Rep. Akin’s comments just the latest attempt to define rape — and women

August 21, 2012

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin asserted on Sunday, ascribing a mysterious and powerful missile-defense system to today’s women.

With that, he offered the latest modification in defining a male human behavior as a crime, a legal concept that has been undergoing construction and revision since antiquity. Everybody wants a piece of rape — sociologists, criminologists, etymologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, theologians and philosophers. Politicians? Get in line.

The Romans and Greeks didn’t have a precise word for it. The legal term “raptus” had to do with abduction as a means to the true crime: theft of another man’s property. That man was the victim; the woman taken by force had nothing to do with it.

The offense was about taking what wasn’t yours, not about taking what was hers.

The modern legal idea of female “consent” as a constraint on male “assault” has been a couple of long millennia coming.

Over the centuries, the law has shifted back and forth as women’s roles and rights have evolved. Throughout, rape has been a charged subject, as societies have grappled with how to regard and punish the aggressors.

If she is mere chattel and vessel, then her violation is of no more concern than a goat’s.

If she is a person with legal standing to have sex of her own free will, then she may be a temptress, some siren who will lure a man to wanton abandonment of his senses.

If she is a treasure to be protected, then she must be secured by those who know more than she does.

Such are the stereotypes that would “plague the Anglo-Saxon system of criminal justice during the next 2,000 years,” as former Canadian deputy justice minister Bruce MacFarlane noted in a paper on the history of the offense.

From at least the 14th century on, the crime carried the taint of shame and impropriety rather than the outrage of violence. Various etymological histories note the emergence in the 1600s of a rather prim euphemism, “indecent assault,” a phrase that seems as linguistically tortured as “legitimate rape.”

“Indecent assault” was decorously replaced by the 1929 definition of rape in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program: “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

And that definition held until January of this year, when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. expanded it to include other forms of sexual assault, such as oral penetration and the rape of men. That decision was hailed by liberals who seek more legal protections against sexual violence, but decried by conservatives who fear an increase in reporting of “date rape,” a category that the feminist theorist Camille Paglia once said had “swelled into a catastrophic cosmic event, like an asteroid threatening the earth in a 50’s science fiction film.”

Akin’s misspoken-word performance on Sunday had to do with abortion, as political battles about women and the reproductive system often do in America. A staunch antiabortion advocate, he was explaining why the rape exception in the ban on federal funds for abortion isn’t needed. Women aren’t even likely to get pregnant from rape, said Akin, who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

He and fellow congressman Paul Ryan, now the Republican candidate for vice president, co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act last year, a bill that tried to add the term “forcible rape” to the abortion funding ban — in effect, narrowing the definition of the crime.

“Decent assault” is not in the criminal code, so it is hard to imagine that “legitimate rape” will wind up in any legal dictionary.

It has, however, swept into the cultural vocabulary and has already been enshrined in the online Urban Dictionary as “Rape between one man and one woman who are not married or even acquainted; the only rape sanctioned by the Republican Party.”

And the ferocity of GOP leaders’ calls for Akin to withdraw from the race after winning the votes of 217,428 of his fellow Missourians in the primary just two weeks ago suggests that they fear another paraphrase of his now-famous sentence:

If this is a legitimate election, the female body politic has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

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