Akin’s Comments Highlight The Need For Improved Rape Awareness

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In light of Congressmen Akin's use of the term "legitimate rape," it is important to understand why some women may not call their experience rape.

Rapists cause rape

Photo: Women's Rights News

In light of Congressmen Akin's comment about legitimate rape, it is important to remember, rape is rape.

Todd Akin’s (Missouri Congressmen and Senate candidate) remark: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” has caused outrage from many including members of his own political party. I, for one, share this outrage—I am outraged that a candidate for the United States Senate, who is a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, does not understand basic biology; I am outraged by his use of the term “legitimate rape,” which implies, quite directly, that if some rape is legitimate, other rapes must not be legitimate, and I am outraged by the nonchalant apology he issued, saying that he misspoke.

But I am not surprised by his comments. To me, it seems his comment is “business as usual” for many of our country’s politicians and his use of the term “legitimate rape” aligns with the rape-supportive culture in which we live.

Rape-Supportive Ideology is Not New

In early 2011, I blogged about the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act; this legislation aimed to re-define rape by stating that the government not fund or subsidize abortions except in cases of “forcible rape.” The implication here–forcible rape (although a specific definition was not provided) counts as “real rape” and other forms of rape (i.e. date/acquaintance rape) do not. In 2008, Tennessee State Senator Doug Henry stated, “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse. Today, it’s simply, ‘Let’s don’t go forward with this act.’” [Yes, Mr. Henry, if someone says “let’s not go forward this act” and another person does—that is rape...it’s that simple] In 1998, Representative Stephen Freind of Pennsylvania stated that rape causes a woman’s body to “secrete a certain secretion” that will reject pregnancy. North Carolina’s state Representative Henry Aldridge made similar comments regarding a woman’s body rejecting pregnancy that occurs as a result of rape. Federal Judge James Leon Holmes stated that “concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.” And Texas’ nominee for governor in 1990, Clayton Williams, likened being raped to bad weather ruining outdoor plans. He stated that, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” Akin’s comments seem to fall directly in line with the above rape-supportive comments made by some of our political leaders from around the country.

How do Women Define their Non-consensual Experiences?

Many individuals who experience rape are what researchers call, unacknowledged rape victims. That is, such individuals report an experience meeting an operational definition of rape (i.e. nonconsensual oral, anal or vaginal penetration of the victim by body parts or objects using force, threats of bodily harm, or by taking advantage of a victim who is incapacitated or otherwise incapable of giving consent), but do not label their experience as rape. I often get asked—if victims are not calling it rape, then is it really rape? Given the rape-supportive statements made by so many, it is no wonder people, and in particular, women may not define their experience as rape even when it meets an operational definition of rape.

In an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychology of Women Quarterly called A Match-and-Motivation Model of How Women Label their Non-consensual Sexual Experiences, researchers, Dr. Zoe Peterson and Dr. Charlene Muehlenhard, detail how some women describe their experiences of non-consensual sex (i.e. rape) and provide an explanation as to why some women do not label these experiences as rape. They found that women’s willingness to label their experience as rape is dependent on two factors: match or motivation.

When it comes to Match, women label their experience as rape when the circumstances surrounding the rape match their conceptualization of rape. However, most women conceptualize rape as a violent act, committed by a social outcast who was unknown to the victim (see Burt’s article: Cultural Myths and Support for Rape). In reality, we know that almost 90% of victims know the person who assaulted them often as a friend, romantic partner, or acquaintance. Peterson and Muehlenhard found that women did not label their experience as rape because: “the man involved did not fit their image of a rapist,” “the incident was not violent or forceful enough,” and women reported not resisting “strongly enough” for the experience to fit their conceptualization of rape.

The other factor that influenced women’s labeling of their experience was motivation to use the label, rape. That is, “individuals will be more motivated to apply a label to their experience if they think that the consequences of doing so will be positive rather than negative.” For example, from the Motivation perspective, women did not label an experience as rape because “they did not want to think of their boyfriends or friends as rapists,” to avoid distrusting all men as one woman indicated, the man involved in her rape was indistinguishable from other men she knew, so thinking of him as a rapist would make her distrust all men. Additionally, women reported that they did not want to call their experience rape to avoid the negative label of the term rape because the “word seemed too strong, too upsetting, or too impersonal.” Women were also not motivated to call their experience rape because they wanted to avoid feeling worse than they already did if they thought of themselves as a “rape victim” and to avoid having to report it to the authorities.

On the surface it seems strange that women would not identify an experience of non-consensual sex as rape, yet when we take a look at the way our society views rape, it makes sense. We put all the onus on women to avoid rape (i.e. watch how much you have to drink because someone could put drugs in your drink and rape you, don’t walk home alone at night because someone could rape you, don’t go into a room alone with a man because he could get out of control and rape you, etc.) which subtly implies to women that if you are raped, you are somehow at fault (even though it is someone else’s actions that made an event non-consensual). Additionally, we have politicians trying to dismiss women’s experiences as “illegitimate” if they do meet some arbitrary standard of “force.”

How do we change things?

The rape-supportive comments described above are upsetting to me, not just because of the blatant disregard they have for women in general and rape victims specifically, but because they contribute to a larger culture of institutional support for sexual violence, particularly violence against women.

There needs to be change at a larger, societal/cultural level. And that starts with our leaders NOT dismissing rape as “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” or “forced” versus “not forced,” or “misspeaking,” but instead taking a stand as President Obama has done in his recent, impromptu press conference:

“The views expressed were offensive. Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.”

But, as we can see, Akin’s comment did not occur in isolation. Rape-supportive comments should not be ignored until combating them is used as a political tactic. Rape is not a woman’s issue, it is a human issue. We need to have messages that reach men (and women) that say it is not okay to disregard a person’s refusal for sex, that no still does mean no, and that if you are unsure if someone wants to have sex with you, it is your responsibility to ask. In order for the “legitimate,” “forcible” rape discourse to disappear from mainstream media and society, we need rape prevention efforts targeted at those who are doing the raping, and we need to combat common rhetoric which demonizes victims.

Kristen Jozkowski, Ph.D.

received her Ph.D. in Health Behavior from the Department of Applied Health Science at Indiana University in May, 2011, and now teaches at University of Arkansas! (yes, there is life after college). Kristen's research focuses on sexual communication and consent, desire and pleasure, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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