I have two friends whose daughters have been raped in the last 15 years.
Both knew their attackers.
Both ended up pregnant.
Both had their babies.
One would like her story to remain private.
The other went public last week when she penned an open letter to Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) expressing her anger and hurt at his “horrifying comments”about pregnancy and rape that included the term “legitimate rape” and an obvious ignorance of biology.
Shauna Prewitt grew up in a Kansas City suburb in Akin’s home state of Missouri. She was a 21-year-old college student when she was raped. Now an attorney in Chicago and the mother of a second-grader, Prewitt has become an advocate for mothers of children conceived in rape.
Prewitt also wrote the first scholarly paper on the limited legal protections for mothers of rape-conceived children, published in 2010 in The Georgetown Law Journal.
It was her letter to Akin last week that went viral, resulting in television interviews in the United States and Great Britain, but it’s the information in her paper that the public should know. It shatters many of our preconceived notions about rape and pregnancy and motherhood.
“The way we depict rape in television and movies is usually stranger rape,” Prewitt told me. “We as a society have come to believe that’s what rape is.”
Yet the typical rape isn’t the one with the victim left bruised and bleeding in a dark alley after an attack by a stranger.
No, experts who study rape say the attacker is most likely someone the victim knows, of the same race. (Forget that stereotype of the African-American man attacking the white woman.) It often occurs in a private location, such as a bedroom. The only weapon? The attacker’s body size and strength.
“We have to develop a different mindset about what rape is,” Prewitt says.
As many as 32,000 women become pregnant each year as a result of rape. Results from studies about what these women choose to do vary widely: Around 26 percent to 50 percent get abortions, 6 percent to 36 percent give the child up for adoption, and 32 percent to 64 percent raise the child.
Prewitt admits she struggled with the decision about an abortion until almost the last minute. It wasn’t out of hatred for her child, but the fact that pregnancy at 21 wasn’t in her plans.
She soon discovered that keeping a rape-conceived child can come with a new set of problems: Her attacker sued for joint custody of her daughter.
In more than half of states, the rapist-father is free to sue for custody and visitation. He has the same paternal rights as any other father.
Those rights serve as a way to assert power over the rape victim. “Rape is all about power, ultimately, and not about sex,” Prewitt points out. “And I can’t imagine anything more powerful than terrorizing a woman through access to her child.”
Threats to sue for custody also serve as a bargaining chip for many rapists, who agree to terminate their parental rights in exchange for agreements to drop criminal charges.
That’s what Prewitt is working to change.
It’s a movement that makes for strange partnerships. On what other issue would both abortion-rights and and antiabortion advocates lobby a state legislature – together? But it’s not uncommon, Prewitt says. During the 2007 session of the Maryland General Assembly, Planned Parenthood of Maryland and Maryland Right to Life joined forces in support of a law to limit parental rights of rapist fathers.
Prewitt warns that she does not want to become the poster child for either the antiabortion or abortion-rights movements. Instead, she wants to focus on laws that will protect the mothers of children conceived in rape.
And those are slow in coming. So far, 19 states have laws to terminate paternal rights in the case of rape, and only six of those states don’t require a conviction.
Just 5 percent of rapes lead to a felony conviction, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network.
“Ideally, I’d like to see all states adopt laws that don’t require criminal conviction,” Prewitt says. “There’s this perception that you were never raped if no one is convicted.”
In no other crime does the burden of proof fall on the victim, Prewitt says. You can say you were an abused child or a battered wife without a criminal conviction, but you can’t say you were raped.
A sticking point: The notion that a woman cries rape out of jealousy or revenge. But the percentage of false reports for rape is as low or lower than for other violent crimes, according to what Prewitt found in her research.
Prewitt admits she’s ready for her personal story to fade into the background, but she hopes sharing it will change attitudes – and laws.
“Why can’t we just open our eyes and minds that rape is a multi-dimensional and multi-faceted experience and until you hear the evidence and the entire story, who are you to judge?”
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.