Jenny Teeson was in the middle of a divorce when she found a video of her husband sexually assaulting her in her sleep. The discovery turned her into a leading advocate for overturning archaic laws that can make it nearly impossible to prosecute men for marital rape.
The footage appeared to have been shot two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 2015, hours after the couple had hosted a New Year’s party at their Minnesota home. It showed her husband forcibly penetrating her with an object as she slept in their bed, their 4-year-old son asleep beside her, according to a criminal complaint. She was motionless as he attacked her. She believes she had been drugged.
Ms. Teeson, now 39, told the police about the video when she found it. But under a state law known as the “voluntary relationship defense,” some of the most serious sex crimes charges cannot be brought against an accuser’s spouse or domestic partner. Her husband ended up being charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony.
While marital rape has been a crime in all 50 states since 1993 — a milestone achieved after years of dogged campaigning by women’s rights activists — the overwhelming majority of states still have loopholes on the books that can make it difficult, or even impossible, to prosecute such cases, according to data compiled by AEquitas, a nonprofit in Washington that assists prosecutors in gender-based violence cases.
Those loopholes can take many forms, involving the statute of limitations, use of force, age or the victim’s capacity to consent. In Minnesota, sex with someone who is physically helpless, as Ms. Teeson was, cannot be prosecuted as rape if the two people are married or domestic partners.
Though she was devastated to learn of the arcane law in Minnesota, Ms. Teeson quickly threw herself into the fight to change it, meeting with lawmakers and testifying at the State Capitol.
In February, her campaign scored a major victory. A bill to repeal the voluntary relationship defense unanimously passed the state House. Lawmakers gave Ms. Teeson a standing ovation.
“It felt very powerful to be able to speak, because I’ve been silent for so long,” she said.
Representative Zack Stephenson, a Democrat and the chief author of the House bill, credited Ms. Teeson as the driving force behind the legislation. He is a local prosecutor himself, and he said he was “flabbergasted” when he heard her story.
“This is not a controversial issue,” Mr. Stephenson said. “It’s something that should have happened a long time ago.”
The fight to criminalize marital rape stretches back decades
While the issue of marital rape came up as early as the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, it was eclipsed by the push for voting rights, said Lynn Hecht Schafran, the director of the National Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum, a women’s legal defense organization.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that women’s rights activists started campaigning for states to criminalize marital rape, a difficult goal in male-dominated state legislatures. By 1993, they had succeeded in all 50 states, though the laws and legal precedents vary widely.
Laura X, a Berkeley-based activist who worked on campaigns in dozens of states as the director of the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape, said activists were fighting against the notion that men were somehow entitled to their partner’s bodies.
“It was a principle that nobody should own another person that drove most of us through those decades,” she said.
American statutes on marital rape were carried over from English laws, which drew on writings by the 17th-century jurist Matthew Hale on “contractual consent.” Ms. Schafran said they were tied to the notion that rape by an intimate partner was somehow less painful.
“In fact, the opposite is true,” she said. “The loss of trust is devastating.”
Hurdles to prosecution persist in most states
AEquitas, which maintains a comprehensive database on marital rape laws, said hurdles to prosecuting sexual misconduct involving spouses or partners existed in 41 of 58 jurisdictions it reviewed. Those include the 50 states, the District of Columbia, United States territories, and federal and military law.
That is piled on top of the difficulties of prosecuting intimate partner rape at all. Cases are rarely reported, there are often no witnesses, and many victims struggle with testifying against a former partner.
Yet many instances of sexual violence occur within intimate relationships. An estimated 9 percent of women are raped by an intimate partner at some point, and an estimated 16 percent experience other forms of sexual violence by their partner, according to federal data.
“It’s long overdue to treat rape in the marital setting with the same seriousness as rape that occurs outside of it,” said Sunu Chandy, the legal director for the National Women’s Law Center.
“I’m glad to see Minnesota is making strides in that direction, and I hope other states will follow suit.”
A stark illustration of the problem
In March 2017, Ms. Teeson discovered a trove of videos that her husband had secretly filmed. They included clips of her getting dressed, of the two of them having sex, and of his co-workers in the bathroom, she said.
The files, which she had found on an unfamiliar flash drive, shocked and terrified her, but they also gave her some much-needed clarity: She had to seek a divorce from her husband, Matthew Charles Heger.
The couple had started dating in college and were married for 12 years. She worked for a hospitality sales association, and he worked at a local bank. They had two young children.
Yet while they may have looked happy to outsiders, her husband had been verbally abusive and had tried to pressure her into sex acts she wasn’t comfortable with, Ms. Teeson said.
Mr. Heger’s lawyer, Nicole A. Kettwick, said that while he feels remorse over the videos, he disputes Ms. Teeson’s characterization of their marriage.
Ms. Teeson turned the flash drive and the family’s laptop over to the police. A few months later, as part of the divorce proceedings, her lawyers recommended that she review a copy of the laptop’s contents herself. That was when she discovered the video of herself being assaulted.
Ms. Teeson said she had to call the police repeatedly before she could get an appointment to give her statement. A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said he could not discuss the handling of the case.
In September 2017, Ms. Teeson got the call she had been waiting for from the Anoka County Attorney’s Office. She was told that Mr. Heger had been charged with a felony count of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree and could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. She felt mixed emotions, including a sense of safety.
But hours later, the office called again, to tell her that the felony charge had been dropped. Mr. Heger’s lawyers had made the office aware that Minnesota still had a little-known marital rape exemption law on the books.
Mr. Heger was ultimately charged with two misdemeanors in Ms. Teeson’s case: criminal sexual conduct in the fifth degree and interference with privacy at home using a surreptitious device. He pleaded guilty to the latter in October and was sentenced to 45 days in prison. The sexual conduct charge was dismissed as part of his plea agreement.
Mr. Heger was separately sentenced to 30 days in prison on charges related to the tapes of his co-workers. He received a total of four years of probation and had restrictions placed on his online activities, among other conditions.
Paul Young, the chief of the criminal division at the Anoka County Attorney’s Office, said that he and his colleagues were taken aback when they learned that the statute would prevent them from pursuing the original charges.
“We understand the frustration and disappointment,” Mr. Young said, adding that the case “certainly merited” more serious charges.
“But we were limited,” he said.