Is A Rape “Legitimate”? A Modest Proposal On How To Tell.

Trigger Warning: This post references the Jerry Sandusky case and discusses sexual assault in general terms.

The political chattering class is reeling after Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) went on tv and made the following statement regarding pregnancy as a result of rape:

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in a clip posted to YouTube by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Mr. Akin was trying to make the point that there is very little need for abortion in the case of pregnancy due to rape because this scenario so rarely occurs. Biologically speaking, Mr. Akin is flat out wrong and a study in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology estimates that 30,000 pregnancies happen as a result of non-consensual sex every year. More troubling than Mr. Akin’s staggering ignorance of reproductive processes is his use of the term “legitimate rape”.

Phrases such as that act like a dog-whistle to feminists who are opposed to any qualification of rape. With good reason, too. Attempts to qualify rape as “legitimate” or “not legitimate” result in women not getting justice for sexual assaults and certain men feeling like they have license to commit sexual assault. This idea of legitimacy hearkens back to the idea that women are “asking for it” if they meet certain criteria such as wearing provocative clothing or being alone with a man. When men like Akin wield such phrases it’s especially troubling because they tend to insert them into legislation, such as the time Akin co-sponsored a bill that would re-regulate abortion access under Medicaid, limiting it to cases of “forcible rape” rather than just “rape”. Presumably, that would lead to litmus testing of assault claims, leaving Medicaid recipients hanging on whether funds are available for an abortion until such a time as someone decides if their rape was forcible enough.

We are fortunate that the word “forcible” was struck from the legislation so the litmus test was never enacted. Regardless, there appears to be a desire among a certain group of political operatives to qualify rape. Mr. Akin talks about legitimate rape, Ron Paul talked about honest rape. Clearly, simply calling a rape a rape isn’t enough for these men. In order to make matters clearer for them, I respectfully submit a new litmus test. I call it the Sandusky Test.

We all remember the recent case of Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky who has been convicted on 45 counts of sexual assault and is awaiting sentencing. The charges against him were all from young men who had been associated with Sandusky through his charity program for at-risk youth. The case was breathtakingly horrible. So many young boys raped by this man. So many lost opportunities for the people around him to stop him. So many questions about how and why such a thing happened inside such a venerable institution.

So few attempts to blame the victims. So little discussion of the “legitimacy” of the rapes.

No one asked what the boys were wearing around Jerry Sandusky. No one asked why they agreed to be alone with him. No one asked why they were naked near him in locker rooms. No one suggested that his familiarity to them was a disqualifying factor in their assault claims. No one brought up their sexual pasts. No one questioned their motives. In short, no one treated the boys they way female rape victims are treated.

I would suggest that the treatment of Sandusky’s victims was the correct way to treat rape survivors: with an outpouring of sympathy and a genuine desire for justice for them. All victims of sexual assault should be given the respect that these boys got. Age, appearance, gender, personal life – none of those are relevant to the “legitimacy” of a sexual assault claim. The only question should be one of fact. Was there an assault? If there was, that is a crime under the law. There is no need for qualification.

Anyone who ever finds themselves questioning the veracity of an assault victim’s charges should pull themselves up short and examine their reasons for asking those questions. They should put themselves to the Sandusky Test and consider whether they’d ask the same questions to a defendant in the Sandusky case. If the answer is no, then they need to return to the facts of the case.

Rape is legitimate when it meets a state’s legal definition of rape. That is the beginning and end of the question. Nothing a rape survivor has done is at issue, only the rapist’s actions should be under investigation.  It’s long past time for lawmakers to dispense with the old ideas about what constitutes rape and focus on preventing sexual assault int he future, not by de-legitimizing women’s claims of rape, but by prosecuting and punishing rapists and teaching men not to commit assaults.

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