Rape stories

It begins with a now-widely-reported story about Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, running against incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), when asked about his views on abortion:

It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.

Two things here: legitimate rape vs. something else; the claim that the female body has ways to shut down conception after such a rape.

After an uproar, Akin did a follow-up:

In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year,” he said. “I recognize that abortion, and particularly in the case of rape, is a very emotionally charged issue. But I believe deeply in the protection of all life and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action.

and then tweeted a muted withdrawal of the no-pregnancy claim:

To be clear, all of us understand that rape can result in pregnancy & I have great empathy for all victims. I regret misspeaking.

Much discussion on ADS-L (as well as many other places, of course).

The ADS-L discussion started with the idea that legitimate rape might be a candidate for ADS Word of the Year; David Barnhart suggested it for Worst Euphemism.

Then I made an attempt to comprehend what Akin might have intended by the phrase:

My guess is that he was (mentally) contrasting forcible rape (“real rape”, “legitimate rape”) with statutory rape. The legal presumption is that sex with a minor cannot by definition be consensual and therefore must have been coerced, even if not forcible — so it is rape (labeled in various ways in different jurisdictions, but known informally as “statutory rape”). But people recognize that the legal minor in these cases often enters willingly into the sexual relations (and most people are uncomfortable with the idea that a specific date makes the difference between rape and consensual sex).

If that’s what Akin meant, then of course he should have said so, rather than merely saying he mis-spoke (if he mis-spoke, what did he intend to say instead?). But then he would be exposing an attitude that might well be unpopular with a significant portion of the electorate.

The other problem with his original statement is his expressed belief that forcible rape doesn’t make women pregnant, because their bodies — somehow, magically –prevent conception. He is simply wrong about that as a matter of science, and it’s a really ugly idea. The only way for Akin to fix that would be for him to admit that he was wrong (“mis-speaking” doesn’t begin to cover the case), but I fear he’s convinced of the truth of this myth, though he realizes that it would be impolitic to admit that. So his follow-up statement disregards the issue entirely, in favor of apparently supportive platitudes.

Really, a remarkable performance.

Other ideas about legitimate rape: Michael Newman suggested it was Us vs. Them (good girls vs. bad girls) — good girls get legitimately raped, bad girls not — and noted the widespread notion that sometimes women want it (if you wanted it, then you weren’t legitimately raped); and Jon Lighter suggested that Akin said legitimate rather than forcible to distinguish this kind of rape from “fake rape”, when women claim falsely that they’ve been raped just to get a government-funded abortion. Of course, all of these ideas could be true at once.

Other distinctions were reported: Larry Horn noted

Whoopi Goldberg’s “rape rape” (in her description of what Roman Polanski didn’t commit with the 14-year-old girl)

and Ben Zimmer recalled Ron Paul’s “honest rape”, from back in February; from Raw Story:

In an interview from Las Vegas on Piers Morgan Tonight, Morgan asked whether as a man with daughters and granddaughters, Rep. Paul (R-TX) thinks that abortion is warranted if a woman has been impregnated by a rapist.

“If it’s an honest rape,” Paul replied, “that individual should go immediately to the emergency room, I would give them a shot of estrogen.” He claimed, however, that if a woman is “seven months pregnant” and says that she was raped, “It’s a little bit of a different story.”

The candidate was not forthcoming as to precisely how the “story” is different or what constitutes an “honest rape” versus a dishonest one.

All these distinctions are designed to deflect responsibility from the rapist and place it on the raped woman.

Now, on rape as a prophylactic against conception, Michael Newman quickly discovered that this is something of a meme in certain circles; from Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones yesterday (“Rep. Todd Akin: Wrong, But Not Alone”):

… here’s the thing: Akin didn’t make this idea up. That women can’t get pregnant when they’re raped is a thing that some people actually believe. I stumbled across this several months ago while researching another story. It turns out to be an idea held and repeated by individuals who oppose abortion in any circumstance.

Read for yourself. John C. Willke, an anti-abortion doctor, writes on the website Christian Life Resources about how pregnancies resulting from rape are “extremely rare” because of hormones and stuff:

Finally, factor in what is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that’s physical trauma. Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.

An abbreviated version of his column also appears on the Physicians for Life website. This website, purportedly created to help “troubled teens,” also makes similar claims

And then Jon Lighter took it back in time:

It occurred to me that there was once a superstition that a woman could get pregnant only if she, er, had, um, a certain feeling during the, ah, act.

Thus, very few actual (“legitimate”) rape victims could get pregnant.

You can imagine how pleased I was to discover that I’m not crazy and  my memory still kind of functions:

[Vanessa Heggie’s ‘Legitimate rape’ – a medieval medical concept: The idea that rape victims cannot get pregnant is a very old medical theory”. In The Guardian today — nice, compact, documented piece.]

So Congressman Akin’s remarks (based on the knowledge of “doctors”) are perfectly sensible.

To the medieval mind.

Akin’s tweet conceded that women can get pregnant as a result of rape — lots of people have been trotting out the statistics (tens of thousands of pregnancies in the U.S. each year resulting from rape) — but, either cleverly or obtusely, left open the possibility that such pregnancies are rare, as the Christian Life anti-abortion doctor claims. He would probably be resistant to statistics (just in case anyone has actually studied pregnancy rates for unprotected intercourse in rapes vs. in general). The power of medieval ideas is considerable.

9 Responses to “Rape stories”

  1. m Says:

    Logically, in this line of wishful thinking, a pregnant woman can’t have been forcibly raped so she can’t be allowed an abortion. Makes everything so simple!

  2. m Says:


    This comment in The Nation points out yet more reasons for dismay.

  3. the ridger Says:

    It’s an idea which makes him, and those who share it with him, feel better about their hard-line stand on abortion. But I will give him this: he doesn’t weasel around with murder, unlike lots of them.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now the Onion weighs in, with a piece beginning:

    Pregnant Woman Relieved To Learn Her Rape Was Illegitimate
    LITCHFIELD, CT—Though she was initially upset following the brutal sexual assault last month that left her pregnant, victim Martha Byars told reporters she was relieved Sunday to learn from Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) that her ability to conceive her unwanted child proves she was not, in fact, legitimately raped.

  5. What’s so hard about consensual sex? « Amicae Curiae Says:

    […] going into too much detail about criminal law, in the broadest terms and as pointed out in this language blog, rape involves non-consensual sex.  (In legal terms, see eg Qld Criminal […]

  6. Follow-up: rape stories « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Todd Akin story continues. Yesterday the New York Times assembled expert opinion — Pam Belluck, […]

  7. For the Ben & Jerry’s pun staff « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] viewers objected to the rape-joke pun (on Todd Akin and “legitimate rape”, see postings here and here), but many suggested […]

  8. The news for libfixes « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] news from the WOTY competitions: the phrase legitimate rape — some discussion on this blog here – managed to win twice, as Most Unnecessary and also Most […]

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