Legitimate Rapes: A 2012 Bluster and Opportunity in 2013 to Discuss Sexual Assaults
by Jessica McCauley
Child Counselor, Sojourner House
It was late summer, 2012, and Todd Akin, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Missouri running for a 2012 U.S. Senate seat, was being interviewed on St. Louis television. He had just answered a question about his views on women who became pregnant due to rape and whether they should have the option of abortion. He also gave us one of the year's most ridiculous catch-phrases and menacingly misguided statements on the topics of women's health and violence against women uttered during the 2012 election:
"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."
Outrage ensued. One reason is because Akin's remarks came after decades of research, advocacy, systems change, and public engagement, especially work that revealed the prevalence of acquaintance rape (also called date rape). Whereas a common misconception about "legitimate" rapists is that they are strangers that jump out of bushes or dark alleys, the reality is that most often sexual assaults are committed by is a friend, family member or date.
But Representative Akin's statement also brought up the question: What kind of rape isn't legitimate in the eyes of Akin and others who share his views?
"What kind of rape isn't legitimate?"
For women's equality advocates and those trying to end violence against women, it was not a surprise to hear that someone had views like those expressed by Akin (though it was maybe surprising that he would make them in as compounded a public arena as a television interview in an election year). Here are some other aspects of sexual assault that are opposed, misconceived, disbelieved, unacknowledged or misconstrued:
- Statutory rape, where both parties may have consented, but one is under age on the books. This is considered rape because the younger person was not old enough to make an informed or an emotionally mature decision, and therefore gave consent under the pressure or manipulation of an older individual.
- Rape where force was not used to fight against the perpetuator? Unfortunately, it is not widely known that there are actually three responses the body automatically produces to threat of harm: fight, flight and freeze. While most people have heard that the reptilian part of our brain involuntarily reacts by fighting or running, a third response is just as common: freezing. This may be seen when an animal in the wild becomes immobile in the hope that a predator will pass them by unseen. Our brains elicit this response as well. This experience has been likened to being paralyzed. A person in freeze mode may very well want to fight off the aggressor, but they are literally unable to move. This feeling adds to the trauma of the incident, especially if the survivor feels somehow at fault for not struggling.
Yes, No, and a Better Understanding of Consent
Another topic that is commonly misunderstood is the issue of permission and "consent." Human rights law and standards in the International Criminal Court includes the following statement: "Consent need not be expressed, and may be implied from the context and from the relationship of the parties, but the absence of objection does not of itself constitute consent. In other words, a lack of a no is not a yes! For example, a person who seems uncomfortable, unsure or hesitant about a sexual act is not consenting, even if they have not specifically used the word no. An individual who cares about the feelings, wishes and desires of their partner will notice that they are not willing. While people should be encouraged to speak up, it is also imperative to recognize the past life experiences that may make this difficult for some to do so.
Another misconception about consent is that it need only be given once. This comes into play with marital, or spousal, rape (a form of domestic violence); while now outlawed in every state, the last state to enact this law did so in 1993! (The first was in 1975.) There are still some countries where it is not an official crime, because historically consent was assumed in the marriage contract (National Center for victims of Crime.) However, no matter how many times two people have had sex in the past, a partner must give consent each and every time.
Imagine this: an annual holiday where he has to face his abuser; a date with a fellow student that goes too far; an uncle who spends more and more time with his niece; a husband who forces his wife to engage in sex as part of a cycle of violence he imposes. This is the reality for many:
- 1 in 6 women are survivors of sexual assault.
- 1 in 5 men have experienced some form of sexual victimization in their lives.
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18.
Conflicting feelings may arise within a person who is taken advantage of by someone they cared for and/or trusted. Complicated or not, all victims of sexual assault face "legitimate" challenges and barriers to overcome, and perpetrators and rapists are the ones that need to be shut down.
So as we look back at 2012, and at the words of Congressman Akin, we recognize both a low point in terms of how misinformed and out-of-touch some really are about sexual assaults and women's health, and a high point in terms of the number of people across the country who responded in outrage to his remarks. Nationally and here in RI the community is saying NO MORE to domestic violence and sexual assault. And like those who voted for Akin's opponent, we are also saying NO MORE to leaders who are misinformed, disconnected, or working without our best interest in mind. For more information, visit www.nomoreri.org or call 401-467-9940.