POLITICAL REFLECTIONS: "LEGITIMATE RAPE"

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By Mark Gabrish Conlan

August 30, 2012 (San Diego) – Just when you thought the political season couldn’t possibly get any weirder, Missouri Congressmember Todd Akin — the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Democrat Claire McCaskill — told a sympathetic local TV interviewer that he didn’t think the federal government needed to pay for abortions for victims of rape or incest because he didn’t think victims of rape or incest could get pregnant. “From what I understand from doctors, that’s extremely rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.”

It’s hard to say what’s more appalling about Akin’s statement — the scientific ignorance behind it, the offensively patronizing reference to women’s reproductive functions as “that whole thing,” or his bizarre use of the word “legitimate” as an adjective to modify “rape.” The scientific ignorance would be appalling from any legislator but is even more astounding from a man the House Republican caucus put on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated the rate of pregnancies resulting from rapes of women of childbearing age as 5 percent — the same as the rate from unprotected consensual sex.

Not wanting a story like this to break just one week before the Republican National Convention — when the GOP is going to try to do its best to give Mitt Romney a sunnier image and introduce the country to his running mate, Wisconsin Congressmember Paul Ryan — the Republicans tried to cut Akin adrift. Both the official Republican Congressional organization and Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC said they weren’t going to give any more money to Akin’s campaign. Romney and Republican national party chair Reince Priebus (whose name makes him sound like a character in a novel by Ayn Rand, until recently Paul Ryan’s favorite writer) urged Akin to quit the race against McCaskill in favor of some less tainted Republican. Akin’s response was predictable: he pointed to a poll saying that even after his “legitimate rape” remark he was still leading McCaskill, said he wouldn’t quit the race, and blamed the “liberal media” for attacking him.

Akin’s comments aren’t just the ravings of one looney-tunes Republican in a mostly red state. He’s put his money — or at least his legislative power — where his mouth is. In 2011 he co-sponsored a bill to rewrite the federal ban on funding low-income women’s abortions to change the exception for “rape or incest” to “forcible rape or incest.” It’s a distinction that reveals an old-fashioned view of what rape is, one that was actually the law in most U.S. states until the 1960’s and 1970’s, when feminist activists started organizing to change it. The idea is that it’s only rape if the woman is physically overpowered by violence on the part of her attacker; if she’s drunk, drugged, or psychologically intimidated into having sex, that’s seduction, not rape.

The laws on rape in this country were once so weird — and so in line with Akin’s description of what constitutes “legitimate” rape and what doesn’t — that if a woman couldn’t prove in court that she had physically fought back against her rapist, she wasn’t really raped. This was also the period in which it was perfectly legal for defense attorneys representing accused rapists to produce witnesses to testify about the victim’s previous sexual history. If she was a so-called “loose woman” —which was generally defined as having had more than one consensual sex partner in her lifetime — her rapist could go free. It was a time when many males in law enforcement believed women brought rape on themselves by going out in so-called “slutty” clothing. (Some still do.)

One doesn’t need to go as far as 1970’s feminist author Susan Brownmiller did in her book Against Our Will — which argued that rapists were “the shock troops of the patriarchy,” sending the message to women not to wear certain clothes, not to go to certain places after dark, and generally to behave themselves according to male-created standards of modesty and comity — to realize that a society that defines rape the way Todd Akin does is a society that regards individual women as the property of men, and the female gender as a whole as property of the male gender.

The most chilling expression of this was the rule in many states that defined rape as a woman being forced to have sex by a man other than her husband. According to this definition of male-female relationships, once a woman said, “I do” at the altar or the county clerk’s office, she was giving that man blanket permission to have sex with her any time he damned well pleased. It was not until 1977 — 1977! — that even a “liberal” state like California repealed that obnoxious law and redefined rape to include sexual assault on a wife by her husband.

