Commentary: Still defining rape in 2012 ... to a major party candidate
Rep. Todd Akin is staying in the Missouri Senate race, notwithstanding the calls of many fellow Republicans that he step aside after flaunting his ignorance about anatomy and his lack of empathy for the victims of rape so publicly over the weekend.
"We're created by God for some special purpose," Akin told Mike Huckabee, explaining his decision to stay in the race. On the same day, the Republican Platform Committee, meeting in advance of the convention, adopted what critics are calling the "Akin Plank," which would prohibit abortion even in the cases of rape and incest.
A hundred years ago, a judge famously opined that it was "well nigh impossible" for a truly unwilling victim to be raped. I can tell you from experience that's wrong.
And then along comes Akin, telling a local anchor that victims -- at least legitimate ones -- can't get pregnant when they are raped. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." He has admitted that he was wrong about that. But it's not the only thing he's wrong about.
There is no such thing as "legitimate rape." Children and adults get raped -- by relatives, by so-called friends, by acquaintances, by strangers, and by angry and estranged spouses.
When I was raped, more than 30 years ago, people kept asking me whether I'd really been raped. I wrote a book explaining that forced sex at the hands of a man you know can be just as terrifying as forced sex at the hands of a stranger, and that the cruelty of such a betrayal can inflict an injury just as great as the one suffered by women who are raped by strangers.
As I put it 26 years ago, to be forced to have sex without consent is "real rape." If anybody had told me then that I would still have to be making this point in 2012 -- much less in response to a major party candidate for Senate -- I would not have believed it.
After so many years in which women -- and men -- have been fighting to reform not only the laws prohibiting rape but also attitudes such as Akin's, what has gone wrong?
Rape is hard to prove. There are rarely witnesses. A frightened woman may rightly decide that resistance is futile and dangerous, leaving DNA evidence but no scars and bruises to support her claim that she did not consent. I just cried.
But there also has been a backlash, spurred by the age-old belief that women will lie about rape, use it as a weapon against men who scorn them. Yet in all this time, there has not been one serious study establishing that the victims of rape are any more likely to make false claims than victims of other crimes. Yes, it happens, which is why police and prosecutors investigate before they prosecute. But it also happens that people lie about how their house burned down, who started the fight and whether they were acting in self-defense.
If you have ever lived through the process of criminal prosecution of a rape charge, or witnessed a friend or loved one who has, you know how brutal it is, notwithstanding all the efforts to reform the system. The much bigger problem with rape is not how many women report unfounded claims, but how many women are afraid to report at all -- because of fear of repercussions from the perpetrator and because of fear of the punishment the system will inflict, especially with men like Akin sitting on the jury, much less in the Congress.
Susan Estrich's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.