Todd Akin: an undiscovered feminist?

Until this weekend, few people outside Missouri had heard of Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican senatorial candidate for that state. But he's ensured a brief brush with international celebrity through that time-honoured political manoeuvre of opening his mouth and pushing his size-fifteen boots through it. What Akin said, if you haven't heard, is that where a woman is "legitimately" raped, her body will shut down, making it unlikely that she will get pregnant. Therefore, he concluded - for this statement formed part of a pro-life argument - there's no reason why rape victims who become pregnant should have access to abortion. The fact that they got pregnant, after all, shows that they were not genuine rape-victims at all.

Or at least it shows that they are unlikely to be genuine rape victims. "It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors," he told a local TV reporter, "that’s really rare."

Akin later apologised, saying that he "misspoke" and expressing "the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year." He does not, however, seem to have repudiated his claim about "legitimate" rape victims' bodies "shutting down" to prevent pregnancy.

Naturally a lot of the attention has focused on the phrase "legitimate" rape, by which of course he means not rape that is "legitimate" - not even a Republican politician from Missouri is likely to go so far as to argue that some rapes are legitimate - but "proper" rape, violent stranger rape, the sort of thing that Whoopi Goldberg, defending Polanski, notoriously called "rape-rape". Even if you don't take the fundamentalist position that there can be no distinction at all between different rapes, Akin's use of language here is strikingly provocative. But I want to consider instead the underlying claim that a rape-victim's body will "shut down".

It's not clear which doctors Akin has been speaking to. Dr Jen Gunter suggests that he may have got the idea from the anti-abortion group Physicians for Life. A statement on their website begins by distinguishing between "forced rape" and statutory rape (ie under-age sex), acknowledging that "[all] forced rape is still rape, regardless of whether it occurs on a date or behind the bushes." That at least is a reasonable distinction to make. So let's be generous and assume that by "legitimate rape" Akin was merely distinguishing (very clumsily) between unlawful but consenting sex and coercive, non-consenting sex. According to Physicians For Life, pregnancy among rape victims is "extremely rare", with "no more than one or two pregnancies resultant from every 1000 forced rapes." The group draws this conclusion from Department of Justice figures on the incidence of rape.

PFL lists a whole lot of reasons why a woman might not get pregnant after being raped among which is "psychic trauma":

Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, and implantation.

No scientific evidence is offered for this statement. Three papers are listed, two of them by Sandra Mahkorn, a doctor and pro-life campaigner. They do not seem directly relevant - in one of them, Mahkorn interviewed 37 women who had become pregnant through rape, of whom the majority continued with the pregnancy. This was in 1979. The third paper, by AN Groth (from 1977), examined "the sexual performance of the rapist during assault and its relation to the medical evidence of sexual penetration." Which also has nothing to do with a woman's biological response to rape. Says Dr Gunter:

Put another way, the Physicians for Life have not provided a single published article to support their claims. Interestingly, Physicians for Life also promote the long disproven claim that abortion causes breast cancer.

Of course, Rep. Akin might not be relying on Physicians For Life but instead have been talking to other experts, for example Dr Samuel Farr, who in 1814 was still repeating a medieval theory that

...without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place. So that if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated, it is not likely she would become pregnant.

(For more on this, there's a good round-up on Guardian Science blogs)

Incidentally, the theory that a woman needed to enjoy sex in order to conceive began to fall from favour during the 18th century, at a time when the old view that women were the more "lustful" sex began to give way to the modern belief that men are perpetually horny and women are demure creatures who can take it or leave it. In Victorian times, excessive sexual desire in women was given the medical term "nymphomania" and seen as requiring treatment; these days, it lingers in an attenuated form in the belief that men want sex but women want relationships - seen, for example, in Stephen Fry's comments in 2010:

I feel sorry for straight men. The only reason women will have sex with them is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want.

The good news for women in the older theory was that it gave men who wanted to impregnate their wives an incentive to make an effort, whereas in Victorian times a husband could just instruct his spouse to lie still and think of England ("ladies don't move"). Only whores got pleasure out of sex, it was widely assumed, a position that is, of course, the inverse of the official position among today's feminist establishment that commercial sex can by definition be pleasurable only for the customer.

By the same token, Akin's wacko belief that forced sex cannot result in pregnancy (because the body "shuts down") does at least have the benefit of being ever so slightly feminist. And yes, he is of course coming from a position of extreme anti-feminism, but the idea of a woman's body "shutting down" after rape would, were there any evidence for it, help to dispose of the highly inconvenient theory put forward some years ago by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer that rape can be viewed as a reproductive strategy. The idea caused a storm, largely because people who couldn't tell the difference between Ought and Is assumed that to say that rape was "natural" was somehow to condone it. It also offended against the orthodox view that rape is a crime of power, not of sex, even that "rape is not sex", a nonsensical slogan that is nevertheless endlessly repeated.

So what does the evidence actually say? Briefly, that Akin was wholly wrong. Not only does rape not cause a woman's body to "shut down", conception after rape might actually be more likely than conception after normal consensual sex. A 2003 paper in Human Nature by Jonathan and Tiffani Gottschall concluded, after studying the data in detail, that "per-incident rape-pregnancy rates exceed per-incident consensual pregnancy rates by a sizable margin, even before adjusting for the use of relevant forms of birth control." Indeed, a single act of rape might be more than twice as likely to make a woman pregnant as a single act of consensual sex.

Quite why that should be so was unclear. One of the Gottschalls' suggestions was that "women feel more attractive and sexy when ovulating, and unconsciously give off signals that rapists might pick up" (which sounds to me worryingly close to the "short skirt" defence) or that "rapists target attractive and healthy-looking women - both characteristics that can indicate fertility." Again, that doesn't strike me as very convincing. But this is all speculative.

To many, the Thornhill and Palmer theory that rape is a "reproductive strategy" was offensive and politically unacceptable, even if there might be evidence to support it and even though it seems to give scientific backing to radical feminist ideas of inherent male violence and female victimhood. By that token, the Akin theory ought to be a feminist one: for it asserts (though without any evidence) that, at some deep biological level, women are in control of their own fertility. Their bodies can "choose" whether or not to conceive. But if so, if pregnancy isn't something that men do to women but which women do to themselves, why should they precluded from making the conscious choices that modern science allows them? Akin seems to be asserting that nature itself (and therefore presumably God) is pro-choice. Even if he's wrong, he should at least try to be consistent.


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