Kansas looks to end spousal exemption in sexual battery law

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Kansas Statehouse in Topeka

TOPEKA — The Kansas law that makes it a crime to grope, rub or touch others in a sexual manner without their consent doesn’t apply to spouses, and state lawmakers are moving to eliminate the loophole after the same fix failed last year.

The House could debate a bill next week that would eliminate a provision in the law against sexual battery that says it does not apply when the victim is married to the offender. The law makes unwanted sexual touching, groping or grabbing a misdemeanor when no force or fear is involved and when the victim is 16 or older.

The bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week on a unanimous vote after no one spoke against it during a hearing.

Some lawmakers see the measure as correcting what they believe had to be an oversight or drafting error when lawmakers in 1983 eliminated the spousal exemption in the state law against rape. There is also no exemption for aggravated sexual battery, which is using force or fear in sexually touching someone without consent.

“Quite frankly, I’m still quite stunned that this law didn’t get updated when our state went through the process of updating the rape laws and the aggravated sexual battery law,” Michelle McCormick, program director for the Topeka-based YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment, said Tuesday. “When we made those changes, it’s because basically the state was saying these acts are no longer OK, even if they occur within a marriage relationship.”

Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat, sponsored an identical bill last year, and the House Judiciary Committee endorsed it. But it didn’t get a vote before a crucial deadline for passing bills through their chamber of origin and was removed from the House calendar.

“The law should apply equally to everyone, and whether or not you’re married or not, you should have that same protection,” Parker said.

Parker said he couldn’t explain why his bill didn’t get a vote in the Republican-controlled House last year, but two Democratic colleagues, Reps. John Carmichael, of Wichita, and Stephanie Clayton, of Overland Park, suggested that partisan politics were the reason. This year’s bill is sponsored by the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee.

“It was because it was brought by a Democrat and they didn’t want to pass it,” Clayton said. “That happens all the time.”

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, dismissed the idea that politics were at play. Both he and Judiciary Committee Chairman Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican, said the bill was a victim of bad timing, clearing committee too close to a legislative deadline when lawmakers had a crush of other business.

“We’re all interested in that,” Hawkins said. “Nobody wants spousal abuse.”

McCormick said abuse victims often report that after an argument escalates into physical violence, the abuser later expects the victim to “be sexual” and coerces them into sex acts to prove that “we’re all OK” and “make up.”

“We think of sexual violence as being on a continuum, and there are behaviors that are (on) the continuum that are clearly extreme,” McCormick said. “But at the same time, we have to recognize that there are behaviors that sort of lead up to some of those severe acts that are also violating and not OK and exploitive.”

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