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“Legitimate” Rape

Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s comments about victims of “legitimate rape” caused a 30-email pile-up in my Inbox yesterday, from political and women’s organizations.

The GOP would like you to understand that loner Akin’s comments have nothing to do with the party’s views on anything, and he’s lost campaign funding in the furious wake of his comments. 

The New York Times cast Akin’s comments as mostly of interest vis a vis the horse-racing of the 2012 election. They noted that his comments elicited “howls of outrage” (why not just call it “hysterics from the harpies”) from Democrats, as if only Democrats would be alarmed, and as if the comment was only relevant to an election.

Liberal groups called Akin’s comments “offensive.”  That seems an understated or misguided critique to me.

I’m not concerned so much about what the man says, and I don’t really care if his saying of it  “hurts my feelings” or “offends” me—as if.  Akin reassures today that his “heart” doesn’t comport with what he said. He just misspoke, that’s all.

I’m not concerned about the man’s individual heart or feelings, either. I’m worried instead that Akin said precisely what he wanted to say. And that he’s not the only one to think it.

Admittedly, Akin’s voodoo science about conception is somewhat idiosyncratically weird. It’s also disproven tragically by thousands of children born globally as a result of rape and systemic rape during wartime.

But his qualified concept of “legitimate rape” is fairly consistent, and not aberrational, with social conservative views on sexual agency, feminism, and sexual violence.

Attempts to roll back the definition and legal status of rape are not new. For example, Paul Ryan and the House Republican majority sponsored legislation last year to limit access to abortion only to those victims of “FORCIBLE” rape. Representative Chris Smith proposed that abortion laws be revised to exclude the drugged, dated raped, and unconscious from the category of “rape” victims.

In late 2010, a Georgia state representative proposed that rape victims be called “the accusers” in court, not the “victims.”

A rape victim who joined a 2011 class action suit against the mishandling of sexual assault in the military was gang raped and the assault was videotaped. When her superior officer viewed the tape, he told her that he didn’t believe she was raped because she “did not act like a rape victim,” and “did not struggle enough”—even though she was severely injured and covered in bruises.

A resurgent distinction between “real rape” and “illegitimate” rape that’s committed by a known perpetrator, date, or boyfriend, or that involves coercion without physical struggle isn’t unique to Akin. When he used the term, arguably, Akin didn’t misspeak so much as he unstrategically self-disclosed.

Consider where we got our contemporary notions of rape. They were revised and emended through feminist activism at the state level in the early 1970s. Before then, there were no provisions against marital rape; the typical age of consent in statutory law was 10; and statements as to a woman’s sexual character and past were admissible as evidence. Most relevant for Akin’s comment about “legitimate” rape, women often had to show evidence of physical struggle to “qualify” as a rape victim. The women’s movement campaigned to revise statutory rape laws to define rape as a lack of consent with coercion, whether physical or not.

The idea that a “legitimate rape” needn’t be forcible is a legacy of the women’s movement. As such, it’s not surprising to me that Akin would find it a dubious construct. Why would social conservatives be more sympathetic to feminist revisions of rape law than they are to other legacies of the women’s movement that advanced sexual agency? To social conservatives, this and other movements ripped asunder the social fabric.

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I’m sure that if one of Akin’s family members were to be raped, he’d empathize, and that his “heart” doesn’t want to be cavalier about violence. But as a matter of policy, this isn’t a movement that supports women’s sexual agency, or seeks to advance and entrench the gains of the women’s movement—to say the least.

(It’s also important to clarify that other irresponsible writers from the early 1990s deemed “date rape” not to be a real sort of rape, so it’s not as if this idea is limited to social conservatives. See Susan Estrich’s Real Rape for a wonderful critique of rape nomenclature).

Speaking of “offensive” rape politics, we might add Paul Ryan, indirectly, to the mix. Ryan reveres the individualist philosopher Ayn Rand. Ryan is now distancing himself from her, because Rand was an atheist.

Another reason among many might be because of her rape fantasy and politics in the The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Both works depict brutal rapes by heroic figures, but the heroines end up with the rapists in the end, and it’s not clear that Rand really feels there’s much to be done about rape, or that it’s objectionable.  In a conversation on NPR, her biographer says that it’s hard to make sense of these passages, or Rand’s views on rape and violence. She also wrote admiringly in her notebooks about a serial killer, who presumably was a kind of metaphoric, diabolical doppelganger to the hyper-extended individualism and atavism that Rand revered.  Some win, some lose. Some create; some don’t. And seeking protections, favors, special privileges and help from the Government only corrupt the system that Ryan, after Rand, idealizes.

I don’t intend here to present this idea as “offensive,” per se. It is what it is.  The important thing if you disagree is to take it seriously, and on its face. On the matter of the “war on women” and rape politics, it’s likely that Todd Akin and Paul Ryan (and certainly Ayn Rand) say what they mean to say.


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