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

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