Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Perri Jo DeChristopher appeared Monday before lawmakers in the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary to ask the legislative body to reconsider Senate Bill 498.
SB498, first introduced in 2021, aims to remove an exemption from the state’s definition of sexual contact which, according to DeChristopher, excuses many forms of marital rape.
“A 2003 study found that 24 states and the District of Columbia have abolished marital immunity for sexual offences,” De Christpher said. “Twenty-six states within our country retain marital immunity in one form or another. We in West Virginia are among those 26 states.”
During questioning, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, purported that intimacy is part of the contractual agreement of marriage under law.
“There is something of an implied contract there that there’s going to be certain benefits to being married. I don’t think very many people would get married if they thought it wasn’t going to work that way,” Karnes said. “You’re citing one section of code, but you mentioned before that this is actually sprinkled throughout our code. You’re saying there’s nowhere in any of our code that would not require the scenario that I’m saying you could still touch your wife or your wife can touch you any way they want. Until you say no.”
DeChristopher responded that it isn’t quite that cut and dried.
“There’s lots of reasons and there’s lots of ways for a victim to convey their lack of consent to some type of sexual touching or sexual intercourse without actually saying the word no,” she said.
Sarah Blevins is the development director for Branches, a domestic violence center in Huntington. To clarify consent, she said married and unmarried people should have the same rights.
“Well, obviously as an advocate, to me, it doesn’t make a difference what the person’s circumstances are,” Blevins said. “Everyone has the right to have their consent validated, to have their preferences heard. As far as I’m concerned, it is a problem for both unmarried and married folks. We need to be looking at it with equal treatment.”
Blevins said conversations devaluing a victim’s experience could have a negative impact on survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
“One of the real dangers of when we start parsing out what consent is or isn’t, is that we invalidate survivors’ stories and voices, and that can have a super detrimental effect on their willingness to report on their willingness to seek services,” Blevins said. “We want to be very aware of that when we’re talking about consent.”
Blevins asserted that consent is not a constant assumption and that there is a continuum of consent while building any relationship.
“It’s really important for us to educate our community about what consent is and what it isn’t,” she said. “There is a whole continuum of consent, and if you are trying to build a healthy relationship with someone, it should be a priority for you to seek their consent in your interactions with them.”
During the session Karnes questioned the concept of consent within a marriage and suggested the state add a section to marriage licenses, asking couples to agree to being touched by their spouse.
To this suggestion, DeChristopher responded, “I don’t think you can consent to be the victim of a crime in perpetuity.”