When is a gaffe not a gaffe?
Short answer: When it is said and done over, and over, and over.
Take a certain wing of the Republican party, the wing that can’t stop itself from making casually-calloused and disorientingly ignorant comments about how rape isn’t really rape unless it involves physical violence perpetrated by a stranger, or how women’s bodies “shut down” conception in cases of “real” rape like this.
The latest example is Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, who said that Todd Akin was “partially right” about the impossibility of pregnancy that results from rape. “We tell infertile couples all the time that are having trouble conceiving because of the woman not ovulating, ‘Just relax. Drink a glass of wine. And don’t be so tense and uptight because all that adrenaline can cause you not to ovulate.” As Politico reports, “He also said that Akin’s definition of a “non-legitimate rape” could be ‘a scared-to-death 15-year-old that becomes impregnated by her boyfriend and then has to tell her parents.’” In other words, women lie about rape to get out of the consequences of having had sex.
There is a dangerous consolation in thinking of these moments as gaffes, for all concerned.
For feminists and advocates of basic sexual rights—and by “basic” I mean, the legal protection from having your body, whether you are male or female, violated in any way or in any of its orifices, without your consent--there is the consolation in seeing these comments as gaffes because it is too depressing and disquieting to contemplate that they are, instead, the tip of an iceberg of a larger, internally consistent political worldview.
For the more thoughtful, less socially meddlesome, non-evangelical wing of the Republican party—concerned more about the debt than the invasion and moral regulation of other Americans’ sex lives—there is the obvious consolation of calling these comments gaffes because that insulates them from their repugnant lunacy. So these Republicans, rightly infuriated, rush to disavow such statements from their political kin as rhetorical mistakes, that Congressmen can learn not to make through training.
The comments keep getting made, however, because they’re not gaffes. They say what the speaker intends them to say. They’re not statements borne of appalling medical ignorance (ignorant though they are), but of political lucidity and intention.
The legal recognition that “rape” is crime of non-consent that may or may not involve physical battery—that it can happen even in the absence of physical resistance and violence—is a legacy of women’s activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s a definition that we fought and advocated to have recognized in the courts. Before this time, marital rape did not exist, the age of consent was as low as 11 in some states, rape cases would routinely introduce questions of sexual character and the victim’s previous sexual conduct, such that only the chaste would qualify as valid complainants before the court, or jury, and rape required signs and acts of physical resistance and pressure.
The faction that keeps making these comments about rape are striving in general to undo the gains of the women’s movement, consistent with their perspective that abortion rights, sexual rights, easy access to birth control, and the advancement of sexual liberty by the emphasis on consent, for example, were culturally damaging developments that they’d like to see reversed.
This agenda, or political mood, is hardly a secret. The most elegant, if politically alarming, likelihood is that the comments say what the speaker wants to say.
Otherwise, they wouldn’t get said so often.
As they say, you can hide the fire, but what are you going to do with the smoke?