The Illegitimate Use of Language

Originally published by Eugene Daily News on August 28, 2012.


By now, you have likely heard – maybe more than you want to — all about Rep. Todd Akin’s infamous statement. Everyone has been up in arms, and rightly so. In case you missed it, here it is:

“It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.

Referring to rape in terms of legitmacy has no place in public discourse, whether the reference is a slip of the tongue or not. It is a directly slap in the face of the approximately 25,000 women who every year become pregnant as a result of rape. The statement was so jarring and inappropriate that there has been a universal denouncement of the man’s words. Republicans and Democrats alike have distanced themselves from Akin, calling for him to step out of his Congressional race against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.

The fact is, so much has already been said. And I do not feel I can make any productive contribution to the haelstorm in general. So I want to take a step back and ask us to look at this whole controversy from a different perspective. While the news media has made it into a Republican PR disaster that demonstrates the inherent wrongness of the Republican opposition to abortion and an example of the Republican war on women –  advocates for the right have used it to try and emphasize that “one wrong ought not lead to another wrong” –  that abortion cannot be legitimized because of rape.

But we are missing the real issue here: Akin spoke of rape in terms of legitimacy. And yes, the context was abortion. But we’re letting the political pundits and news media and politicians take this moment and turn it into political fodder, feeding off of the pro-life and pro-choice movements. We need to reclaim this.

This hasn’t become a universally declaimed statement because it has anything to do with abortion. It is universally declaimed because it is about rape.

Don’t let anyone make rape into political capital.

Rape is abuse at its worst, the fundamental stripping of another person’s dignity, safety, and humanity.

And this abuse occurs everyday all around the world.

What Rep. Akin said is a fundamental betrayal of those who suffered abuse at the hands of other human beings. What Rep. Akin said is not a misstatement when you shift your perspective from the abortion debate to the reality of abuse. What Rep. Akin said is a very real statement on how so many people still sadly think about rape and abuse — that there is “legitimate” rape or “forcible” rape and then there is “all that other stuff.”

What other stuff? Well, you know, the fact that women are emotional and crazy and make stuff up. Or that it is unreasonable to expect a drunk man to pay attention to the fact that his terrified wife could only whisper “stop” while he was raping her.

How else would Akin describe “illegitimate” rape? How would you? Would he or you really look an abuse survivor in the eyes and say, “Well, that sure sucks, but, really, whatever you experience — it’s not legitimately abuse. It’s only sort of rapey.”In terms of both our humanity and any real contribution to the community, what good does making any distinction — any at all — accomplish?

To be sure: people can lie about being raped. People can falsely accuse other people of abusing them. But I think we’re more in danger of not paying attention to the fact that people are being abused than we’re in danger of being deceived by fake victims. Jerry Sandusky might have you believe otherwise — but then again, Jerry Sandusky would want you to know he did not legitimately rape any of those kids.

I’m not accusing Rep. Akin of being pro-rape. Since his statement, he has apologized for his comment and spoke words in public about how he feels bad for victims of abuse. But actions speak louder than words. If Rep. Akin sincerely wants to demonstrate that he does not think prominently in terms of “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” rape, he ought to dedicate significant time and resources to help out victims of rape and survivors of abuse.

Here’s a productive idea: Rep. Akin could become an outspoken advocate for women fighting the parental rights of rapists. That would be a concrete means of showing, rather than telling, that he understands thinking about rape in terms of legitimacy is a mistake.

“Pregnancy from rape creates unimaginable obstacles for women who decide to raise the children they conceive through rape. In the vast majority of states, a rapist has the same custody and visitation rights to a child born through his crime as other fathers enjoy.”

Making a step like this — a step of direct action — would not just be good politics. It would be basic human decency.