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Making Sense of Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Comments

August 30, 2012

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.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 4:26 pm

    Provocative piece, Doug. The “teleological view of the human body,” and what its purpose is especially interests me. I’ve been seeing this argument pop up quite a bit as Minnesota nears the vote on DOMA this November. Clarification: I’ve been seeing the teleological view pop up a lot lately as it relates to queer bodies but I hadn’t put that together with what Akin was doing. Now that you say/write it, though, it makes a lot of sense. So much of the rhetoric surrounding the body is morally normative? That is, arguing for what bodies “should” do because it fits with a certain kind of moral/religious narrative.

    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      August 30, 2012 4:27 pm

      Just out of curiosity, what was your initial reaction when you read about Akin’s comments? Did they make sense to you right away?

      • August 30, 2012 11:51 pm

        I didn’t know he sponsored the bill either, but I feel like I knew what Todd Akin was saying when he said “legitimate rape.” I thought by “legitimate” he meant specifically violent acts of sexual assault, which involved vaginal penetration. Even writing that down upsets me. The intellectual or emotional conflation of the term “legitimate” with the term “violent” argues–in no uncertain terms!–that there is indeed real rape (vs. unreal or fake, i.e. non-legitimate forms of rape), and that for it to take place, it must be physically violent AND physically brutal. The lack of media coverage of this aspect really bothers me. We’ve spent a lot of time making fun of Akin (and he’s an easy target), but it’s easy to focus on what a caricature he is and not talk about the countless women (and men) in various communities that are the victims of emotional or physical abuse or rape that, in a worst-case scenario, he de-legitimized and in a best-case scenario, marginalized. This is one of those cases where I think a lot about the power of the word (not to steal from Weaver, who was quite the bigot himself, although brilliant). This kind of language, similar to Paul Ryan saying that rape is just “another method of contraception,” is so (so, so, so fucking so) damaging because it imbues two disparate terms with similar meanings. To briefly return to teleological thinking about the body and the limited focus it brings, maybe we should be looking for an ontology of meaning not just for the body, but as it relates to terms as well, especially when any kind of moral/religious judgment is involved.

  2. Jacob Stutzman permalink
    August 30, 2012 5:09 pm

    Labeling any rape as legitimate immediately creates the negative of illegitimate. The mere idea of a rape that is not legitimately rape undermines our previous dichotomy between rape and not rape. The inclusion of certain acts (date rape, marital rape, or rape by intoxication, to name three) on the “rape” side of that dichotomy is the result of intentional and long-running campaigns. Undermining that dichotomy in any fashion (even without knowledge of Akin’s prior “forcible” label) implies that some victims of rapists should not be eligible for assistance or consideration. That might include access to abortion, or victim counseling, or the right to pursue a criminal complaint, rights that are only secured by the rape/not rape dichotomy.

    As far as “legitimate” goes, that’s at least my explanation. The factual inaccuracies have their own implications though. One possibility is that a woman who is impregnated by an alleged rapist couldn’t have been raped, because the body can “shut it down.” That her body didn’t could be taken as evidence that she was not “legitimately” raped. FWIW, there is history of that specific argument being used in the United States (also dismissed by a federal court…in 1820). The second possibility is that a woman who is impregnated by a rapist is blamed because, ordinarily, rape doesn’t cause pregnancy so, if it did, there must be something wrong with her. Clearly both of those implications are factually wrong, but also vile by any modern standard.

  3. Michele DiPietro permalink
    August 30, 2012 5:18 pm

    I too am much more interested in the teleological view of the human body, which I also see as the main force behind transphobia.

    As for your question, it made sense to me right away, having already been attuned to the “forcible” rape rhetoric, even though I did not know Akin had co-sponsored that bill.
    I also want to point out that it couldn’t be the “morally permissible” interpretation, like so-called corrective rape of lesbians, not just because politicians wouldn’t get behind that concept, but because from a teleological stance, that is EXACTLY the kind of rape that “should” produce offspring. It’s the non-morally-permissible assault on a straight woman in the park, on her way home to make dinner to her husband, that should not result in a pregnancy for the good of everybody involved.

  4. Gerry Yokota permalink
    August 30, 2012 7:20 pm

    Calming down after my original outrage, it began to seem to me that he was groping for the right word, couldn’t find it, and just grabbed “legitimate” as the closest thing he could come up with, making the politician’s split-second decision that to keep the rhetorical ball rolling was more important than being precise. And then the ball just kept rolling and gathering ugly moss. I was tempted to say “of its own volition,” but that would sound like I was not holding Akins responsible when of course he was responsible for putting the ball in motion and then not maintaining control of it. He let his mind go on auto-pilot, which gave us a good glimpse of his rhetorical arsenal if not his intent. And I continue to be concerned about how this ball is going to keep rolling around cyberspace. Will his supporters go into defensive mode and try to establish this phrase as legitimate rhetoric? Rhetorical activists, keep your guard up! And if you find humor effective in these cases, check out the Raging Grannies.

    • September 10, 2012 12:17 pm

      I think this was less of a case of poor word choice than an honest reflection of his beliefs about rape. This is, after all, the man who cosponsored the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which would have narrowed the scope of who could receive federal funds for abortions down to those who had been “forcibly” raped. Apparently, in Akin’s eyes, if you aren’t fending off a stranger in Adam alley, it isn’t real rape.

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