It’s a remarkable but unsurprising thing that a relatively unknown Congressman from Missouri’s “legitimate rape” comments have gotten so much more media attention than the Vice President of the United States mimicking urban African-American language and suggesting that the leaders of the other party want to “put y’all back in chains.”
It’s remarkable because Joe Biden is much more consequential than Todd Akin, and because Akin’s comments properly understood suggest a silly misunderstanding of the reproductive process while Biden was apparently quite earnestly suggesting that the GOP candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency want to reinstate something like slavery in America. It’s unsurprising because Biden’s comments are intrinsically less interesting to a liberal media, in part because it does not serve the liberal political agenda to shine a light on the inanity of President Obama’s running mate and in part because many in the media presumably think Biden is not far off — that Republican leaders, at least, even if they would not literally put African Americans back in chains, have no interest in seeing African Americans flourishing and enjoying the full freedoms and privileges of American citizenship.
So we continue to talk about Todd Akin, with new statements appearing in my inbox each morning trying to tie Akin and Ryan and Romney together, even though Romney has been clear and consistent that he does not favor illegalizing abortion in cases of rape. But one of the questions that came up, in response to my recent piece on “Was Plucky Huck Mistaken to Save Akin’s Bacon?” (in which my answer was: yes) is this: is rape rape? Is it somehow illegitimate or immoral to make distinctions between different kinds of rape?
So, please don’t read any further if you find it painful to discuss the legal and moral dimensions of rape. A commenter wrote:
While I agree with the point of view shared by you and others, I cringed every time someone says “forcible rape.” Gentlemen, that title and what it represents seems to be part of the problem. Rape is rape.
This echoes the response of Barack Obama, “rape is rape.” When Obama said it, of course, he — like many reporters — was pretending not to know that Akin was trying unsuccessfully to differentiate forcible rape from statutory rape. But the commenter, who does know this, goes on to explain: “No woman I know sees ‘rape’ as anything less than violent and a complete betrayal and violation of their humanity. Every time we as men imply a lesser impact, they [women] are, at least mentally, betrayed. Please stop.”
I ran into a similar attitude when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on suffering. People who had actually endured deep personal sufferings were quite interested in the notion that the varieties of sufferings could be differentiated, and their different effects could be understood individually. When people began using the McGill Pain Questionnaire to differentiate different kinds of physical pain (burning, piercing, pulsing, throbbing, etc.), for example, it gave people a language to describe the pain they were experiencing and enabled doctors to make medically useful distinctions. But some academics were adamantly opposed to the idea of differentiating varieties of suffering. They thought it offensive. The underlying feeling was that it was insensitive to speak in clinical or objective terms about something that carried so much subjective weight for the individuals who had experienced it.
There’s nothing offensive in noting that two things — even if they’re both horrific and traumatic — are similar in some respects and dissimilar in others. And that simply is the case with statutory rape and what some are calling (and what the FBI and the AP for many years have called) “forcible rape.” We differentiate varieties of cancers because it helps us understand what’s happening in the body and how to counteract it. It’s not insensitive to the victims’ families to differentiate the varieties of murders, because involuntary manslaughter is not the same thing as a premeditated murder.
In the same way, there’s nothing wrong with differentiating forms of rape that are, well, different. Take these two examples:
- In a state where the legal age of consent is 18, an 18-year-old girl has sex with her 17-year-old boyfriend. This, in some states, would be considered “statutory rape.”
- A 22-year-old male teacher has sex with a “consenting” (though her consent is not legally significant) 15-year-old female student.
- A 43-year-old man plies a 13-year-old girl with alcohol and drugs and seduces her into having sex.
- A 43-year-old moral monster traps a 14-year-old girl, assaults her, forces himself upon her, violates her, and leaves her for dead.
These are four forms of rape with very different moral and legal dimensions. All are serious. All are “rape” in some sense (at least according to some sets of laws). But not in the same sense. If we were not allowed to make distinctions here, then we would have to say that the 14-year-old girl in #4 is no more a victim than the 17-year-old boy in #1, and the 43-year-old moral monster in #4 deserves no worse punishment than the 18-year-old girl in #1.
There are other distinctions too. The power dynamics between #1 and #2 are different, even though both involve an adult having sex with someone under the age of consent. I would say that the dynamics of consent are different between #2 and #3, even though both involve an ostensibly willing minor, because the ability to resist is taken away in #3. (Whoopi Goldberg famously defended Roman Polanski (the inspiration for #3) by saying that what he did was “not rape rape,” showing that liberals are capable of distinguishing different types of rape when they want to. I would both agree and disagree. It’s not the same thing as #4, which is what she meant. But plying a minor with substances that remove the ability to resist is, to me, legally and morally just as serious as a violent assault. But #4 is clearly a more grave transgression than #1, which shows that there is a need for distinctions here.)
Akin was not, as a recent press release from “UltraViolet” designed to pull attention away from the convention alleges, engaged in “hateful speech” by virtue of trying to distinguish forcible rape from statutory rape. Bracketing for the moment the foolishness of what he said, and having already made the point that I would like to see him step aside for another candidate — he was trying to differentiate them not because he thinks statutory rape is unimportant or morally acceptable, much less because he thinks that those who get pregnant cannot have been “legitimately” raped, but because “forcible rape” involves resistance and violence and an immediate physical and psychological trauma that “statutory rape” by definition does not. And the suggestion was that there is some way in which that resistance and trauma and the stress that places upon the body would cause the body to reject implantation or otherwise interrupt the conception and impregnation process.
I understand these are difficult things to discuss. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to live with the memory of a rape. But that does not mean that the attempt to differentiate two kinds of rape is hateful. “Rape is rape” is not a serious analysis. It’s just the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to score political points.