This past week, along with most of the rest of America, I’ve been thinking about rape.*
It seems likely that we’re headed for a future in which laws in this country and its constituent states are increasingly drafted by people like Todd Akin, who have little knowledge of how sex works, and a vested interest in defining the word “rape” so narrowly that it rarely applies to coercive sex acts.
Being myself a rapee,** and also an empirically minded sort of person, I find myself wondering what would have been different about my life so far if I’d grown up under Todd Akin Law. And, being fully committed to empiricism even when it conflicts with dearly held personal beliefs, I have to confess: Not much.
Here are the four pillars of what I call Akin’s Theory of Rapeology:
1. A sex act is not rape unless it is physically forced.
2. A sex act that is physically forced will not result in a pregnancy.
Number 2 is demonstrably false, but, if accepted as a premise, leads inescapably via the power of contrapositive reasoning to:
3. If a sex act results in a pregnancy, it must not have been physically forced.
Thus, the kicker:
4. If it is acceptable to deny abortion to women in any circumstance, there is no need to carve out an exemption for rape victims, since no rape victim will ever become pregnant from the act.
Upon this rock of dubious logical soundness, Akin et al. presumably seek to erect a new legal edifice, which would have two main features:
1. Abortion would become unobtainable, for rape victims as well as for the general population.
2. Increasingly, the concept of “forcible” rape—a term that does crop up in the state-by-state mosaic of law on sexual assault—would be enshrined in law, and used to distinguish sex acts that are physically inescapable from those that involve coercion, temporary physical or mental incapacity or inability to consent to sex acts due to age or mental status. For all intents and purposes, “forcible” rape would be considered “real” rape, opening the door for the legal penalties accorded to “lesser” varieties of rape to be diminished.
I must be frank here; I find this prospect terrifying. But I am also honor-bound to point out that while it seems likely Akin Law would have narrowed my options for legal recourse, I have not had much in the way of justice from the status quo either, despite having sustained injuries that would probably strike the average person—perhaps even Akin himself—as an unforgivable affront to human dignity.
First, let us consider abortion. Here, I will own that I dodged a bullet: I was far too young at the time I was raped for pregnancy to be remotely a possibility. While I am of the firm belief that no one should be legally permitted to dictate for you what kinds of things should be lodged in your own body—whether that be someone else’s appendages, a medical instrument or another living being—my own personal experiences do not offer much to advance this aspect of the discussion.
I did, however, worry privately and intensely throughout my childhood and young adolescence about AIDS—a disease I lost a family member*** to in 1982, not long after the incidents in question. If anonymous HIV testing had been available to me as a second-grader, it’s likely I would have taken advantage of it, and spared myself many years of anxiety on that front.
I doubt any of the prominent Democrats who are currently outraged by the proliferation of Akinesque commentary on rape would get behind the idea of federal funding for anonymous HIV testing in elementary schools, and can only imagine how the man himself would react to such a suggestion. I can therefore say with some certainty that there is no remotely feasible legal structure that could have spared me some ten years of private angst over whether I might suddenly develop a fat, ulcerating Kaposi’s sarcoma in the middle of gym class. Some things man is fated to endure.
But onward! Next, let us consider the issue of what constitutes “legitimate” rape.
Here, I suppose it would be appropriate to confess a spot of equivocation on this front. As a child, I myself was often vexed by the fact that I had not, as it were, “fought back.” I sustained no outwardly visible injuries during the course of my repeated indoctrination in the preferred sexual practices of teenage males. Indeed, I cannot recall ever having uttered the word “no”—though if memory serves, the word “but,” followed by a series of insufficiently reasoned excuses, escaped my lips on numerous occasions.
In retrospect, it may have been a mercy that my rapist was wont, on evenings when we were the house’s sole occupants, to turn off all the lights, deploy a strobe light and a bullhorn, and chase me around the furniture, shrieking “YOU’RE GONNA DIE YOUNG,” in a terrifyingly distorted and amplified voice. This behavior, while intensely unpleasant at the time, has also been a source of great comfort to me during times when I reflected unhappily on the fact that I did not do more to deter him from penetrating my small person. The sheer cartoonish villainy of it did much to advance the hypothesis that what transpired between us was, in fact, entirely his fault.
