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Advocates against sexual violence push to end the spousal rape exception in AB-1171 hearing

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A bill that seeks to eliminate spousal rape exceptions unanimously passed the California Senate Public Safety Committee on July 13. The proposed law has been endorsed by law professor Michele Dauber, who led the successful recall of Judge Aaron Persky, the judge in the Brock Turner sexual assault case.

The yearslong effort to close the spousal rape loophole is gaining more attention as a result of advocacy by Dauber and others, as well as increased media traction. Assembly members Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) and Evan Low (D-Campbell) introduced the bill. 

California is one of a handful of states that treats spousal rape differently than non-spousal rape in law. Existing law defines rape as “an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a person not the spouse of the perpetrator.” 

Spousal rape offenders, unlike non-spousal rape offenders, are eligible for probation and do not necessarily have to register as a sex offender. There have been 12 separate efforts to eliminate this exception since 1977 and all have failed to pass. 

The effort to fight the spousal rape exception in history is “another example of how patriarchy dies hard,” Dauber said. 

The law professor has been advocating for ending the spousal rape exception since 2019. For over a year, Dauber was unable to get a hearing for the bill in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. 

“When I learned of [the spousal rape exception], I was absolutely appalled that our progressive, Democratic state of California, which I think of as a state that supports women’s rights, would be so backwards, and I decided to find a way to bring a bill to change that,” she said. 

The Enough is Enough Voter Project, which Dauber founded, has advocated for the bill, drawing the support of the National Organization for Women, the San Francisco Democratic Party, Equality Now and other groups.

According to Elizabeth “Betsy” Kim ’22, a member of the Stanford Sexual Violence Free Club and a former ASSU Sexual Violence Prevention Fellow, “AB-1171 is so important, especially considering the rise in spousal rape (along with other forms of intimate partner violence) during the pandemic.” 

Kim added that the bill would boost protections for Stanford community members who live with their spouses on campus. 

At the hearing, the Los Gatos High School student-led organization From Survivors, For Survivors had planned to rally but was forced to cancel due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the California State Capitol. The organization came to know about Dauber’s work through a Title IX audit both were advocating for last October. 

“I think that if the senators feel that their constituents are paying attention and if the media is paying attention, they will feel morally obligated to get it through,” said Sasha Ryu, a founder of From Survivors, For Survivors and intern for the Enough is Enough Voter Project.

Critics of AB-1171 contend that the text needs to expand its definition of what consent looks like for disabled couples. “I would be very concerned with us criminalizing sexual intercourse and behavior between folks who are in the disability community,” said state Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles).

Proponents of AB-1171, though, assert that prosecutors will still have to prove that consent was not given. According to its supporters, AB-1171 will only ensure that perpetrators in cases of spousal rape are not given special treatment. The bill was amended and will be reviewed again by the Public Safety Committee.

“Our argument is simple. Rape is rape regardless of marital status,” Dauber said.

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Ruchi Mangtani is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.