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Of Elephants and Onions: Rape, Pregnancy, and Labeling

Rape, an all-too-common occurrence in the USA,1 was recently thrust back into the political spotlight, following the unfortunate comments of Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri). Akin, like many Americans (particularly those who identify as Republicans), is an avid Pro-Lifer. On Sunday, August 19th 2012, Akin, who is vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, had this to say about his opposition to abortion in the case of a rape-related pregnancy:

It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s [rape-related pregnancy] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape [emphasis added], the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

Akin’s belief that rape-related pregnancy is “really rare”, unfortunately, does not match the empirical evidence on the matter. In fact, results from Gottschall and Gottschall’s examination of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that the per-incident rape-related pregnancy rate is higher (6.42% to 7.98%) than the per-incident pregnancy rate of those engaging in consensual unprotected penile-vaginal sex (3.1%).2 Think about this—it’s actually more likely that a woman will become pregnant after being raped than after having consensual sex (without birth control). So much for Akin’s ‘shut-rape-related-pregnancy-down’ hypothesis.

Perhaps more upsetting—Congressman Akin suggests that not all reported rapes are legitimate or ‘real’ rapes. What constitutes a ‘legitimate’ rape, and who appointed Akin to establish this definition? Understandably, this sentiment has been met with a great deal of hostility and satire. The Onion has written a particularly compelling parody of the effects of Akin’s statement.3 In the facetious fiction, a woman conveys her gratitude to Rep. Akin for relieving her of the painful burden of thinking she had been raped. The woman (again, fictional), however, had a child because of the incident. Following Akin’s logic, if she became pregnant, it must not have been rape because otherwise her body would have “shut the whole thing down.”  The woman enthusiastically proclaims: 

Now that I know the truth, I realize none of the telltale signs of legitimate rape were there at all… I must have at least subconsciously wanted it—otherwise, the sperm wouldn’t have been able to enter my body.”

Many people will find this excerpt humorous because it seems ridiculous, but is it? Not as ridiculous as you might think. Many of the women who have been raped—more than half—do not consider the incident to be rape.4 Peterson and Muehlenhard conducted a study to examine this phenomenon.5 These researchers suggest that two factors determine whether a woman labels her experience as rape: match (i.e., whether the incident matched her stereotypes about rape) and motivation (i.e., the perceived consequences of labeling an incident as rape/not rape). If a woman’s rape stereotypes do not include becoming pregnant (i.e., does not match her ideas of what constitutes rape), it is entirely possible that she might not realize she was in fact raped after experiencing nonconsensual sex. Further, if a woman became pregnant through a nonconsensual encounter, she may be motivated to label it as not rape because of the social consequences for her/her child; I cannot imagine how difficult it might be to tell a child that her or his father was a rapist.

What is the takeaway message of all of this? Well, the woman’s reaction in The Onion’s satire might not have been so ridiculous. It is likely that pregnancy is not a prominent feature of most people’s rape script—does pregnancy come to mind when you imagine a rape situation? Akin’s comments may therefore reinforce the traditional rape script (i.e., a stranger, jumping out of the bushes or a dark alley, attacking an unsuspecting woman),6 and women who become pregnant from nonconsensual sex may be less likely to label their experience as rape if they believe Akin’s position is itself legitimate.

Women who experience nonconsensual sex and label this experience as rape, should they believe Akin’s claim, may be less likely to seek out emergency contraception like the morning-after pill. Consequently, these women may be more likely to have to endure an unintended pregnancy6 and the hardship of raising a child born of rape. While the staunchly pro-life Akin is presumably comfortable discouraging the use of emergency contraception, this is sure to prove disconcerting to any individuals who oppose requiring a woman to bear her rapist’s child.

Rape is a complicated and sensitive issue. If after reading this article you need to talk to someone about your or a loved one’s experience with rape, I encourage you to visit the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network’s (RAINN) website, and consider their telephone hotline (1-800-656-HOPE). Peterson and Muehlenhard also prepared a brochure about what sexual scientists know about rape for those interested.

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1Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). The national intimate partner and sexual violence survey (NISVS): Fact sheet. Retried from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/.

2Gottschall, J. A., & Gottschall, T. A. (2003). Are per-incident rape-pregnancy rates higher than per-incident consensual pregnancy rates? Human Nature, 14, 1-20.

3The Onion. (August 20, 2012). Pregnant woman relieved to learn her rape was illegitimate. Retrieved from http://www.theonion.com.

4Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women (NCJ 182369). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf.

5Peterson, Z. D., & Muehlenhard, C. L. (2011). A match-and-motivation model of how women label their nonconsensual sexual experiences. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 558-570.

6Ryan, K. M. (1988). Rape and seduction scripts. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 12, 237-245.

John Sakaluk - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

John is interested in experimental existential psychology, sexual health, cultural scripts, double standards, and other sexual attitudes. He relies on theories such as attachment, terror management, and conceptual metaphor, while researching topics such as condom use and sexual strategies.

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