The third condition is a topic of much disagreement. Though the concept of rape of a spouse has been defined under legal codes in some areas, husbands have been considered to have a right to sexual relationships with their wives in most cultures, though in virtually no culture is this right unconditional in principle, even if it is sometimes in practice. Even separation or divorce may not always limit men's right of sexual access. For example, some Latin American studies suggest that once a woman has been "possessed" by a man at one point, she loses her right to refuse sexual relationships with him (Pick, Givaudan, and Aldaz, 1996).

The formal and extreme form of refusal of sexual relationships with a socially sanctioned partner is the seeking of a separation or a divorce. The woman's real (as opposed to notional) access to this step is determined by a mixture of legal, social, and economic factors. Not least important is the emotional and physical support that the separated woman can expect from her natal family, friends, or others. All these factors differ widely across cultures and societies: for example, practices such as village exogamy often make it physically difficult for a girl's parents to be even aware of, let alone do anything about, their daughter's marital difficulties. Such practices are related to norms that forbid parental interference in a married daughter's life.

The first act of sexual intercourse can be particularly traumatic in many cultures because it is typically the time that a woman's right of refusal is the weakest, whether such sexual activity occurs in a casual relationship or a formal union. Ignorance, a weak bargaining position, and social pressure (as well as the desire to please) create a situation in which the loss of virginity takes place under conditions similar to those that would conventionally be considered rape (see, e.g., reports of researchers in India and Algeria, in Heise, Moore, and Toubia, 1995). In some cultures in the Middle East, a "deflowering" ceremony to demonstrate the virginity of a new bride is held on the wedding night, and relatives, friends, and neighbors are invited: guests wait outside while the hymen is ruptured by sexual intercourse (or, sometimes, by hand) and a woman relative attending brings out proof of virginity in the form of a handkerchief soaked with blood. This experience is typically traumatic for women (Khattab, 1996).

Norms about abstinence at specified times, such as postpartum abstinence (Caldwell and Caldwell, 1981), may not be gender neutral when sexual activity is allowed for men but denied to women. For example, between 42 and 49 percent of currently married men report a casual sexual relation in the past year in Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, and Côte d'Ivoire, while for women it is less than 20 percent in all the countries studied (Caraël, 1995); see Table 2-1. Nonregular sexual activity is generally greater among single than among currently married women, but formerly

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement