By now, many of you have already heard about the “unfortunate” word choices of Represenative Todd Akin (R-Missouri) when discussing his opposition to any exceptions to abortion law.
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that [babies concieved as a result of rape are] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
There are many things that are fundamentally wrong about this statement (beginning with the fact that somehow the body can prevent insemination at will), but what bothers me in particular is the ignorance about rape in general and how Akin’s comments remind us of how much further we as a society need to go in recognizing the importance of mutual, respectful relationships.
First, let’s talk about the law. In Akin’s comments, he is talking about forced, non-consenual sex at weapon point. It also harkens back to the days when the law put the burden of defense on the victim rather than the attacker. First a woman was asked if she said no and fought tooth and nail to defend herself. If she didn’t defend herself “to the fullest extent” then the courts were loath to qualify an attack as rape. As we moved away from physical defense, rape became a state of mind, also from the perspective of the victim. Questions such as “did you enjoy it,” “did your nipples harden,” or “did you become otherwise physically aroused” were asked to determine whether the victim wanted to have sex. Again, if the answer was yes, then the courts were loath to convict a perpetrator (generally a man) of rape.
Now we are looking to actions of the victim. What clothes did they wear? Where they drinking alcohol? Did the person go home with the other party. All of these actions are used to defend against accusations of rape by perpetrators against their victims.
The legal definition of rape has always lagged behind the times of social awareness. Up until 2012, men couldn’t be raped according to the Department of Justice. They could be unlawfully sodomized, but not raped. As a result, the courts have reinforced the notion of Akin’s “legitimate” rape and limited to violence against women solely by unknown perpetrators attacking from the shadows.
The second point that follows from the legal argument is that traditional notions of sexual assault are misleading at best and harmful at worst.
Akin is not alone in his thoughts about “legitimate” rape. Many in society cling to the idea of the “rapist in the bushes” and are loathe to find assaults in the bedrooms of partners, at parties with friends, or at bars with drunken strangers. This is despite the fact that a majority of reported sexual assaults involve friends, family, or loved ones (otherwise known as acquaintance rape).
These misconceptions are perpetuated in a variety of ways. The myths are perpetuated by not looking to men as active agents in the conversation about and acts of sexual assault. The myths are perpetuated by the singleminded focus on what people wear and where they come from. The myths are perpetuated by the few public false accusations that occur that hide the far too many private claims that go unreported.
But mostly, this idea “legitimate” rape stems from the misconception that sex is an entitlement. No amount of wining, dining, good conversation, length of committment, can ever overcome the simple fact that btoh men and women have the right to do what they want with their own body.
Without an affirmative yes uninfluenced by excessive drinking, drugs, or mental, physical, or emotional pressure, any sexual contact is a legitimate rape or sexual harassment claim.