By now everyone has heard the name Todd Akin. After the U.S. senate candidate from Missouri claimed women cannot become pregnant from what he called “legitimate rape” because “the body has ways to shut the whole thing down,” Akin’s name became nationally known and nearly universally despised. In the days that followed his statements, he was outlawed from the Republican Party, whose leaders asked him to withdraw from the race.
He was denounced by members of both parties who were outraged both by his lack of basic understanding of biology and his disgusting decision to definitionally parse out “rape.” And rightfully so.
Akin should be condemned for his comments because, regardless of your feelings on abortion, the notion that some rapes count as “true” rape that deserve prosecution, while others are more questionably rape is offensive and contributes to a culture that dismisses and downplays different forms of sexual violence that are equally deserving of our attention and prevention efforts.
It is important, however, that we recognize that Akin is not a lone figure with isolated beliefs about what counts as rape. Vice presidential candidate and Wisconsin congressperson, Paul Ryan, teamed up with Akin in 2011 to sponsor the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which aimed to prohibit taxpayer money from being spent on abortions.
During debate over a proposed amendment to the bill that would have allowed for exceptions in the instance of rape and incest, Ryan pushed hard to ensure that the rape exception would only apply in the case of “forcible” rape.
It’s unclear what he meant by “forcible” rape, but it is clear his language choice would have forced survivors into a haunting binary choice between publicly retelling her story of the rape to prove it was forcible or carrying the child to term. Further, the notion that some rapes are forcible while others aren’t is dangerous and increases the trauma felt by survivors who have to wonder whether they fought hard enough during the attack to have the attack considered forcible.
Since Akin’s statement, Ryan has again come under attack for his 2011 choice to limit the exception to only “forcible rape.” He has defended himself by saying that he was relying on stock language that is typically used in federal law. This, however, doesn’t absolve his responsibility. He is a public figure who could selectively choose how to rhetorically frame his message. He chose a damaging frame and is now relying on tradition as an excuse to perpetuate myths about rape culture.
Unfortunately, Akin and Ryan’s position echo those of many college students across American campuses. Study after study concludes that college students are very likely to downplay or deny sexual assault if alcohol is involved, if the assault is between two individuals who know each other, especially if they have previously engaged in sexual activity, and if the victim is known to have or thought to have a number of past sexual partners.
Thus, while we should continue to call out public leaders for their perpetuation of rape myths, we should be equally introspective and diligent to fight it if this ideology exists at Trinity as well.
Sarah Topp is the director of debate and an assistant professor in the department of human communication and theatre.