Outcry over rape comments shows how far we’ve come

The ignorance was loud and clear. Listen harder to U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s words, you’ll also hear language from the bad old days.

“Legitimate,” that’s the word really raising hackles.

Voices all over this country, from across the political spectrum, are standing up to archaic language used by Akin, a Missouri Republican.

Akin said in a TV interview: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

A member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Akin was talking about the possibility of becoming pregnant through rape.

Republican Party leaders called for Akin to end his Senate race. On Tuesday, he said he plans to continue his campaign.

Akin’s idiotic notion that a rape victim’s body somehow prevents conception hardly warrants comment. According to a 1996 study cited by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 32,000 U.S. pregnancies per year result from rape.

This column isn’t a biology lesson.

Nor is it meant to bridge the divide between those who would allow or ban abortions.

Both sides of that debate have heartfelt, unshakable views.

Both Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, which offers abortions, and Everett’s Pregnancy Resource Center, which helps women consider options other than abortion, report seeing women who are pregnant due to rape.

What’s more frightening than Akin’s apparent ignorance of biology is his insulting idea of “legitimate” rape — as if some rapes are lesser, excusable, or just not so bad.

Understandable rapes?

“The idea that there are legitimate rapes and some other type of rape is a relic from another time,” said Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle. Berliner said “one hardly knows where to begin” in responding to Akin’s comments.

I was 24 in 1978 when I moved to Pendleton, Ore., for my first newspaper job. At the East Oregonian that year, the talk of the office was the story of John and Greta Rideout, a Salem, Ore., couple.

Greta Rideout accused her husband of rape. It was believed to be the country’s first case in which a husband was charged with rape of his wife while the couple lived together. A jury found John Rideout not guilty.

That case came to mind when I first heard the “legitimate” rape comment. Akin’s words conjured up a time when a men-know-best paternalism ruled women’s lives.

It’s such old thinking that when Time magazine reported on the Rideout case, it invoked “The Man of Property,” a 1906 novel; after the character Soames Forsyte rapes his wife Irene, he thinks of how he prevented her “from abandoning her duty.”

“Nowadays we recognize that rape comes in a whole range of experiences, of which the critical element is that the sexual activity is not consented to and is unwanted,” Berliner said.

In Akin’s world, are children “legitimate” victims? Are victims of date rape “legitimate”? Are victims who were unconscious, drunk, drugged or mentally ill when raped “legitimate”?

Some believe Akin intended to say “forcible” rape. Is there really a difference? Rape is rape under the law.

Ken Oliver, CEO of the Pregnancy Resource Center, opposes abortion. Although he believes Akin’s apologies are sincere, he finds his comment on rape offensive.

“It just seems to me an uneducated, irresponsible comment, and totally inappropriate, totally off the chart,” Oliver said. “There is no classification for rape. It is what it is.”

It’s known that not every rape victim wants to tell anyone about the crime. Harborview’s Berliner said roughly half to two-thirds of rapes aren’t reported to authorities. Counselors aren’t there to push victims into reporting to police, but they are there to provide information about the process.

The days of a rape victim being judged for her short skirt are largely gone.

“In most communities nowadays, police are very professional and often specialize,” she said. “Victims, at least in Washington, can count on being treated with respect and dignity.”

The outcry over Akin’s comments shows how far we’ve come.

“The good news is, it wasn’t long before everyone said we don’t think in those terms,” Berliner said. “That’s the bad old days.”

Yet Akin’s words show how far some have yet to go.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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