TW: sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment, victim blaming, stereotypes of women as “hysterical” or deceitful
It’s pretty much inevitable that you’ve heard something over the past two years (no really, three years of this) about how the Tea Party Republicans and their assorted political allies do not trust women to make any decisions about their bodies. There’s honestly way too many specific examples to list here. Clearly many modern Republicans want to reinstitute absolute male control over female fertility and sexuality.
But what’s often overlooked is one astounding detail in how they’re going about that, especially with the current controversy over Todd Akin’s deplorable statements. Asked about his firm belief that “legitmate” sexual assaults do not produce children, everyone on the political spectrum from Barack Obama to Paul Ryan has used the same response – that “rape is rape.” This refrain treats Akin’s reference to “legitimate” rape as dissecting forms of sexual assault, classifying ways of being brutally attacked that will receive different legal aid and social treatment. Even with Obama’s eventual mentioning of the need for women to make decisions about their reproductive biology rather than (typically male) politicians, he focuses on the political power being used to police women’s actions, rather than the political power being used to cast doubt on the concept of women as rational, truthful human beings with the word “legitimate”.
As Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2008 (and recently republished), “[c]redibility is a basic survival tool.” Her essay dove into an honestly global pattern of assuming the illegitimacy of statements by women – from certain nations requiring corroborating testimony from men to accept a woman’s legal case to a harrowing anecdote about a woman being categorically dismissed as in danger of domestic violence. With the discussion of certain rapes being “legitimate” and the implication that others are not, the idea of women as valid reporters of what they’ve bodily experienced is in peril. Looking back at what’s been called the War on Women, that’s what’s just as much under attack for women as their right to access an abortion, birth control, or other medical necessities for exercise their reproductive freedoms.
Before this war was even officially declared, when the Tea Party was just a twinkle in the Koch Brothers’ eyes, John McCain explained his opposition to health exemptions to the Bush era bans on third trimester abortions as a result of disbelieving women’s claims about their health. In the third presidential debate between him and Barack Obama, he said, that exemptions for abortion bans based on the health of the mother have “been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything”. In short, McCain insisted that women seeking third trimester abortions because of a health complication that developed during their pregnancy are lying or at the very least exaggerating to gain access to an abortion.
Slightly more than two years later, as the 112 Congress debating creating a new legal category of “forcible rape”, Bobby Franklin, a local representative in Georgia, proposed instituting new judicial procedures for cases of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and certain forms of sexual harassment in that state. Unlike other crimes, which would remain the same, the plaintiff or victim would become an “accuser”. Obviously this would equally affect all victims of the reclassified crimes, regardless of gender. As those crimes are notoriously disproportionately committed against women, however, unlike many of the crimes unaffected by this change, it’s hard to see this as something other than casting doubt on female victims’ accounts. Representative Franklin clearly implied that female judicial testimony specifically in cases of sexual violence should be understood as a separate, less trustworthy class of testimony.
Lastly, earlier this year Arizona state representative Kimberlee Yee sponsored a bill which governor Jan Brewer signed into law that essentially added two weeks to the count of how long a given woman has been pregnant, which is used to determine when Arizona’s later-term abortion restrictions come into play. Clearly having internalized the misogynistic distrust of women’s own reports on their bodily health or processes, Yee’s bill redefined the legally-recognized beginning of a given woman’s pregnancy to being “calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period of the pregnant woman” typically adding approximately two weeks to records. The purpose of this change is quite clear: to prevent women from claiming (perhaps to their own knowledge) to be twenty weeks pregnant to receive an abortion when they are actually as much as twenty-two weeks pregnant. The refusal to trust women to self-report the exact date of conception reflects the same deep mistrust of women as truthful reporters of information relating to their sexuality and fertility.
Todd Akin’s comments join the company of these and other efforts to treat women as unreliable witnesses to their own bodily experiences, whether of sexual assault, pregnancy, or both. Unfortunately the full damage of his discussion of “legitimate” rape seems to have been lost on most observers, excepting the Gawker article mentioned earlier and one rape apologist Politico reporter (for whom it was basically a dog whistle). This is somewhat understandable, as Akin’s comments reflect not only an extreme doubt of women’s statements’ validity but a fundamental and willful misunderstanding of biology. But lost in the analysis of how empirically wrong his statement was, I fear, is analysis of how openly hostile his statement not just to women having power but women daring to contradict external authorities. This was not only, in the words of President Obama, “parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about”. This was actively challenging the idea of women, like men, to be presumed to be honest individuals unless evidence otherwise exists, particularly on the issue of women’s reproductive health and freedoms. What’s at risk here, among other rights, is the right of every woman to be presumed non-“hysterical” and non-deceitful.