Jenny Teeson learned that she had been drugged and raped more than a year after the assault took place, when she found videos of it on her computer.
She watched in horror as a man forcibly penetrated her motionless body with a sex toy while her toddler son lay sleeping nearby — all documented in a video shot inside their Andover home.
But Teeson’s attacker will never be charged with rape because, until recently, that man was her husband.
“I know why victims give up,” Teeson said in a recent interview. “Nothing on his record says criminal sexual conduct, that he raped me. Nothing says anything to the sex crimes that he did.”
Minnesota is one of about a dozen states that still grant spouses and cohabiting partners exemptions from its sexual assault laws under certain conditions. The state’s “voluntary relationship” statute, which dates to the 1970s, does not exempt spouses from prosecution for forcible rape. But while it is otherwise illegal in Minnesota to engage in sexual penetration with someone who is “mentally impaired, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless,” that provision does not apply in marriage.
Now state legislators are mounting an effort to repeal that law, one of the first statutory reforms in the wake of a Star Tribune investigation that found chronic and widespread lapses in law enforcement’s handling of rape cases.
For Teeson, it’s been a longer journey: from finding those videos nearly two years ago, to describing her experience in a courtroom late last year and, finally, to watching her story fuel action at the State Capitol this session.
On Thursday, Teeson looked on with her parents as the Minnesota House unanimously passed its bill to repeal the law. A matching effort in the Senate is moving closer to a floor vote.
“It really shakes up your perception of where our law is,” said state Rep. Zack Stephenson, D-Coon Rapids, the bill’s House sponsor. “I’d like to think in 2019 that we had made considerable progress, and of course we have, but we still have a law on the books that makes it OK for men to rape their wives.”
One in 3 Minnesota women and nearly 1 in 4 men reported being victims of rape, stalking or other forms of violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in 2010. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, in a fiscal note attached to the legislation, estimated that repealing the law would produce up to seven new convictions each year.
Minnesota law does allow for prosecution when rape happens while a divorce is in progress or when the partners are living separately. But Lindsay Brice, law and policy director for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, described the current statute as a “marital or relationship rape loophole in our laws.”
“This sends an extremely problematic message about the circumstances under which Minnesota law will or will not address sexual assault within the context of a relationship,” Brice said.
Teeson and her ex-husband met in college and began a 17-year relationship. She said they began counseling after he started making “humiliating and degrading sexual demands.” She discovered the videos of her assault when she pored through files on a shared laptop computer after serving her husband divorce papers.
The revelation also helped explain why Teeson slept well while traveling for work but struggled at home, where she said she felt like bugs were crawling on her as she slept.
“I liked to play with you while you were sleeping,” she said he later told her.
One day, as she walked to pick her two children up from the bus stop, Teeson received a call from an Anoka County victim-witness specialist. She struggled to explain that prosecutors wouldn’t be able to file third-degree criminal sexual conduct charges because her husband’s attorney pointed out that the voluntary relationship statute prohibited such charges.
“You just assume that there is no way the Legislature would have a built-in affirmative defense that says, ‘Yeah — unless you’re married,’ ” said Assistant Anoka County Attorney Paul Young, who prosecuted the case.
Teeson’s husband later negotiated a plea deal and was convicted of invasion of privacy in the case, which came with a 45-day jail sentence.
Anoka County Judge Jenny Walker Jasper acknowledged Teeson’s disgust with the law at the December 2018 sentencing hearing, telling her that the case offered up a “very good platform for changing the law.”
‘My voice was heard’
The judge’s words helped rally Teeson to speak out about her experience before a pair of House committees this session, in wrenching detail that required disclaimers for the audience. She has also returned to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers in the Senate, where a repeal of the law is tucked in a package of sex crimes law changes that could soon receive a vote.
“When you hear more and more of women being sexually abused … the layers of guilt that victims oftentimes harbor begin to reveal more of a pattern in society than we have ever admitted to before,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate’s Public Safety Committee and a sponsor for the Senate bill to repeal the law. “Once we begin to realize that this type of abuse does occur, a concept of a marital rape defense really begins to just dissolve, and we as a state need to recognize that that cannot be recognized as a defense any longer.”
As the House bill came up for a vote Thursday, Teeson and her parents, who have accompanied her through court appearances and repeat trips to the Capitol, sat in the gallery overlooking the chamber. She wiped away tears when Stephenson described Minnesota’s law as “an artifact of history, as a relic of a time when a woman was considered the property of her husband.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, who sponsored a similar bill last session, called for a vote. Within seconds, the board listing legislators’ names flashed green, signaling a 130-0 vote to repeal. Teeson clasped her hands to her face, weeping as she was met by standing applause from the floor below.
“My voice was heard,” she said afterward. “Any survivor or victim has a voice … to fight and to stand up when you know something isn’t right. If you don’t get justice in the system, per se, you can do something about it for others.”