Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment is smarter than it seems

Trigger warning: this post quotes some horrible rape apologism and anti-choice rhetoric

Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin seems to be going for gold in the Offensively Stupid Shit Said By Politicians Awards. In one short sentence he has managed to say something so awful it’s almost impossible to work out where to start. When talking about abortion in the case of rape, he said:

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [pregnancy] down.”

In the order it appears in the sentence, we have the rape culture myth that some rapes aren’t actually rapes, anti-choice rhetoric and a huge honking misunderstanding of how biology works. I’m not convinced he would have come across as more profoundly misogynistic had he just flat-out said “By the way, I hate women.”

The thing is, while it appears at face value as some completely ill-informed woman-hating, what Akin is actually doing may be much, much smarter than that. It could be a very well-constructed way of dragging discourse into a more misogynistic direction.

In the US, the war on choice is going strong, and a rather common battleground is the discussion surrounding “abortion only in the case of rape”. This position does not represent a fully pro-choice perspective, but it’s quite common among moderates and is frequently brought out in debates in a bid to get the anti-choice camp to concede some ground. Akin’s comment is his way of shutting down this particular avenue.

At the same time, rape culture thrives on the belief that rape is a stranger in a balaclava leaping out in a bush and violently taking the virginity of a good girl, and that’s all there is to it. There’s “rape rape” and there’s the stuff that isn’t really rape, which is perpetrated by powerful men like Polanski, Assange and Strauss-Kahn, and survived by sluts who were asking for it somehow. It’s a very pervasive belief, and one which benefits an awful lot of rapists.

What Akin has rather effectively done is say something which is difficult to argue against concisely without giving way on one of these two points. One can throw around statistics about just how many pregnancies are the result of rape, or one can argue that there’s no such thing as a “non-legitimate” rape, but it’s very difficult to do both at once.

What obfuscates matters even further is the very tempting distractor of the anti-reality terrible science. It’s a low-hanging fruit wherein it’s very tempting to say “THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS, FUCKNUGGET” without drawing attention to everything else that is wrong with the statement. Because that’s not how human biology works, and it’s gratifying to see that everybody is aware of this (except Akin, who didn’t even bother drawing attention to it in his non-apology).

In fact, Akin’s non-apology allows him to further elaborate upon his anti-choice, pro-rape culture position; while claiming he “misspoke”, he doesn’t acknowledge why there’s no such thing as a “legitimate rape”, and further espouses his view that women shouldn’t have control of their bodies.

The interesting thing is, his comment does lay bare how neatly the anti-choice position slots into rape culture. At their crux, both issues are about a complete disrespect for women’s bodily autonomy. People who want to force women through pregnancy and childbirth are less likely to be fazed by other violations. Again, though, this is a difficult position to argue concisely, particularly when the dominant cultural narrative is so heavily set against  bodily autonomy.

Far from being another Republican saying something else silly, Akin’s rhetoric may prove to be more dangerous than expected.


Thanks to @JamesGraham for a brilliant Twitter conversation which helped me collect my thoughts on this issue.

17 thoughts on “Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment is smarter than it seems”

  1. If she was raped she might be allowed an abortion, but as she couldn’t have become pregnant as a result of rape, then she wasn’t raped. WHORE!

    Perfect misogynist wingnut logic.

    1. It is. And unfortunately, it’s powerful in its difficulty level to argue against all of it at once given it’s so thoroughly the opposite of reality.

  2. I’m reminded of the belief in England a few centuries ago; that, for a woman to become pregnant, she had to have an orgasm. So a defence to a charge of rape was if the girl became pregnant; she must have enjoyed it, so could not have been raped.

  3. One can throw around statistics about just how many pregnancies are the result of rape, or one can argue that there’s no such thing as a “non-legitimate” rape, but it’s very difficult to do both at once.

    No, it really isn’t. “You don’t get to decide when I’ve been raped, and you don’t get to decide what I do about any biological results of that” pretty much covers it.

    1. Pretty much, but compare its clunkiness with the original statement, and furthermore, it doesn’t penetrate into the complete inadequacy of the “abortion only in the case of rape” line.

  4. the other trick i’ve been seeing employed during this works something like this:

    “lots of women lie about rape. and by doing so they harm the real victims of rape”

    this is also clever. it pretends to be about showing solidarity with the victims of rape. but in reality is a misogynistic trojan horse.

    the last few days have been a bloody horrifying reminder of how much damage has been inflicted on the women’s movement in recent years.

  5. What would happen if right-wing women ruled the world? Imagine if Sarah Palin or religious fanatics took over. Imagine if they took a strict interpretation of the biblical law against the “spilling of seed,” and men were not allowed to touch themselves. Oh, then you’d hear a howl from men and a great upwelling of angst!

    Well then, maybe you will have an inkling of the feeling women have when a bunch of angry old white men (i.e., the GOP) try to dictate to women what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. To wit: Senate challenger Todd Akin and his remarks on “legitimate rape.”

  6. Over the past week, I’ve tried to find words to express my rage about Akin’s ignorant and arrogant comments. This is what I came up with, late one night, in a furious hour of typing. I hope you don’t mind my sharing:

    25 Categories of Rape: A Horror Poem and Questionnaire


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