Republican congressman Todd Akin’s astonishing observations with respect to pregnancy resulting from rape continue to ricochet around the media in the United States. The nuances of his comments have gotten lost in the ensuing controversy over what constitutes illegitimate rape. His words are, in fact, worth considering again.
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that it’s [pregnancy resulting from rape] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Mr. Akin reveals a troubling ignorance about the mechanism of conception. Indeed, his scientific ignorance is equally as troubling as his social views about rape. They both come from a different time and a very different world.
The notion that a woman’s body will experience different biological responses to intercourse depending on whether the sex act is consensual or coerced can be traced back to the Middle Ages. At this time the scientific and medical texts of Greek and Roman antiquity were being translated and appropriated by European doctors and philosophers, all of whom, without exception, were not only male but also members of the Roman Catholic clergy. Thus, science and medicine were given a distinctly ideological and theological spin.
The medieval roots of Mr. Akin’s comments lie in the scientific belief that a woman needed to experience sexual pleasure just as much as a man in order for conception to occur. Clearly, in a loving relationship this would be the norm. The old “Lie back and think of England” view, that suggested female sexual pleasure was unnecessary, and perhaps even unseemly, is from a much later time.
The corollary is that without female pleasure no conception would occur. Thus, according to the 12th-century philosopher William of Conches, “prostitutes who have sexual relations for money alone, and who take no pleasure during the sex act, do not conceive.” They would, however, get pregnant from sex with a lover.
Like Mr. Akin, William of Conche also considered the situation of rape, confidently asserting that there would be no offspring, unless somehow the woman “enjoyed” it. “Although in rape the act is distressing to begin with, at the end, given the weakness of the flesh, it is not without its pleasures.”
There were a host of dreadful outcomes for women from such ideas. For centuries, women were believed to “want it” and if conception occurred, obviously enjoyed it. But there is a flip side to these beliefs with respect to men’s bodies that is equally thought-provoking.
There is an enduring notion, still embedded in contemporary popular beliefs, that the male sex drive is so strong that it cannot be controlled. Lust can build up inside, perhaps even harming a man’s body or health, unless he has sex. So, a man cannot resist a woman in a short skirt or low cut blouse if his libido is out of control. For how long have women been told “they asked for it?”
There was a less prominent but no less disturbing and bizarre example of this kind of thinking that emerged from Zimbabwe in May. Senator Morgan Femai asserted that in order to stop the spread of HIV, women needed to shave their heads, stop bathing and deliberately make themselves unattractive to men.
These strategies were then linked to the desirability for female genital mutilation to inhibit the spread of the virus.
This was exactly the advice given to medieval women, especially nuns. They needed to hide their hair, or better yet shave it, and married women conventionally covered their hair. A good and chaste woman did not wear makeup, and even prostitutes were fined for doing so. Sometimes a woman went so far as to disfigure herself or cut off her nose so that she would not be tempting to men.
Mr. Femai’s ideas may not emerge from the same religious and historical roots as Mr. Akin’s, but they reveal a complementary value system. They project onto women’s bodies both the cause and the effect of unbridled male sexuality. Both reveal a woeful ignorance of biological and reproductive science. And, sadly, both are firmly rooted in thousands of years of misogyny, which has rendered women both the victim and the cause of sexual violence. That these views are being touted publicly by political figures across the globe is deeply disturbing.
Mr. Akin’s ideas are really not so different from the merging of science and religion that is found in so much right-wing Republican thought, especially that associated with the Tea Party. The condemnation of evolution and the misunderstanding of and desire to control women’s bodies are equally the purview of those who have skipped 500 years of science classes.
Jacqueline Murray is a professor of history at the University of Guelph.