Legitimate Rape

Posted on 2012 August 22


It’s unnerving when a modern politician seems to emerge from the Medieval mists to assert things that only the superstitious would believe. A president, for example, might declare that he is in direct receipt of instructions from God; a Congressional Representative might aver that a woman can’t get pregnant from rape.

Representative Todd Akin (R-MO), responding to an interviewer’s question about whether abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He went on to opine that, even in extreme cases, we should punish the rapist and not the fetus.

“Legitimate rape”? What did he mean by that? What, for instance, would be considered “illegitimate rape”? Let me guess: the latter would be a false claim made by the woman. And if, as Rep. Akin believes, a woman basically can’t get pregnant from sexual assault, then if she conceives, she wasn’t raped.

This idea harks back to the Middle Ages, when rape statutes were designed largely to protect the men’s financial interest in their women, who were considered property. The value of a daughter to her father would be reduced if her virginity were sundered by rape; likewise, a husband’s family line was sullied if his wife became pregnant due to an attack by another man.

Back then, they didn’t have rape kits or video cameras or lie detectors, and men made all the legal decisions, and rape was considered understandable in certain cases, especially if a female was regarded as irresistibly beautiful. So it was a tough fight for a woman to prosecute a claim of rape. Worse, the “science” of the time suggested that, to conceive, a woman must enjoy the intercourse to the point of releasing (via orgasm) the female “sperm” that quickens the pregnancy. So if a woman were raped and became with child, her case was summarily thrown out.

This belief persisted well into the 17th century in England. A recent novel, the historical romance Mara Haviland, paints vividly the disastrous consequences to a young woman who becomes pregnant, during the English Civil War, from a rape. (Full disclosure: the author, Sue Hull, who died in 2006, was my mother. I edited the book. I also edited her feminist textbook on Early Modern England’s social mores, Women According to Men, which discusses the era’s rules for rape, pregnancy, midwifery, marriage, dress codes, and more — customs which influence us today in attenuated form and, as with Rep. Todd, still affect political dialog.) I offer to Rep. Akin a free copy of Mara Haviland on request.

Recent studies indicate that rapes cause more pregnancies than consensual sex. This may be because the average female is less likely to be using contraception than the average woman who’s in a consensual relationship. But I’m not sure. Either way, the numbers of pregnancies from sexual assault are pretty staggering, approaching 18% in Mexico and Ethiopia.

Where does this leave Representative Todd, aside from the dog house? His comment was an attempt to marginalize an argument for abortion, but his example of “legitimate rape” betrays a fundamental chauvinism toward women:

1. It regards a charge of rape to be valid only if no pregnancy results, discounting the woman’s testimony;

2. It ignores modern scientific research, which puts to rest the notion that women often enjoy being sexually assaulted;

3. It reinforces an ancient stereotype that whitewashes rapes.

Conservatives have reason to warn us about gratuitous rape charges: now and then, a woman, angry with some guy, will seek revenge by falsely accusing him of attacking her. (And sometimes there is a lot of gray area in a sexual encounter: How much did they drink? Did she say “No”? etc.) As well, conservatives make interesting points against abortion, especially in the third trimester. Readers of this blog know that I have a large conservative streak, so I’ll listen patiently to those arguments.

But I also favor gay rights, abortion rights (in the first trimester, at least), and the equality of women. And if conservatives — especially Republicans — want to win votes from females, they need to rid themselves of the casual male chauvinism evinced by many of their leaders. Representative Todd comes from Missouri and doesn’t need my vote, but if politicians like him want the respect of voters like me, then (to turn Ricky Ricardo’s words upside down): “They’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

*     *     *     *

In case he’s confused: here, for Rep. Akin’s enlightenment, are …


1. She said NO but you’re having sex with her anyway.

2. She’s snoring.

3. She’s punching you in the face.

4. As you lay down on her, she kneed you in the groin.

5. She’s screaming “Stop it!!”

6. She’s not tongue-kissing back.

7. Her hips are thrusting … away from you.

8. There are traces of Rohypnol on her drinking glass.

9. There’s a knife pointed at her side.

10. The big lout on top of her thinks his feelings are entitlements. 

*            *            *            *

UPDATE: Rep. Akin claims doctors give abortions to women who aren’t pregnant