequently than related issues such as date rape and child sexual abuse.

The subject is a familiar one for both professors. In the 1980s, Yllo broke new ground when she conducted the first in-depth interviews with women who’d been raped by their husbands; she co-authored a book on the subject, License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, in 1985. Over time, states strengthened their laws against the practice, and in 1993 North Carolina became the last state to outlaw spousal rape.

“Marital rape is too often considered an oxymoron,” Yllo explained. In fact, in many jurisdictions the laws against rape give spouses an exemption. “There is a widespread assumption that being raped by your husband is not particularly harmful or traumatic,” she said. “Our research shows that that is not the case.”

Torres’s academic work focuses on the intersection of violence and gender, notably in Guatemala. Her most recent scholarship has looked at the ways national policies can encourage femicide—the killing of women. Torres knew Yllo’s work before she came to Wheaton, and two years after her arrival at the college in 2007 they team-taught a seminar on violence against women. Torres calls it “a rare gift” to work with Yllo, while Yllo said she was pleased to enhance the seminar with perspectives from outside the United States.

“Women’s sexual autonomy is a central goal of our work,” Yllo said.

That cross-disciplinary collaboration—a Wheaton hallmark—led the pair to partner on research into marital rape and then to organize the May event. Torres said the more she studied the issue, the more convinced she became that a common cross-cultural definition of rape in marriage was needed, both for scholars examining the problem and for public health and human rights activists who are trying to find new ways to address it.

Through the Wheaton Research Partnerships program, Yllo and Torres will have the assistance of two freshmen—Khaled Sharafaddin and Caroline Stanclift—in preparing for the workshop, and they have assigned sociology major Lindsay Powell ’13 to work with them, as well.

The workshop will bring together anthropologists, sociologists, epidemiologists and legal scholars from all over the world, including England, Fiji, India, Ireland, Thailand and Singapore, to discuss “legal and theoretical questions about the complex legal and cultural meanings of marital rape, its consequences for women’s health, and the challenges posed by international efforts to criminalize this form of violence and ensure justice for perpetrators and victims,” Yllo said.

“Our project has already begun to build a network of scholars with shared commitments to addressing sexual violence in marriage through research, law, policy and practice. With our planned meeting on campus this coming May, Wheaton will be known as a center of this important work.”

Photo by Keith Nordstorm