Since Akin’s inflammatory statement regarding “legitimate rape” and its likelihood of resulting in pregnancy, the myth that the female body is somehow capable of preventing pregnancy in such instances has been largely debunked. While his statements were arguably made in support of what he believes to be a life-saving movement, his false statements regarding how the female body responds to rape carried dangerous implications for victims and potential victims of sexual assault and abuse.
Over the years, a series of studies cited by an article in Popsci have proven that thousands upon thousands of women are impregnated as a result of sexual assault every year in the United States alone. These studies don’t even touch rape incidents worldwide, including some war-torn regions in Africa where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war and terrorism. What’s more, rapes that result in pregnancy surely leave the victims at risk of contracting any number of sexually transmitted infections from the assault, including HPV and HIV, which could complicate their healthcare needs for the rest of their lives. For American women who do find themselves pregnant as a result of sexual assault, the resulting complications to their physical and psychological recovery can be excruciating, and the decision on how to move forward so they may heal as fully as possible is a highly personal one.
For those who choose to carry the fetus to term, another difficult and potentially traumatizing issue presents itself: according to a recent post on Jezebel.com, only 19 U.S. states have legal restrictions in place for convicted rapists seeking parental rights over the resulting offspring. This means that in a majority of states, women impregnated as a result of sexual assault who choose to move forward with the pregnancy are vulnerable to the risk of sharing parental responsibilities, and enduring years of forced social and legal contact, with their attackers. Such a prospect is so unthinkable to most victims that many accused rapists have evaded prosecution by bargaining away their parental rights in exchange, leaving them free to attack other women and/or girls in the future, and their previous victims vulnerable to repeat attacks by the same person.
This is only one of the many reasons why rape victims are often reluctant to notify the authorities and press charges when assaulted. For example, the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated not only by someone the victim knows, but often a friend, partner, or family member. In such situations, many feel they are not free to press charges without facing dire consequences and threats to their safety, particularly if their attacker is allowed to walk on bail, or is later acquitted. In many states, rape victims must cover the out-of-pocket cost of their own forensic rape kits, which can cost thousands of dollars. In the event that a prosecution makes it to court, victims are often traumatized, slandered, and shamed by defense cross-examination. Even then, there is a risk that the rape prosecution may not end in conviction. As a result of these combined factors, according to the Rape, Incest, and Abuse National Network, an estimated 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. Taking all of these facts into consideration, it becomes more understandable that only 1 in 5 victims of sexual assault ever report their assault to the authorities.
Take into consideration that an estimated 1 in 4 women (and 1 in 6 men) will experience either sexual assault or attempted sexual assault at some point in their lives, it becomes clear that this particular crime is a serious problem in our culture. In such a culture, where false accusations (roughly 2% of charges pressed) are dramatically dwarfed by the percentage of actual perpetrators who never face conviction, troubling cultural attitudes toward rape, including harmful myths, have become astoundingly pervasive. A victim of sexual assault is often confronted with shame, guilt, character attacks, and doubt. This is particularly prevalent among the 66 percent of sexual assaults that result in no visible physical injuries. According to a range of studies, even convicted rapists, by and large, remain unconvinced that they truly forced their victims, and that their victims truly wanted it on some level, no matter what they said, how emotionally they responded, or how hard they fought back.
This is where Akin’s conception myths about rape become truly troubling. If such an idea were to take hold in mainstream culture, if it were to become an affective aspect of how rape cases are prosecuted, it would become even more difficult to convict perpetrators of sexual assault. If a woman were to become pregnant as a result, it could be rationalized by her abuser/attacker and–in cases of prosecution, even argued by his defense team–that some part of her must have really wanted it, that in this instance, ‘no’ did not really mean ‘no.’ In a culture where domestic abuse and sexual assault are so pervasive, where myths still abound regarding the nature and effects of sexual assault, this mindset would be absolutely disastrous for victims and potential victims of such crime.
The good news is this: If you have been sexually assaulted, or are dealing with an abusive partner or family member, there are resources for help and recovery. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network is a wonderful place to start, providing information for identifying, leaving, and recovering from abusive relationships (including incest), as well as crisis counseling for victims of sexual assault. If you know of further resources for victims, or have anything else you wish to share, please do so in our comments.