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:

  1. Previous history of preeclampsia
  2. Multiple gestation (i.e., pregnant with more than one baby)
  3. History of chronic high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease or organ transplant
  4. First pregnancy
  5. Obesity, particularly with Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater
  6. Over 40 or under 18 years of age
  7. Family history of preeclampsia (i.e., a mother, sister, grandmother or aunt had the disorder)
  8. Polycystic ovarian syndrome
  9. Lupus or other autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis and multiple sclerosis
  10. In-vitro fertilization
  11. 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.


 Julia Burke is a contributor to AtheistHobos.com, beer editor at NewYorkCorkReport.com, and freelance writer for a variety of other publications, covering secularism, wine, beer, food, and politics. She lives in Buffalo, New York, where she drinks to support her writing habit.



Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. Yeah, occurs in 2nd/3rd trimester and is solidly likely to prevent the birth of future offspring since you know, the mother is dead – I feel like sometimes we need to call a spandrel a spandrel.

  2. So I haven’t looked at any of the research on this, but assuming that the statistics are accurate that the pregnancy rate for rape is higher than consensual sex, could this simply be that an assault which results in a pregnancy is more likely to be reported than one which doesn’t?

    That seems like something which any reasonable study would try to control for, though as noted, it’s unknown how many rapes go unreported.

    1. That’s a very important part of the question, and a difficult one to tackle; as RH Reality Check points out (http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/08/29/anti-choice-doctors-still-claiming-rape-victims-bodies-delay-ovulation-to-avoid-p), women who become pregnant as a result of rape don’t necessarily report the rape. I have found no evidence at this point that women who become pregnant after a rape are more likely to report–the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that the number of rape-related pregnancies carried to term is unknown–but it certainly merits further research.

  3. There is a logical fallacy going on with these statistics. 5-8% of people who are raped get pregnant. What percentage of women who have consensual sex get pregnant each year? The stats mentioned don’t answer it. The statics used is what your chance is to get pregnant each time you have sex.

    The difference is between what are your odds of getting pregnant and how many get pregnant. This may sound similar but it isn’t the same.

    If a 15 year old is being regularly raped her chances of getting pregnant will be hire than a women who is assaulted once.

    So if a women has only a 3% chance of getting pregnant each time they have intercourse that will be the same for rape or consensual.

    More than 3% of women who have concensual sex have babies each year because they do it more than once. And more than 3% of rape victims get pregnant because they are raped more than once.

    I hope this makes sense. I can see the flaw but it is some times hard to explain it clearly.

    1. No, you are confusing yourself unnecessarily. Both studies are expressed as pregnancies per coupling, (whether forced or consensual) and are comparable in that respect.

      However the two studies are not matched in other important ways such as age or contraceptive status.

      It is very hard to draw any conclusions from two different sets of data, taken in different places at different times using different criteria, and then smooshed together afterwards.

  4. A woman is only fertile a few days out of her monthly cycle. Sex not during her fertile time will not result in pregnancy. If we assume that consensual sex is stochastic, and the chance of pregnancy is 4%, that implies that she is fertile 4% of the time, or 1.12 days out of a 28 day cycle.

    If the chance of pregnancy following rape is 8%, that implies that rapes are not stochastic and that they occur more frequently during her fertile time. All that is necessary is for twice as many rapes to occur during a woman’s fertile period than at other times.

    From personal experience, how attractive some women are seems to fluctuate with time. There is literature that a woman’s attractiveness to men does increase during her fertile period (tips from strippers increase then).

    What is ironic (disingenuous? blasphemous?) about Akin’s belief that if God designed women with a “rape-pregnancy prevention feature”, and it didn’t work properly, why would it be against God’s plan to have medical science correct it?

    It is ok to correct every other feature of physiology that fails to work properly.

    It seems very perverse, even blasphemous, to impute that God would have a design feature to protect women from becoming pregnant when raped, but when that design feature fails for young girls who are raped and which will then threaten their health (because their body has not grown sufficiently to support a pregnancy), that God would not want medical science to correct that failure.

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