When Missouri Rep. Todd Akin hoisted himself on the petard of his theories about the biology and social context of rape this week, he raised some big questions.
The biggest? Where do these theories come from?
Let’s revisit first what Rep. Akins — who is currently in the fight for a US Senate seat — had to say.
First, he raised a question about the validity of rape claims, suggesting that “if it’s a legitimate rape” the female body has certain natural defenses that will protect a woman from pregnancy.
The logic is pretty straight forward: If a woman gets pregnant, then in at least some cases she must have been engaged in an act that doesn’t qualify as “legitimate” rape.
He then lays out a theory that the female anatomy does, in fact, possess some mechanism that “will shut that whole thing down” and prevent conception in most cases of violent rape.
Akin acknowledges that there are some cases where the defense mechanism “didn’t work or something” and where a woman will become pregnant as the result of sexual violence.
Here’s what he says about that eventuality: “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist, not on the child.”
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Joe Scarborough asked a good question about Akins’ statements: “Who thinks that way? What doctors?”
Unfortunately, the media quickly pivoted away from this line of inquiry, settling instead on the idea that Akins had committed another gaffe or bumble. In a photo spread, Politico equated Akins with other “clumsy” politicians and campaigners.
But the simple fact is that rape is one of the most anguishing and troubling pivot points in our national culture war.
A growing number of conservatives see the concept of rape as a feminist manipulation, a legal standard which has been expanded well beyond its “legitimate” meaning.
This isn’t fringe stuff.
Last year, House Republicans pushed a measure that would have limited federal funding for abortions only to women who have experienced “forcible” rape, suggesting that another kind of rape might be possible. The term was eventually dropped from the bill.
Conservatives have also questioned whether the concept of “marital” rape might weaken the institution of marriage. In 2003, one of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees was held up because of writings about rape and criminal justice:
[Jude James Leon] Holmes argued in a 1997 article co-written with his wife for a Catholic publication that “the wife is to subordinate herself to her husband.” In another article, he incorrectly claimed that “concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.”
In the 1990s, a state lawmaker in North Carolina argued before a state House Appropriations Committee that women don’t get pregnant when raped, because “the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work.” This from the AP:
“The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant,” said Aldridge, a 71-year-old periodontist. “Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.”
The reason [victims of rape don't become pregnant] Freind said, is that the traumatic experience of rape causes a woman to “secrete a certain secretion” that tends to kill sperm.
“Rape and incest was used as a reason to oppose this,” Winder said on the Senate floor. “I would hope that when a woman goes in to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that’s part of the counseling that goes on.”
This concept, that rape might be a red herring, used inappropriately by wives, was shared by Rep. Akin himself, who voted reluctantly for a marital rape bill in Missouri after fretting that the law might be used “in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband.”
Some parts of the conservative argument about rape can, of course, be dismissed out of hand.
Rape does often lead to pregnancy and there is no scientific merit to the claim that the female reproductive system possesses some sort of defense mechanism that stops pregnancy in certain instances.
(The CDC reports that some 32,000 pregnancies a year occur because of rape.)
It is also a demonstrable fact that many sexual assaults and rapes occur within relationships and marriage.
But it’s important for journalists to tell this story accurately and in context.
What Rep. Akin said fits into a broad concern within the conservative movement that the concept of rape has been misapplied as part of an effort to weaken the institution of marriage and as a strategy to maintain legal abortions.
A lot of conservatives also still point nervously back to the 1960s and 1970s when feminist theorists were, in fact, pushing to broaden the definitions of rape, sexual assault and date rape.
This political and intellectual framework matters.
Fortunately, one of the most important underlying principles of Akins’ statement is beginning to draw scrutiny, namely the concept that abortion should be illegal even in cases where rape caused the pregnancy.
CNN is reporting that this “value” has moved to the mainstream of the Republican movement. Indeed, the GOP’s platform for next week’s convention includes language banning abortion in all cases, with no exception for incest, rape or the health of the woman.