A friend of a friend of mine was date raped last winter. I have never met her, and I do not know her name, but what I gather happened is this: She went on a date with a boy to whom she had been somewhat attracted in high school; they went back to his place and started making out; he became extremely aggressive and inattentive to her requests to slow down, and then sexual intercourse occurred. It was not rape when they first kissed, but at some point, before or during intercourse, it became rape.
This story would recur to me every time Todd Akin was discussed in the press last fall. Nowhere in that dialogue did I hear anything that would be of any use to someone in my friend’s friend’s position. The reason for this is that Akin’s idiotic comment – that the female body will not conceive in cases of “legitimate rape” – at an implicit level seemed to deny the existence of date rape altogether. To be frank, what I suspect Akin and other insidious bigots think of as “legitimate rape” is the deep-seated American specter of a white woman’s rape by a strange black man. Date rape of the sort described above, by contrast, is not legitimate rape.
The problem with the coverage of Akin’s comment as a whole was that the discourse was suddenly so off-centre, so beholden to the ravings of a maniac, that even liberals and lefties had to busy themselves arguing, in effect, that rape exists. It obscured the reality that sexual assault remains a pervasive problem. It seemed to leave little room for us to hear from the victims of sexual violence themselves. And in my friend’s friend’s case, explaining her experience to her friends in person and through social media was an important part of her recovery. (Though she did not name the perpetrator in her social media postings, nor wish to press charges, he nonetheless threatened to sue her for libel.)
Given the sensitivity of the issue, most politicians are understandably hesitant to say that they would force a victim of rape to carry the child. Richard Mourdock, a Republican Senate nominee for Indiana who follows Akin’s ignominious lead, is an exception. In a debate held less than three weeks before the election, Mourdock attempted to bring some clarity to the issue by offering that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
There’s a consistent pattern in the discourse: anti-choicers such as Akin and Mourdock who are trepidacious about engaging in such religious fundamentalism must instead resort to statistical and medical hocus-pocus by claiming that rape is an extremely rare event and by downplaying the likelihood of conception. In reality the odds of conception are not drastically different in cases of rape. The most recent comprehensive study of the issue – conducted in 1996 by the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology – estimated that rape results in over 32,000 pregnancies in the U.S. every year.
It bears noting, however, that Akin was simply regurgitating an orthodoxy that was dominant in certain quarters until recently. Writing in 1984, for instance, the Pennsylvanian law professor Stephen Krason wrote that “for a victim raped on the day she ovulates, there is only a 10 percent chance of resulting conception, and…only a 4 percent chance at any other time in the menstrual cycle.” He then cites another study that concluded that the odds were in fact only 0.6 percent. Ejaculation, he says, often does not occur in cases of rape: “In one study of over 500 rape victims, spermatoza were identified in the vaginal secretions of only 61 percent.” Then, veering a little from the hard science, he adds, “rapists are often infertile at the time of the assault because of other aberrant sexual behavior, such as excessive masturbation.” Then, the final coup de gras: “Even if a woman is due to ovulate on the day of the assault, the emotional trauma of the rape is likely to prevent her from doing so.”
One of the largest boosters of this myth was the 1971 Handbook on Abortion, which was written by Dr. John C. Willke and his wife Barbara, and sold 1.5 million copies in the 18 months after it hit the stands. Written as a back-and-forth between the educated authors and their naïve audience, the pamphlet addresses the question of rape like this:
—Let’s assume that the law permits abortion for rape and that [the rape victim’s] parents bring her to the District Attorney and request that this be performed. The representative of the law may be quite sympathetic and more than willing to help her, but he has one request that must be met: “Since this is a law, and I must have reasonable proof that you were raped, you must furnish me with one reliable witness to corroborate your story.” This she cannot do. Therefore, he cannot authorize the abortion for this reason.
—But think of the poor girl.
—True, if in fact she was actually raped against her will. As everyone knows, there are many degrees of resistance or consent on the part of a woman to the act of intercourse. It is easy for a woman rejected by a lover to then accuse him of raping her. For any kind of justice, some type of proof must be asked.
—What of a law for rape or incest then?
—We believe that rape and incest as reasons for liberalizing abortion are little but an emotional smoke screen behind which to open the door for permissive abortion for many other reasons.
—But, even if rare, some girls are forcefully raped and some do get pregnant. Should they be forced to carry an unwanted child?
—Legal authorities say that to change the entire law for a very few cases would possibly open a Pandora’s box.
Time and again, the reader’s conscience is shut down by the authoritative voice of the authors. While the rhetoric of the anti-choice camp today avoids this conundrum as much as possible, the comments we saw last fall from Akin and Mourdock indicate that these kinds of myths remain a critical component of anti-choice ideology. Anti-choice politicians make similar comments with surprising frequency, although often we are not paying attention. In 1995, for instance, North Carolina State Representative claimed that when a woman is raped “the juices don’t flow,” and she will therefore not conceive; the same claim was echoed three years later by a Republican State Senator from Arkensas; and in March of last year, Idaho State Senator Chuck Winder publicly encouraged physicians to take a skeptical approach to women seeking abortions and claiming to have been raped. That these comments are finally provoking an angry backlash suggests only modest progress in the struggle for reproductive freedom in America.
At a basic level, the issues of rape and abortion are connected through the fundamental concept of personhood. A primary tactic of anti-choice legislators has been to grant the fetus the same rights as any other human being, and in some states, such as Virginia, they have been successful. This strategy automatically constructs a zero-sum game, whereby the personhood of the fetus comes directly at the expense of that of the woman. In the eyes of the law, and perhaps her culture, she loses the right to control her own body and thus loses the most basic form of agency that we associate with the concept of personhood. Why, then, is it a crime to sexually assault such a creature?
The more moderate stance favouring the “rape exception” – which is taken by many Republicans, including the two manikins that ran for the White House last November – is hardly less demeaning to women. Okay, they say, maybe in cases of incest and rape they can have an abortion, but they have to really prove that it was rape. (To imagine someone in my friend’s friend’s position attempt to navigate this system brings me to the brink nausea, and yet it is a lived reality for any woman who wishes to secure Medicaid funding for her abortion.)
On the one hand, the logic of the rape-exception concedes that the fetus is not a fully-fledged human life and is therefore abortable. In all other cases of unwanted pregnancies, forcing the woman to bear the child must therefore be seen as a punishment for the woman’s loose sexual behaviour. In that sense, the logic of the rape exception replicates the exact same rhetoric that is used against women who have been victims of sexual assault. At the same time, the rape exception places the onus of proof squarely on the victim. Rape becomes a unique crime that the state itself takes no interest in prosecuting. This exceptional treatment of sexual assault places it in an entirely separate category from other crimes; it forces victims into spaces of shame and social solitude, as opposed to spaces of justice and retribution.
My fear is that amidst the fracas over abortion today, mainstream American discourse is losing sight of the day-to-day reality of sexual assault. The most recent and most exhaustive survey on this, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, found that nearly 1 in 5 American women have been raped or experienced an attempted rape at some point in their lives, and nearly 90 percent of those sexual assaults were perpetrated by acquaintances. Rape is not, in other words, the rarity we have been told it is, and I doubt the situation will improve as long as these figureheads of American ethics – Romneys and Akins alike – insist that women do not deserve the right to control their own bodies.