Words matter when defining sexual assault

in Voices by

A response to Representative Akin’s statement on rape and pregnancy

By Shauw Chin Capps
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
This common phrase could not be further from the truth given the outrage behind remarks made by Representative Todd Akin from Missouri. Last weekend he said that pregnancy as a result of rape is rare because: “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” As the executive director of Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, our local rape crisis and children’s advocacy center, I feel compelled to respond, not from a political viewpoint, but from the perspective of sexual assault victims everywhere who are often voiceless and faceless.
Representative Akin’s statement was not a glib remark but a specific statement clearly indicating his lack of knowledge on the issue of rape. According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (August 1996), the national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45); among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year.  Among 34 rape-related pregnancies, the majority occurred among adolescents and resulted from assault by a known, often related perpetrator. A more recent research (2003) published in the “Journal of Human Nature” by Jonathan A. Gottschall and Tiffani A. Gottschall, two professors at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., found that a single act of rape was more than twice as likely to result in pregnancy than an act of consensual sex.
Unfortunately, women do not have the kind of super powers indicated by Rep. Akin where we can will our ovaries to shut when we are raped.  Neither is there such a thing as a rape sperm versus a love sperm. There is the implication in his ignorant statement that somehow, women’s bodies are responsible for being able to tell the difference between different types of sperms and if somehow a woman gets pregnant as a result of rape, then it must not be rape.
The choice of the word “legitimate” to talk about rape suggests that there is such a thing as “illegitimate” rape.  This choice of word provides us with a picture of the victim-blaming culture that still surrounds the crime of sexual assault. The underlying assumption of the statement is that women and their experiences are not to be trusted.  Those who have experienced rape do not get to define rape, but must succumb to some higher authority to define if the horror of what was experienced was actually legitimate.
Research has shown that false reporting of sexual assault is not any higher compared to false reporting of other types of crimes. I wonder if Representative Akin understands that his statement delegitimizes and belittles the utter horror, violation, desecration that rape victims experience. I wonder if he knows that sexual assault remains the most under reported crime, based on FBI statistics. I wonder if he understands that the main reason victims do not report is because they fear they will not be believed.
I have walked alongside rape victims young and old for more than 15 years. I have not come across any victims who defined the horror of their experience any other way than being violated in the most personal way. Regardless of the circumstances that the rape occurred, rape is a violent crime. Rape is a complete violation of a person’s dignity and being.
While Rep. Akin has apologized for having misspoken, it is tragic that those words were thought of and spoken in the first place. Unfortunately, the hurt, shame and guilt felt by rape victims across the nation as they heard those words cannot be easily erased by a single apology.
Executive Director of Hope Haven of the Lowcountry Shauw Chin Capps can be reached at www.hopehavenlc.org or by calling 843-524-2256.