On Sunday, Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate in the Missouri Senate, stirred up controversy when he argued that women who are raped rarely get pregnant, explaining, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Many have seized on Akin’s statement about “legitimate rape” as evidence that Republicans don’t understand how pregnancy works — quite simply, Akin is wrong (maybe even totally wrong) in thinking that rape cannot lead to pregnancy — and accused him of attempting to redefine rape. Akin’s absurd suggestion that women who conceive after being raped weren’t really raped sounds bizarre enough to be straight out of a science fiction novel. And, in fact, it nearly is — The Handmaid’s Tale, a book which describes what happens to women when rape is justified through women’s fertility. Akin’s idea of “legitimate rape” is predicated on extreme pro-life beliefs which negate women’s varied experiences with non-consensual sex, as occurs in Atwood’s novel.
Of all the angry Tweets about Akin I perused today, one stood out to me:
For those who haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 “spectulative fiction” novel by esteemed author Margaret Atwood explores a dystopian future in which women are assigned social roles based on their fertility. The 1990 movie trailer with Aidan Quinn, Natasha Richardson, and Faye Dunaway summarizes the plot reasonably well.
In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead (most of the action in her book takes place in an area eerily like Cambridge, Mass.) women who are able to conceive are assigned the lowly role of “Handmaids,” and are responsible for bearing children for the barren “wives” of high-ranking men. Handmaids must wear red in public so that they are easily identifiable; they are not allowed to read, to socialize, or to keep the children that they bear. Handmaids do not consent to this role, or to having sex with the husbands. The book follows one handmaid, Offred, as she tries to escape the fate of handmaids who do not bear children: being declared an “Unwoman” and exiled. Because fertility is so prized, the circumstances in which a child is conceived do not matter — chillingly similar to what Akin suggests.
Indeed, over at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates alludes to The Handmaid’s Tale in explaining what he calls Akin’s power of “magical thinking.”
He writes, “I have the right to objectively define pregnancy from rape as rare. I have the right to determine separate legitimate rape from all those instances when you were in need of encouragement, wearing a red dress or otherwise asking for it. I have the right to manufacture scientific theories about your body — theories which reinforce my power … And even if I am wrong on every count, I still have the right to dictate the terms of your body and the remaining days of your life.”
Akin has since clarified that when he said “legitimate rape,” he meant “forcible rape,” a term which arguably precludes instances of rape which do not involve "overt violence." Opponents of forcible rape legislation argue that this definition does not include date rape or rape that involves drugs or alcohol. What would Akin make of the following scene, in which Offred describes her experience of the martial “ceremony” which defines the Handmaid’s role:
"My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.”
Offred’s experience is not “covered” by rape because the fact that she might bear a child overrides any notion of giving consent – exactly what Akin seems to think.
While The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction, the truth is that not too long ago, the scene described above could have taken place in any American marriage and not have been considered rape. Marital rape was not a crime in all 50 states until 1993 because of similar assumptions about women’s “obligation” to have sex with their husbands. In fact, Evan McMorris-Santoro reports that "As a state legislator, Akin voted in 1991 for an anti-marital-rape law, but only after questioning whether it might be misused 'in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband,' according to a May 1 article that year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch."
It is still technically legal for men to commit acts of “reproductive coercion” against their female partners by sabotaging their birth control methods. Would Akin, who has also stated that he opposes emergency contraception in cases of rape, be so regressive as to revert to old legal standards like these?
Akin himself has been incredibly consistent: he is pro-life, first and foremost. “First, I'd like to say that I've always been committed to pro-life and it was because I didn't want to harm the most vulnerable. But likewise I care deeply, you know, for the victims of people who've been raped, and they're equally vulnerable, and a rape is equally tragic.”
Despite his recent apology, Akin still places his pro-life beliefs above understanding what rape really is, and what it means for women. Take that belief to its logical extreme, and you have a world like Offred’s, a world in which women are prized only for their reproductive capability, and the circumstances of reproduction don’t matter.
Perhaps, as one commenter suggests, Rep. Akin should try reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Or at least watch the movie.