Jenny Teeson has told Minnesota lawmakers many times, often in explicit detail, the story of being sexually assaulted by her former husband — and how he all but escaped justice.
On Monday, the 39-year-old Andover woman saw her persistence pay off as the Minnesota Senate voted unanimously to repeal a decades-old law that sometimes shields spouses and domestic partners from prosecution for marital rape.
“There’s real power when you’re in a survivor mentality and not a victim mentality to be able to tell your story for good,” Teeson said.
After the Senate’s 66-0 vote, Gov. Tim Walz could sign the repeal later this week, striking Minnesota from the ledger of states that still have loopholes that make it difficult under certain circumstances to prosecute men for sexual assault.
When Teeson and her father, Jerry Teeson, brought her story to lawmakers last year, they were initially met by shock that the law still existed. Known in courthouses as the “voluntary relationship” exemption, or the “marital rape defense,” the repealed statute dates to the 1970s. It prevents authorities from charging spouses who engage in sexual penetration involving someone who is “mentally impaired, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.”
Teeson believes she was drugged at the time she was violated by her then-husband after a New Year’s party.
Amid divorce proceedings in 2017, Teeson found on a shared laptop computer videos of her husband forcibly penetrating her with a sex toy. She was unconscious. In one video, their toddler son could be seen sleeping nearby.
State law prevented prosecutors for pursuing third-degree criminal sexual conduct charges. Her husband eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor invasion of privacy. Teeson vowed to make sure no other woman would have to go through the same ordeal. It would take two years.
When the repeal first cleared the House unanimously in February, Teeson received a standing ovation on the floor.
“She has been such a champion for this cause,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who signed on to the Senate bill. “It’s rare that a citizen has this much direct impact in the Legislature all on her own.”
Beyond testifying before legislative committees in the House and Senate, Teeson and her family pressed key lawmakers to advance the bill as a separate piece of legislation.
A critical moment was when she persuaded Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, to hear the repeal language as a stand-alone bill in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee last month. The move helped the measure avoid last year’s fate, when it was added to a massive government spending bill that fell to a veto by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.
“We’ve waited long enough,” said Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who sponsored the House bill that passed in February. Stephenson on Monday described the bill’s expected passage as “a huge moment for our state.”
Stephenson said the law underscored the need for a task force to evaluate the state’s criminal code as part of a broader legal reform effort in response to a Star Tribune investigation that found chronic and widespread lapses in law enforcement’s handling of rape cases.
But details of the repealed marital-rape loophole still remain to be worked out. The House bill would repeal the law immediately, whereas the Senate version would take effect July 1.
Either way, Teeson said she plans to continue speaking out even after Walz signs the repeal. She is in talks with Anoka County’s Alexandra House, which supported her as she first began telling her story in a courtroom. Connie Moore, the group’s executive director, said Teeson’s work at the Capitol has “opened the door for other victim-survivors to come forward and tell their stories, and hopefully get justice and heal.”
The repeal is expected to trigger more than a half-dozen new prosecutions each year, but Teeson thinks it’s still important to support other women who have undergone the same experience.
“You’re not alone, and you can reach out, and once this bill gets passed you can feel confident that the law is going to protect you and keep you safe,” she said.
Teeson and her parents, Jerry and Terri Teeson, arrived at the Capitol on Monday long before the Senate was expected to take up her bill. After months of work, they waited patiently through hours of debate on unrelated end-of-the-session spending matters.
But by then, the family was ready to share an embrace.
“The day that will really feel good is the day the governor signs the bill — that’s the day the world changes,” Jerry Teeson said. “And she did it. Our daughter did it.”