Rape shouldn’t be used to score political points

Another day, another Republican candidate in trouble for talking about rape the wrong way. I don’t want them to stop mentioning it, mind you, but wish they could do so with a little humility, and some acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crime itself. This close to an election, though, I wonder if political advisers out there aren’t begging clients to refer any questions about social policy to their Web sites, or to play it extra-safe, lay off using feminine pronouns altogether until after Nov. 6.


Richard Mourdock at a campaign rally in Evansville last spring. (Connor Turque for the Washington Post)

I tuned into the tail-end of the Indiana Senate debate the other night just in time to hear Richard Mourdock say he does not believe in abortion even following rape because “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended.” It was shocking to hear him say it that way, of course, and my first reaction, too, was to say it wasn’t nice to implicate God in man’s crimes. But does anybody sincerely think he meant Jesus is on the side of the rapists? No.

Mourdock is by any standard a “severely conservative” guy. When his Democratic opponent, Congressman Joe Donnelly, describes the Indiana state treasurer as a tea party fave who’s questioned the constitutionality of Medicare and Social Security, that’s a pretty fair summary, even if Mourdock protests it now because he needs to win over those moderate Dick Lugar supporters he offended during the primary.

Donnelly, who was in a true toss-up of a race before this happened, just got more than a million-dollar boost from the Senate Democrats, in the form of an ad trying to tie Mourdock’s rape comment to Romney, who’s endorsed him. But as usual, it’s more complicated than that ad makes it seem: Donnelly, a lovely guy and my fellow Notre Dame grad, also describes his views as “pro-life,” and co-sponsored a House bill that would have nixed abortion funding for rape and incest victims and designated some attacks as “forcible rape.” The bill eventually dropped the offensive and redundant term “forcible rape,” which Donnelly says he didn’t know was in there to begin with. Now, not surprisingly, Donnelly insists that Mourdock meant to indict God in crimes against women: “The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in does not intend for rape to happen — ever… It is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”

That’s politics, which as Mitt Romney has noted “ain’t the beanbag.” But it’s not an accurate representation of Mourdock’s views, even if Obama and Romney both act like it is, with Obama obliquely referencing Mourdock’s comment on the stump on Thursday, and Romney distancing himself from the statement, but not pulling his endorsement of the candidate.


Joe Donnelly at a campaign event in Indianapolis (Washington Post/Melinda Henneberger)

Last spring, I spent a morning shadowing Mourdock as he went door-knocking in Evansville, then interviewed him at length over coffee. This fall, we spoke again, at a campaign event in Indianapolis, and when his aides finally pulled him out the door, he called me from his truck and stayed on the line until every last question had been answered. He’s an earnest and emotional guy, tearing up repeatedly as he spoke of America’s greatness and challenges. As I’ve written before, one thing I appreciate about him — and was pretty sure would get him into trouble — is that he will answer any question he’s asked, directly, fully, and the first time. If he were elected, Washington would have one more straight-talker, but there’s a price for letting it roll, and he’s paying it.

He is not, however — and I’ll say this if no one else will — a Todd Akin, who not only thinks female superpowers include the ability to block conception under duress — if only! — but has compared his Democratic opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill, to a dog. Neither is he Sharron Angle, babbling about how a hypothetical pregnant 13-year-old survivor of rape or incest should “make a lemon situation into lemonade.” Nor is he Claytie Williams, who lost to Ann Richards after ‘joking’ that bad weather is like rape — there’s nothing you can do about it, so might as well lay back and enjoy it.

What Mourdock says he meant is that life is always intended, though violence never is. By all means, Hoosiers, reject him because he thinks needed social programs are too expensive, because fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings don’t scare him even a little bit, and because those comical “my way or the highway” Donnelly commercials contain more than a kernel of truth about his avowed contempt for compromise. But because he worships a God who likes to see women humiliated? That’s willful distortion, it seems to me.

Wednesday morning, an editor called me, wondering whether we could stop by a rape crisis center or something and find a rape victim to weigh in on Mourdock’s comments. But with 200,000 women raped in this country every year, finding such a person was easier than he imagined.

The writer I probably agree with more often than any other, Amy Sullivan, now at the New Republic, wrote Thursday that “I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape.” Just this once, even Amy and I part company, because I do understand those who oppose exceptions, though I myself don’t.

That’s because opposition with no exceptions is the logical conclusion of believing that life begins at conception — just as some have argued that post-birth abortion is the logical conclusion of believing that abortion’s fine at any point and for any reason. That’s why so many of us are in the messy, inconsistent middle, wary of the investigative nightmare that criminalization would set off, but also uncomprehending of the logic that it’s only a baby if and when we say it is.

I also have no trouble placing myself in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape because in college, I volunteered at a rape crisis hotline. After graduation, I worked for a year at a small social service agency in San Francisco’s Mission District that helped women coming out of abusive relationships. And at 26, I myself was raped, by a man who called just before our dinner date to say darn, how embarrassing, his car was in the shop, and could I maybe pick him up at his house instead?

I knocked, was promptly thrown on the floor in the entryway, and after the attack, he laughed that no one would believe me, a junior nobody who’d just hit town, over a good-looking, well-off guy like him, who obviously didn’t have any trouble getting a date. Oh, and who is it who’d showed up at whose house again? He didn’t ruin my life, or anything close to that — in fact, in one of those “truth really is stranger than fiction” twists, I saw my husband for the first time the next day.

I did, though, stop swimming at the pool I could afford because he went there, too, and would swim up under me, push me out of the water and taunt me about whether I’d been down to the precinct to report him yet. Just a couple of years ago, he met some college friends of mine, told them what great pals we were, and asked them to tell me he missed me. The older I’ve gotten, the worse I’ve felt about deciding against reporting him — and the more I’ve worried about how many other women he’s called since then to say darn, how embarrassing, my car’s in the shop.

Why do I say all this now, half a lifetime later? First, because he could still be playing that trick; if you live in Dallas, Texas and have been thrown onto that same foyer floor, call me, and now I will testify. I say it now, too, because rape isn’t a joke, and shouldn’t ever be used to score political points; if you can’t get it right, maybe you really shouldn’t say anything at all.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Vincent Bzdek · October 25, 2012