Legitimate Rape: Language, Legal Issues and Emotional Pain

Late in August, GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin asserted that in cases of “legitimate rape” the body has “ways of shutting things down” to prevent pregnancy, triggering a flood of outrage. Yet Akin’s comment is only a pithy example of a widely held, often unquestioned confusion. The confusion is what counts as rape? Even for rape survivors, answering this question is complicated.

The complication is unnecessary and stems from our social understanding of sex and violence. In our culture, sex is just sex unless someone is brandishing a weapon or threatening to kill you. Yet, this expansive definition of allowed sexual conduct sweeps aside many of the most common sexual violations. For example:

  1. Date rape: he feels entitled to sex because he paid for dinner and you kissed him. You don’t want to but give in anyway.

  2. Acquaintance rape: You’re chatting with a guy at a party or on the beach, suddenly no one else is around and his hands are going down your pants.

  3. The street-grope: Walking along the street in a crowd, a random stranger grabs your ass or your boob and disappears.

  4. Emotional manipulation rape: A legitimate and loved partner uses guilt or shame to manipulate you into having sex when you don’t want to.

  5. Blackmail rape: A guy you know says if you don’t have sex with me I’ll tell everyone you know that…

  6. Alcohol induced sexual access: One partner is too intoxicated to clearly say yes or no and sex happens anyway. Maybe you love the person, more often you don’t.

  7. Admirable authority rape: a leader of an organization pressures an admiring younger member into sexual activity

None of these examples matches the “use of force” requirement to demonstrate “legitimate rape.” These are all examples of messy interpersonal situations that are taken advantage of in order for the aggressor to feel powerful and get what he or she wants. These examples are all times that the survivor questions what really happened and who’s to blame. Very rarely are any of the above examples reported to legal authorities.

Many claim that if the incident wasn’t reported, wasn’t clearly abusive or invasive, then it wasn’t really rape. Reporting sexual assault is a tricky and difficult under-taking. Any victim of the above examples feels violated on some level, yet feels flooded with guilt and shame. She or he knows that if she reports this incident, the scrutiny of the legal system will turn on her, exposing her private life and increasing her sense of shame.

There is no justice for these kinds of actions. We live in a society that assumes bodies are available for sexual pleasure. If she didn’t physically fight him off, then she really wanted it anyway. Or she shouldn’t have put herself in “that situation.” We continue to question ourselves, rather than changing our social definition of appropriate behavior.

Representative Akin’s comment, while willfully ignorant of how babies are made, does accurately reflect the current legal standard for “legitimate” rape. As clearly expressed in this article by Wendy Murphy “In almost every state in this country, rape is defined as penetration without consent plus force. And the force used must be in addition to that which is used to commit the sex act.” This legal definition appears to match what Akins had in mind by saying “legitimate” rape.

Murphy goes on to suggest “… [we] can start calling for all states to enact new laws defining rape as penetration without consent. When force is used, the crime can be called “rape with force.” ” As a therapist, I support this definition. I have worked with many women and a few men who has suffered from penetration or sexual contact without consent. The emotional fallout and scars are clear and recognizable.

We need to stop pretending penetration or “casual sexual contact” without consent doesn’t do any harm. Our goal as a society should be to demonstrate that, while it is always encouraged to protect oneself from harm or abuse, the victim is not responsible for being raped or hurt. But then we would have to admit how unsafe our society can really be and how vulnerable each of us is to being hurt.