Making Sense of Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Comments
Two weeks ago, Republican Senate candidate and current Representative Todd Akin (R-MO 2nd District) claimed that when women are the victims of “legitimate rape,” their bodies have “ways to shut that whole thing down.” That is, Akin alleged during an interview on a St. Louis news network that the female body can, in the case of rape, resist pregnancy on its own. This is, of course, complete nonsense from a medical and scientific standpoint. However, it wasn’t the wrongness of Akin’s comment that caused a strong public reaction. No, it was the offensiveness of a single word, “legitimate,” that caused the uproar. But what did Akin really mean when he chose to describe some rapes as ‘legitimate’? Was there only one possibility? Was it immediately clear why people were so upset about his comments? Here are my thoughts on the controversy and what it can tell us about how ambiguous or unclear comments are interpreted in the public sphere.
When I first heard about Akin’s claim and the outraged reaction that the word “legitimate” had prompted, it took Matt Zebrowski and I around ten minutes to make sense of it. Here’s what Akin said as he explained his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape:
Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
When I discussed Akin’s comment with my other colleagues—especially my female colleagues—their reaction was much faster, much more certain. To many of them the meaning seemed obvious. It was, they said, “that old chestnut” about women alleging rape willy-nilly. Conservatives who criticized Akin didn’t seem to have any trouble either—they all saw Akin’s comments as offensive and outrageous without having to explain how they had interpreted his comments.
It’s safe to assume, at this point, that when Akin said “legitimate” he meant something along the lines of “actual” or “forcible,” a distinction Akin sees as necessary given “that there were those who were making false claims, like those who basically created Roe vs. Wade.” As Allison Pipemeier, a writer for the Charleston City Paper, explains:
…[Akin is] championing the viewpoint that these rape victims are women who “want it” but then change their minds once the sex act is completed. These women — the liars — are to be differentiated from “legitimate rape” victims. Because, you know, we only need to be concerned about “legitimate rape.”
I think this is a fair interpretation of Akin’s comments and his previously expressed beliefs on rape. However, my friend and I had at least two other possible interpretations that we had to dismiss in order to get to what I now consider the “real” meaning of Akin’s words.
First, we thought that Akin might have meant “legitimate” in the sense of “OK” or “ethically permissible” rape. But, of course, that couldn’t be right, we said. No politician in the United States would publicly endorse something so awful, so much like the repulsive “corrective” rape that is common in other parts of the world. (Granted, my list of things that politicians in the United States wouldn’t publicly endorse grows shorter every year).
After we dismissed the first possibility, we wondered if perhaps Akin had meant something like “full-on rape,” and was trying to distinguish rapes that involved vaginal intercourse from other forms of sexual assault (say, groping, forced insertion of a foreign object, coerced oral sex or some other equally disturbing possibility). But then, this doesn’t make sense either, because of course those other acts can’t result in pregnancy—one wouldn’t need to explain otherwise.
And so, we arrived at the same conclusion that most others did, that Akin had meant to dissociate “legitimate” rape from “illegitimate” rapes (wherein the women changes her mind, or brings it upon herself, or some other such nonsense). Still, we were unable to find many news outlets that were willing to explain—in easy to understand terms—just why Akin’s comments were so outrageous beyond their factual inaccuracy.
Given the difficulty Matt and I had deciphering Akin’s comments, I’m curious to know how others experienced them. Did you know right away what Akin meant? Could Matt’s and my (mostly my) difficulty have resulted from the fact that neither of us has extensive experience with rape or the abortion rights debate? Some suggested that it was because we were men, and hadn’t had to deal with these issues in the same way. But I wonder, did any women have trouble figuring out what Akin might have meant? Did other men know right away what was going on? What was your experience?
If you want to know more:
- OK, one more quick thought about Akin’s comments. They betray a strange, teleological view of the human body, a view that also shows up in conservative views on homosexuality. I call his view of the human body teleological because it draws conclusions based on what the human body is supposed to be for, what it’s purpose is or what it should do. From this point of view, rape shouldn’t result in pregnancy because, well, that would make sense, wouldn’t it? Rape (or, in Akin’s view, “legitimate rape”) is morally wrong, so it shouldn’t produce offspring. But, of course, it does, because human bodies don’t always reflect our vision of the social good. If you put semen into a vagina, pregnancy is a likely result, however problematic the context might be. The teleological view of the human body also condemns homosexuality because homosexual couplings don’t produce biological children and isn’t that the sole function of the human body, to make babies? If an orientation short-circuits an important function of the human body, well then it must be morally wrong, right? This was just something that’s been turning over in my head for the last week. It needs more work, and that’s why it’s down here.