A Kansas House committee for the second consecutive year voted to remove from state law the spousal exemption to the crime of sexual battery.
The measure surfaced during the 2019 legislative session, but it was never considered by the full House. The House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted Monday to once again seek traction for the reform in the current 2020 session.
"Kansas has long since recognized that rape within the confines of marriage is a crime and it is past time to establish the same for sexual battery," said Mary Stafford, a licensed social worker who testified on behalf of the change. "Permitting the statute to remain as currently written sends a message to perpetrators that they can sexually violate their spouses and will not be held accountable."
The spousal exemption was rooted in 17th century common law establishing unconditional sexual consent as a feature of marital contracts.
Victoria Pickering, director of advocacy for the Metropolitan Organization to County Sexual Assault in Wyandotte and Johnson counties, said removal of the exemption would be practical and symbolic.
It sends a message to the public that violence is no less harmful when it occurs at the hands of someone the victim trusts, she said.
No one testified in opposition to House Bill 2467 and the House Judiciary Committee passed it without debate.
During the 2019 legislative session, House Republicans shared concern said elimination of the exemption would cloud understanding of consent in the context of marriage. Rep. Emil Berquist, R-Park City, said a year ago changing the law could enable a spouse who regretted experimenting with "sadomasochistic acts" to accuse a husband or wife of a misdemeanor crime.
Rep. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican, said a year ago the bill would leave someone open to criminal prosecution because he or she was in the mood for sex while the spouse wasn’t on the same page.
The offense of sexual battery is defined as unwanted contact with an intimate body part for sexual arousal, gratification or abuse.
In 2018, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation reported 24,066 incidents of domestic violence across the state. The National Institute of Justice produced a study suggesting a mere one-fourth of domestic violence incidents were reported to police. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimated 40% of women were sexually assaulted by intimate partners during their relationship.
"The current law is especially harmful to individuals who are sexually battered as part of an abusive marriage," said Michelle McCormick, program director for the YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment in Topeka. "It seems unconscionable to me that we would allow a law to stand that allows unwanted sexually violent touch within marriages."