Congressman’s Remarks on “Legitimate Rape” Show Fundamental Misunderstanding of Sexual Assault

In a recent television interview, Rep. Todd Akin, a member of the House Committee on Science, the Republican candidate for Senate from Missouri, said that rape does not result in pregnancy because “if it’s a legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin made his remarks explaining why he does not believe there should be an exception for victims of rape written into abortion-restricting laws. Troubling as that is, Akin’s comments also highlight the dissonance in our society between the way we think about rape and what rape is, both legally and experientially. When the conversation includes those who are not well versed in the data and statistics, it seems there is often the notion that rape is something that strangers do. Rape, the myth goes, happens to women walking alone at night in dark, secluded areas, or at least in places where there are plenty of bushes for big, scary men to jump out of. Rape, “legitimate rape,” is not something a friend does. It’s not something a date does. It’s definitely not something a husband or a father does. But it is.

There are several troubling things about the Congressman’s statements. Perhaps most apparent is that he states as medical knowledge something that has no basis in science and has been repeatedly contradicted by study after study. There is also the fact that he is using his ignorance about sexual violence and women’s health to try and further restrict women’s access to medical care and specific procedures that he and his party do not support. But there is something even more disturbing in Akin’s rhetoric. By using the term “legitimate rape,” Akin is implicitly saying that some rape is real and some isn’t, regardless of the victim’s experience or consent. The very choice of the word “legitimate” is in itself problematic, since it can be taken to mean “sanctioned,” rather than “real.” Akin has explained, however, that by “legitimate rape” he meant “forcible rape.” This is not a distinction the law makes. It is, however, a distinction that many of us make in our minds, and one that we should not be making. When discussing about rape, it is important to remember that almost 75% of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and 35% of rapes are committed by intimates or relatives.

In a column appearing in the New York Times on August 21, Maureen Dowd writes, “In asserting that women have the superpower to repel rape sperm, Akin ratcheted up the old chauvinist argument that gals who wear miniskirts and high-heels are ‘asking’ for rape; now women who don’t have the presence of mind to conjure up a tubal spasm, a drone hormone, a magic spermicidal secretion or mere willpower to block conception during rape are ‘asking’ for a baby.” Dowd is right in arguing that Akin’s remarks support the old “she was asking for it” line, but not for the reason she gives. It has little to do with the magical “shutting down” that Akin proposes, since that reaction must be assumed to be involuntary – according to Akin, it happens in cases of “legitimate rape” and isn’t something women can will into existence.

Instead, it is the false distinction between “legitimate rape” and—what, exactly, is on the other side of this, is unclear—that calls to mind victim-blaming. Ignoring acquaintance rape, marital rape, and incest (or, rather, insinuating that they are something other than rape, that there is no coercion involved in them, that they cause no harm) “delegitimizes” the suffering of countless people, mostly women, who have been through harrowing situations, sometimes through years of continuous abuse. But there is an even more deeply troubling suggestion in this false separation. Akin’s remarks are an indictment of all women. If there is “legitimate rape” there must also be “illegitimate” rape – the only meaning I can see in this is that women, at least those who say they experienced non-forcible rape, lie about having been assaulted. This is bad enough, yet it is not the end. By treating the vast majority of rape and sexual assault cases as “illegitimate,” Akin is implying that all women, regardless of their individual traits, are either “asking for it” or tempting men in such a way that the men cannot be blamed for being so overcome with desire that they perhaps ignore the woman and her consent, or lack thereof. Akin has graduated from victim-blaming—in which it is the particular woman raped who was “asking for it”—to gender-blaming—in which every single woman is “asking for it” all the time from every man she knows, on even the most superficial level, so long as she does not physically fight him off.

The backlash Akin’s comments have generated has been quite remarkable. Most of his party’s leaders have called on Akin to withdraw from the race and allow another Republican to vie for the Senate seat currently held by Claire McCaskill, a Democrat. The comments have even prompted the Romney presidential campaign to declare that, if elected, a Romney administration would not pursue policies banning abortion for rape victims (though the Republican party platform still has as one of the party’s goal the passing of a “human life amendment” that would declare that life begins at conception and would ban abortion in cases of rape and incest). It is important to note, however, that this backlash has focused mostly on Akin’s stance regarding the availability of abortion procedures to rape victims, and little on the question of what is rape and whether we can call some rape “legitimate” and some not. There have been several comments from Republican leaders declaring that they disagree with Akin, but it is not entirely clear about what.

Akin got the science wrong. Women can, and do, get pregnant as a result of rape (and may even be forced to share custody of the resulting children with their rapists). Worse than getting the science wrong, however, is the fact that Akin fundamentally misunderstands the experience of women, many of us living with constant awareness of the possibility of sexual assault and abuse, some of us living with the consequences of having survived rape. This misunderstanding has led Akin and many others who make the same distinction – between “legitimate” rape and something else, “forcible” rape and something else – to belittle us, our bodies, and our control over them – to diminish our value as citizens and human beings.

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