And Akin’s views are not eccentricities of his own. A good deal of the Republican establishment has endorsed his position, if not his incautious (to say the least!) language expressing them. The Republican Party platform in the last three Presidential elections — 2004, 2008 and 2012 — has supported a so-called “Human Life Amendment” or “Personhood Amendment” that would define a zygote, an embryo or a fetus as a person from the moment of conception and would flatly ban all abortions unless the mother’s life was in immediate danger. Mitt Romney now says he’d allow abortions in cases of rape or incest, but he’s previously endorsed the Human Life Amendment that would ban them.

Paul Ryan co-sponsored the bill with Akin to change the definition of when federal funds can cover abortion from “rape” to “forcible rape.” He’s endorsed the Human Life Amendment and also co-sponsored a bill similar to the one recently passed in Virginia — then killed after a nationwide outcry from feminists and civil libertarians — that would require women seeking abortions to undergo invasive ultrasound probes. It’s a proposal that some women have said would be legislatively mandated rape.

What’s more, Akin’s seemingly loony idea that women’s reproductive systems somehow “shut down” and prevent them from being impregnated by a rapist is actually widely held among anti-abortion activists and the Republican Right. Like their notion that people become Gay because they’ve suffered childhood traumas and therefore their homosexuality can be cured through “reparative therapy,” it’s a theory that used to be accepted by the mainstream scientific community — but whereas that nonsense about Gays was still part of mainstream science until the 1970’s, the idea that women can’t be made pregnant by unwanted or unpleasant sex had its heyday in the 18th century.

Thomas A. Foster, editor of Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for A History of Sexuality in America, chronicled some of these notions in an op-ed column in the August 22 Los Angeles Times. He cited 18th century midwife manuals by both male (Nicholas Culpeper) and female (Jane Sharp) authors that argued essentially that if a woman didn’t have an orgasm during sex, she couldn’t get pregnant. Culpeper said it was a woman’s womb, “skipping as it were for joy,” that produced “in that pang of Pleasure” the “seed” needed for conception to occur. If a woman were not enjoying the sex act, he claimed, she would not “produce sufficient quantities of the spirits with which her genitals should normally swell.”

Likewise, Sharp — who one would think, as a woman, would have known better — also wrote that a woman had to have physical pleasure during sex to get that elusive “seed” far enough out of her body to conceive: “By the stirring of the Clitoris, the imagination causeth the Vessels to cast out that Seed that lyeth deep in the body.” In some ways, Culpeper’s and Sharp’s views were an advance over what people had thought about baby-making before — for a long time the prevailing “wisdom” was that it was the man who supplied the “seed” and the woman’s body was merely the “soil” in which it grew — but in practice, as Foster noted, they led to a social belief that women were amoral seductresses, constantly plotting to lure men into sex and then crying “rape!” when anything went wrong for them.

Culpeper’s and Sharp’s ideas made a comeback in the anti-abortion movement in the 1980’s. As Los Angeles Times columnist and cartoonist David Horsey recently wrote, “It’s a convenient piece of quack science for pro-lifers because, if a woman’s body resists pregnancy in the case of a ‘real’ rape, then all the women who claim to have been impregnated by rapists — more than 32,000 in the U.S. annually — are actually lying and, therefore, should not be allowed to abort.”

Where I would part company with Horsey is his use of what’s become the conventional shorthand for designating people who oppose abortions: “pro-lifers.” They’re not pro-life, they’re anti-woman — and that’s true even though a lot of them are women themselves. The purpose of the anti-abortion movement is to relegate the female – more than half of the human race – to permanent enslavement to their wombs. It exalts child-bearing as the ultimate destiny of women and relegates every other aspect of their lives — their careers, their intellects, their professional skills, their personal relationships and especially their sex lives — to a place behind their “destiny” to make babies and raise children.

Like the 18th century quacks who peddled this nonsense, Akin is at once awed and fearful of women’s sexuality. His comments about “legitimate rape” signal a desire to return to the not-so-good old days when any underhanded thing a man did to a woman to get her to have sex with him short of actual physical assault was perfectly legal, and when the law made a married woman’s body her husband’s property, sexually available to him any time he wanted it. As with so many other issues, progressive activists who worked hard to change those laws two generations ago thought they had won — but those monstrous prejudices are alive, well, and hatching out of the swamp we thought we had confined them to 40 years ago.
 


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