Missouri Congressman Todd Akin recently taped a television interview in which he said that rape rarely results in pregnancy because, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The Congressman’s remarks have sparked a national debate about rape, reproductive healthcare, and the science of pregnancy. While each of these topics is worthy of discussion, CONNSACS would like to issue a brief response to the use of the term “legitimate rape.”
As a society, we have generally accepted the notion that rape is a terrible act of violence. Very few, if any, public figures would be willing to go on record as saying that rape is okay or that victims are liars. Most people know they are supposed to abhor rape and support victims, and many people do. Some, however, have resisted the notion that they should abhor allrape and support all victims. As a result, it is increasingly common to manipulate language as a way to soften conversations about rape. People voice their staunch opposition to rape but claim that there may be instances of “gray rape.” They insist that not all rape is “rape-rape,” that “forcible rape” is different than “regular rape,” and that “date rape” might not be all that bad.
Our society has sufficiently stigmatized the word “rape,” but because we have not sufficiently stigmatized the act itself, we have developed a tendency to surround the word with descriptors that make it more palatable and less consistent with reality.
We cannot modify rape. We cannot diminish its trauma by adding an adjective or trying to qualify it. Rape is rape. Congressman Akin’s use of the term “legitimate rape” is not problematic because it is false. All rape is legitimate rape. The term is problematic because it implies a contrast that does not exist. The same is true of phrases such as “innocent victim” that discount the experiences of survivors. Any sex without consent is rape. Rape is rape even when the victim is drinking or wearing a short skirt or walking alone at night. Rape is rape even if the survivor is in a relationship with the perpetrator or was flirting before the assault.
Words matter. They can be used for help and healing, or they can be used to degrade the experiences of victims and survivors. Congressman Akin’s recent comment about “legitimate rape” is upsetting both on its own and as part of a larger trend. Rape is rape, and we are all responsible for using language that reflects this reality.