Guest Post – Julia Burke: Akin was wrong––but why? On rapists, myths, and “mechanisms”
Julia Burke sent us this great review of some of the actual science (or lack thereof) in Todd Akin’s comments on rape, but also in some of the responses to his comments!
Popular Science, not exactly a bastion of skepticism, released a bizarre response to the Akin debacle, titled “Rape Results in More Pregancies than Consensual Sex, Not Fewer.” The article begins with the intriguing statement that “a woman is more than twice as likely to get pregnant during a rape than during consensual sex.” Author Jennifer Abbasi adds, “That said, there may actually be something to the idea that the human female body has evolved an ability to resist rape-related pregnancies, although the potential mechanism is pregnancy termination, not prevention, so it’s almost certainly not what Akin was talking about.”
Wait, what? An abortion “mechanism” for rape-related pregnancies? Unfortunately, Abbasi returns to discussion of Akin at this point, leaving the reader to ponder this baffling suggestion.
She then cites a 1996 study led by Melisa Holmes indicating that pregnancies resulting from rape average about 5 percent, then a study by Jonathan and Tiffani Gotschall, English and economics professors at St. Lawrence University, indicating the number may be as high as 8 percent. (The numbers are necessarily difficult to nail down because so many rapes go unreported.) So is pregnancy from rape actually more common than in instances of consensual sex? Another study, by Wilcox et al (2001), looked at the likelihood of pregnancy in any given unprotected sexual encounter and came up with 3.1 percent. So depending on the study, rape-related pregnancy is either roughly as common or slightly more so––the point being, of course, that Akin was (quite obviously) wrong.
But why would the pregnancy incidence be higher in cases of rape? Abbasi notes that most rape victims are young (44 percent are under age 18, and 80 percent are under age 30, reports RAINN)––thus, in theory, at their fertility peak. But then the story takes another weird turn. “Age alone doesn’t it explain it, though, because per-incident rape-pregnancy rates are higher than consensual pregnancy rates even among young women,” Abbasi writes. “Seeking out youth and attractiveness — a fertility cue, according to a growing body of evidence — gives rapists the reproductive edge, the Gottschalls proposed in their paper. They cited evidence from the 2000 book A Natural History of Rape by University of New Mexico biologist Randy Thornhill and University of Missouri anthropologist Craig Palmer, indicating that rapists seek out young, attractive women.”
(For those unfamiliar with this tome: it argues that rape is a sexual rather than violent act resulting from evolutionary biology, and suggests a sexual education program for young men that “focuses on increasing their ability to restrain their sexual behavior” and acknowledging “the power of their sexual impulses” and “explaining why human males have evolved to be that way” [Thornhill and Palmer, 179].)
From a highly controversial source, then, it’s treated as a given that attractive women are more likely to get raped. Even if “attractiveness” were objective, Abbasi’s off-the-cuff claim (she moves on, with no further treatment of the extremely problematic claim) is a sad reminder of how prolific such rape myths remain. Rape is not a punishment for being attractive, or for appearing “fertile,” and that lingering mindset is a constant rationalization of victim-blame. One in six women will be a victim of sexual assault. 15 percent of rape victims are under the age of 12––in the harshest of terms, barely “fertile” at all.
What about those “mechanisms” for terminating rape-related pregnancy? I doubt we can safely assume Akin is aware of or can even spell “preeclampsia” given his level of scientific discourse (“shut that whole thing down,” ladies!), but Abbasi notes, “In saying that women ‘shut down’ pregnancy after rape, Rep. Akin unwittingly stumbled upon the concept that women’s bodies reject unfamiliar sperm. In 2006, Gallup and his co-author Jennifer Davis published their theory that preeclampsia, a common pregnancy complication that can result in spontaneous abortion, evolved as an adaptive response to unfamiliar semen.”
But as anthropologist Kate Clancy points out, calling preeclampsia an evolutionary adaptation to protect women from being impregnated by strangers is misleading at best. Preeclampsia and related pregnancy disorders occur in 5–8 percent of all pregnancies in women who have no known risk factors, the Preeclampsia Foundation reports, and the risk factors considered most significant are:
- Previous history of preeclampsia
- Multiple gestation (i.e., pregnant with more than one baby)
- History of chronic high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease or organ transplant
- First pregnancy
- Obesity, particularly with Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater
- Over 40 or under 18 years of age
- Family history of preeclampsia (i.e., a mother, sister, grandmother or aunt had the disorder)
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Lupus or other autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis and multiple sclerosis
- In-vitro fertilization
- Sickle cell disease
I don’t see “one-night stand,” sketchy dude,” or “new sexual partner” on that list, let alone “rape.” To suggest that it’s an adaptive protection from rape-related pregnancy makes it sound as risk-free as the morning-after pill, when in fact it’s pretty damn dangerous:
“Preeclampsia can cause your blood pressure to rise and put you at risk of brain injury. It can impair kidney and liver function, and cause blood clotting problems, pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs), seizures and, in severe forms or left untreated, maternal and infant death. Preeclampsia affects the blood flow to the placenta, often leading to smaller or prematurely born babies. Ironically, sometimes the babies can be much larger, but scientists are not certain that preeclampsia was the cause. While maternal death from preeclampsia is rare in the developed world, it is a leading cause of illness and death globally for mothers and infants.”
Furthermore, even if preeclampsia could be relied upon as a reaction to unfamiliar sperm, that wouldn’t help the victims whose rapists are their husbands, boyfriends, exes. How many times do we need to repeat the statistic that two thirds of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim?
I’m not pacified by Abbasi’s “Yay, Pro-Choice!” conclusion. When Akin used the term “legitimate rape” he implied that there are cases where the rape’s not real. That the woman somehow wanted it, and if she didn’t, she could shut down her ovaries and make sure she doesn’t get pregnant. To imply that it’s a given that “attractive” women get raped treads treads into the territory of victim blame; to suggest that preeclampsia is evolution’s gift to rape victims, rather than the tragic situation that it is, is downright irresponsible.
The fact that Akin makes public policy decisions is duly terrifying, but his comments turned over a hornet’s nest of misinformation and showed the woeful––and often, it seems, willful––prevalence of rape mythology in pop-sci and the general media. While we ridicule his gaffe, lambast the imbecilic Republican Party, and design rape-baby memes in delight, it’s worth remembering that his suggestions, abhorrent as they are, are far from uncommon.