As you have probably heard, Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri recently made some dangerous and hateful remarks about rape. You can read his comments here. What could possibly cause a man (sigh) to say that “legitimate rape” does not lead to pregnancy? Ostensibly, he was trying to make a point about the ethics of abortion. However, something deeper is going on here.
A short detour into my own experience: Growing up I was taught that, while conservative economic policies were obviously biblically based, the most important political issue was abortion. A candidate’s stance as “pro-life” trumped all other political issues. Anything bad that happened in America was probably God’s judgment for our “culture of death” that allowed abortion to continue. I remember attending rallies where I would hold a sign with blue letters that read “Abortion Kills Children.” “This is genocide! It’s as simple as A.B.C.” As cars passed, I peered around my sign and into their windows, hoping that the message would penetrate the women driving by. The distrust of women was deeply ingrained.
In college, other conservative beliefs started to fall away, but this one was persistent. One time a buddy and I were driving by a rally like the ones I had attended as a boy.
A Priest was holding the same blue sign and we stopped and argued with him. We told him “of course abortion is wrong, but your tactics are all wrong! Shaming women isn’t going to help.” At some point I realized that the shame was not a poor tactic, easily discardable, with which to reach the goal of reduced abortions; it is a core aspect of the ethics of “pro-life.”
Shame is a means of maintaining control, which brings us back to the topic at hand. Why would Akin imply that if a woman gets pregnant from a rape that it wasn’t a “legitimate rape?” Because his belief system ordains that the power to define rape should be in the hands of men. In other words, it’s all about power. His latest statement arguing that women lie about being raped, makes this crystal clear. But these are not consciously held beliefs and no matter what people like Jon Stewart say, Akin doesn’t “secretly hate women.” Having grown up in the pro-life movement, I can assure you that telling someone that they hate women only solidifies their previously held beliefs, further insulating them from ever having to confront the consequences of those beliefs.
As Adam Kotsko recently pointed out, there is an underlying logic:
if we view [conservative ideologies] in terms of strategy, they all make perfect sense. Taken together, they serve to blame the victims, assert that the powerful are powerful for moral reasons, and then claim that the role of government is to endorse and reinforce the morally-discovered power structure rather than futilely try to disrupt it. The arguments might clash on a superficial level, but their effects are perfectly coherent and rational once the goal is granted.
I hardly need to point to the Jewish prophetic tradition’s scathing critique of this type of thinking (if you need a refresher, read A Theology of Liberation). The powerful do not want to give up their power and certainly don’t want to think about the consequences of their power. And as long as we keep arguing at the level of consciously held beliefs, rape will keep getting legitimated and the oppressed will keep losing.