In a T.V. interview on Sunday, August 19, Representative Todd Akin stated, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare…. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” I don’t know whether we should be livid about his qualifying rape into “legitimate” and “illigetimate” (whatever those categories are) or that he is perpetuating a myth- a horrible ignorant fabrication- about pregnancy and rape. Sexual assault survivors have endured enough after such a traumatic event. Already, rape victims face a society that perpetuates blaming the survivor, as I mentioned in my prior post on Victim Blaming. Do we really need to add even more problems onto their plate?
Despite what Rep. Akin claims, yes, you can get pregnant from a rape. In 1996, the American Journal of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated pregnancy from rape occurs with “significant frequency” and cited at least 32,101 pregnancies resulted from rape the previous year. So, Rep. Akin knows more than the medical community apparently.
Akin’s point was to argue against abortion in any event, even in the case of rape, but does he know he is making a claim that has roots from centuries past (not to mention it has been disproven)? In colonial America, a woman’s orgasm was presumed to be needed for conception. Samuel Farr’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1785) argued that “without excitation or lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” If a woman claimed rape but became pregnant, she lost almost all credibility since, physicians and lawyers claimed, she certainly had to consent or enjoy the sexual act. Rape victims had a hard time proving the assault already. The gender, class, and race bias worked against many women. Successful rape convictions were infrequently obtained, especially if the defendant was a white man. Women of color, of lower socioeconomic classes, and even of unmarried status tended to have little legal protection against sexual assault, as historian Mary Beth Norton and Kathleen Brown have shown. Even if the survivor was a female child, say of tender age of ten years, the courts tried the crime as a lesser offense than a married woman. Why? Many reasons could be claimed, but one of the most obvious is that manhood (legally and socially) required exclusive sexual access to his wife. Any violation was considered a serious offense. But still, pregnancy could only take place if the woman “wanted it.” By the mid-1800s, scientific discoveries and the gender norm of womanhood (which pretty much included the absence of sexual feeling) helped to uproot this myth of rape barring conception.
We applaud the FBI’s new definition of rape, but we still are not making much progress in terms of sexual assault. Survivors face extensive background checks on their “character,” questions on whether they “asked for it” by what they wore or where they went, etc. And now, we have people publicly resurrecting this antiquated and inaccurate view of rape and conception. Saying it was just Akin would make me feel relieved that it is just one ignorant person believing that mess, but since the late 70s and early 80s, this myth that rape victims can not get pregnant (“if they are really raped”) has grown. In 1988, Rep. Stephen Friend made the same claim by saying women secreted a hormone to destroy the sperm, to which one doctor retorted, “Boy, if I could find out what that [secretion] was, I’d use it as a contraceptive.” Anti-choice groups, even within the medical community, also make those claims to champion anti-abortion (and even anti-birth control) legislation. (Think about the Oklahoma doctor who refused to give emergency contraception to a rape victim back in May of this year.) This myth is a powerful one. It fuels victim blaming and has the potential to make rape viewed as even less of a crime than it is currently perceived. Akin and other adherents to this falsehood should be taken to task.
* Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
* Laqueur, Thomas W. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990.
* Lindemann, Barbara S. “”To Ravish and Carnally Know”: Rape in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts.” Signs. 10.1 (1984): 63-82.
* Norton, Mary B. Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1996.
* Ulrich, Laurel. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Knopf, 1990.