But getting back to the issue at hand. It seems that Akin Law would have it that my rape, while possibly “rape,” was not “rape-rape,” to lift a snappy little phrase from Whoopi Goldberg.**** What are we to make of this?
It is said that the wheels of justice turn slowly, even on well-paved roads; when the road gets muddy, they cease to turn altogether. There may well be a law prohibiting the kind of treatment my 5-year-old ladyparts received at the—well, I shall not say hand—of the perpetrator, but in my admittedly limited experience, the stricture against raping one’s fellow humans remains far more de jure than de facto. He got off, as they say, scot-free.
Despite the existence of medical evidence corroborating my assertions, no charges were ever brought against my rapist in a court of law, mainly for the reason that—I am told—it would have meant subjecting me to painful and pointless cross-examination on the stand. Without an eyewitness, a lawyer advised at the time, there was no hope of conviction. My assailant was also a minor, which may well have factored into the adults’ calculations; the worst he faced in any situation was probably a couple of years in juvenile detention. And by the time I was of an age to pursue legal battles on my own behalf, the statute of limitations had, most regrettably, expired. Even now, I hesitate to provide identifying details about the person in question, for the simple reason that it is far more likely that I should be sued for libel than that this man will ever be called upon in court to explain how his penis ended up in a very small child.
I know a lot of rapees personally, and I can’t think of a single one whose rapist ever did time. As Kurt Vonnegut might have said, So it goes.
In summation: Under Akin Law, many rapes would be trivialized, many more would go unpunished, and many people who are raped would fail to obtain any semblance of justice. But the difference between Akin Law and the current state of affairs is not one of quality but of degree.
And when we claim that Akin is trying to redefine rape for American society, we have cause and effect backwards. Rather, we should say that the current state of political discourse is the product of a culture that wholeheartedly supports the division of coercive sex acts into “rape” and “rape-rape,” and is content to quibble over where to draw the line. Whenever some apologist struggling to draw the line between rape and real rape throws up his or her hands and says “Oh, you know what I mean,” we do know. Almost everyone who’s been raped has wondered uncomfortably, at some point, what side of that line they’re on. God knows I have.
I can only speak with authority about my own experiences, and I concede that n=1 is a weak data set. But I posit that when you have a culture in which a child who is made to learn the mechanics of blowjobs before getting through kindergarten wonders whether or not it counts as rape, Houston, we have a semantics problem.
Akin’s Theory of Rapeology is monstrous. But it’s not his, not really. It’s ours. He got it from a culture of rape apologetics that is rarely challenged in polite conversation, and is certainly not confined to one end of the political spectrum.
I have little faith that any amount of bloviation, by anyone, will be sufficient to shift the current appalling state of American discourse on sexual violence to more evidence-based territory. But it seems to me that a little more first-hand testimony in an arena currently dominated by non-rapees probably couldn’t hurt. Thus, I’m throwing this woefully inadequate little essay onto what is already a vast pyre of stupidity, in the hopes that someone who might once have been tempted to utter the phrase “legitimate rape” will think for a minute before grossly abusing the English language.
And, I suppose, I’m going to try to do a better job of calling out rape apologetics in casual conversation.
Although, frankly, I don’t know how much willpower I’ll have for that one. Being the avowed rapee at the party is such a downer.
* If you haven’t, I submit that you have been living under a rock, and I would earnestly love to know the location of this rock, so that I might crawl under it, and thereby get a fucking break from this constant barrage of rapetastic rapeitude that currently has most of American national media under a code-red toxic smog alert.
** What. I don’t like the phrase “rape victim.”
*** Not the guy.
**** In 2009, Whoopi Goldberg used the phrase “rape-rape” to distinguish acts of grave sexual violence from Roman Polanski’s having sex with an unconscious 13-year-old. “It was something else, but I don’t believe it was rape-rape.”