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Rape, Abortion, and Politics (Controlling and judging women as part of the public agenda)

August 24, 2012

One in five women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.  One in three will have an abortion.  Put in real life terms, this means that if you see a table of five or six women having lunch one of them will fit in to at least one of these categories — maybe even both.

This week two of the most universal experiences in women’s lives – the most personal, private experiences of our lives – are at the center of public debate. 

Senate candidate Todd Akin’s factually incorrect comment about a woman’s body being able “to shut that whole thing down” (that “whole thing” being the reproductive system) “if it’s a legitimate rape” set off a national dialogue that shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. It’s a good thing, but it would be better if the public conversation were the right conversation.

From the New York Times and the Washington Post, to Feministing and the Huffington Post there are more than enough opinions about what Akin said and what he meant to go around (and around, and around).  Not to mention the endless e-mails from candidates denouncing Akin (or taking their opponents to task for failing to do so.) Some Republicans can’t run fast enough or far enough away, despite the fact that they have worked toward the same end (banning abortion and redefining rape).   (Then, there is Congressman Steve King (R-IA) who actually jumped on the Akin bandwagon.)  Democrats can’t do enough to point out how ignorant, insensitive, appalling, and anti-woman the comments are.  The latter being in an endless barrage of fundraising e-mails.  I agree – Akin’s comments are all that (and more). But, I can’t deny that I think these fundraising e-mails are part of the wrong conversation.  

What is the right conversation?

As both an anti-sexual violence advocate and a reproductive health activist, I have long struggled with what I refer to as trotting out the rape exception.  My feelings have been beautifully articulated by other writers this week: Irin Carmon at Salon and Maya at Feministing.  Carmon writes:

“But when progressives cede the moral center to the rape exception, they are implicitly buying into the idea that some reasons to have abortions are more justified than others — and that we should be interrogating these reasons at all.”  

Rape (and other exceptions) to abortion bans are judgments.  When we trot out the rape exception, we imply that some women are more worthy, more deserving of making the decision to end a pregnancy than others.   That’s not what I am fighting for. As Carmon writes, “once you start haggling over reasons, you’re giving up half the fight — which is that this is about bodily autonomy and respect for women’s ability to determine their own lives.”  

At times like these, women feel the pressure to put a face on the debate. To be a part of the conversation by sharing their most personal, most private stories in the public arena.  As I have written before, I have long wrestled with the role of storytelling too.

Eve Ensler did it beautifully and powerfully on the Huffington Post in a letter to Akin.   

“As a rape survivor, I am reeling from your recent statement where you said you misspoke when you said that women do not get pregnant from legitimate rape, and that you were speaking ‘off the cuff.’

Clarification. You didn’t make some glib throw away remark. You made a very specific ignorant statement clearly indicating you have no awareness of what it means to be raped. And not a casual statement, but one made with the intention of legislating the experience of women who have been raped.”

She goes on to say:

“You used the expression ‘legitimate’ rape as if to imply there were such a thing as ‘illegitimate’ rape. … The underlying assumption of your statement is that women and their experiences are not to be trusted. That their understanding of rape must be qualified by some higher, wiser authority.”

Yes, my thoughts exactly.

When the Todd Akin’s and Paul Ryan’s of the world use phrases like “legitimate” or “forcible” rape, they are making the judgment: that some rapes are “real” and others are not.  Their version “real” is the stranger rape — the man who comes out of the bushes and holds a gun or a knife to your head, or who beats you.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rape is sex without consent. No means no. 

The problem with these kinds of rape (and abortion) judgments is that the farther a woman’s experience deviates from the stereotype the less likely she is to share her story.   The first question any woman who is thinking about telling her story considers is can I deal with, am I ready to, or able to deal with the judgment of (fill in the blank)?  If the answer is no, she stays silent.  

This brings me back to Congressman King.  King said, when he jumped on the Akin bandwagon, that he doesn’t “know personally anybody who’s been raped.”  My response to any politician who feeds me this response is perfectly summed up in a tweet that fellow blogger Sammy shared with me: 

“Dudes: If you “don’t know any women who’ve been raped,” it means you don’t know a single woman who trusts you with the truth of her life.”

Although it’s a tweet, it’s the start of the right conversation.  Let’s talk about respect for the truth of women’s lives and our ability to determine our own lives.   And, let’s confront the issue at the heart of this public debate:  Why do politicians (most of whom are men) want to control women?

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