Enough With the Happy Talk

In all the kerfuffle over Todd Akin and whether he should or should not drop out of the race, it’s easy to forget that his interesting theory on rape and the female reproductive system is hardly isolated nutbaggery.  We have Bill Napoli, rhapsodizing on the kind of virginal victim who would really find rape traumatizing

“A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.”

We have George Engelbach exploring that complex, subtle, oh so tricky distinction between rape (which, as you know, leaves marks), and the violation of a drugged or inebriated women (which, in contrast, is just non-consensual sex).

Akin, bless his heart, seemed to think at one point that the umbrage taken centered on the word “legitimate,”  and that he should have used “forcible.”

No. Almost every person who voiced outrage over his response knew that he meant forcible rape.  The problem was not in his choice of words, but in the framing of his answer. By casting it in terms of “forcible rape”, he reinforced the hierarchy of assault that sheds crocodile tears over the rare yet culturally ubiquitous stalker-in-the-alleyway scenario while marginalizing and casting aspersions on the women whose rapes were less titillatingly violent.

This framework keeps us comfortable and complacent by perpetuating the myth that rapists are scary, bestial men with fangs who hide in bushes and beat women up. They are certainly not our classmates, our fraternity brothers, the nice respectable businessmen we work with–and perhaps most importantly, we cannot be collectively complicit in any of their crimes.

And there’s something more pernicious, too–the tacit idea that a woman’s default  is sexual availability, that her body belongs to the men who want it and that the onus is on her to prove lack of consent– by bruises if at all possible. This idea  animates much of the slut rhetoric that surrounds women from birth, sharpening and focusing on them when they are raped. It both animates and depends on the hierarchy Todd Akin unwittingly revealed–a hierarchy much more immediate and ingrained, and therefore more dangerous, than his idiotic wishful thinking about the female body.

Wishful thinking pervades conversations on rape–about the kind of girls who get raped, the ability of a victim to ward off rape–and now pregnancy– and I can see why it’s tempting. It’s so much easier to be the right kind of girl, to taxonomize victims and built an assault Jenga block tower of blameworthiness and legitimacy; so much safer to remove rape far into the province of women and men totally unlike us; so reassuring to know that were this horrible crime ever inflicted on the people we love, it would be under the proper circumstances, and their reward would be ninja uteri or at the very least a universally acceptable abortion.

Nobody wants to believe that bad things can happen to them; even more insistently, no one wants to believe that bad things, irreparably bad things, can happen to the people we think are good. This is nothing new, particularly concerning rape. But these gaffes and their fusion of rape and abortion rhetoric highlight how much this Calvinist optimism dictates the discourse on both issues –how else could we get this?

I think that two wrongs don’t make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade.

We cannot accept that women are not somehow indirectly responsible for their own rapes, however those rape took place. We cannot accept that they get pregnant from rapes that are not their fault, that in a world without abortion they would have to bear that child, and it would not be their fault. We cannot accept that it could be horrible, traumatic beyond all imagining. Bad things do not happen to the innocent, and when we cannot square this circle we try to make them less innocent (I’m looking at you, Roman Polanski defenders, every single lousy one of you), or we pretend the thing is not so bad.

It’s a lemon situation. Make lemonade.

With abortion, we tell ourselves that it causes breast cancer, that it’s bad for women in every possible way– anything to protect ourselves from acknowledging that a lack of access to abortion might make some women’s lives materially worse. So eager are we for a happy ending, so eager to counter claims of misogyny, that we will propound any specious, paternalistic reason possible for limiting abortion and embrace any misogynistic myth imaginable about rape.

Rape exceptions are bad news. They police women’s sexual choices rather than upholding the humanity of the fetus, and enshrine in law the scrutiny and hierarchy that make rape an epidemic and reporting it a nightmare. They create a false, useless dichotomy between the women who have good reasons for abortion and the ones who don’t. They cocoon us from any real unease about the pro-life movement’s alliance with political factions that pay the scantest of lip service to protecting the poor and vulnerable, and whose contempt for women and the marginalized is often palpable.

Whether we pretend that rape exceptions are unneeded because the pregnancy is a blessing in disguise, or that they solve any of the real problems that plague the abortion debate, we are making happy talk.

So enough with the happy talk. Enough with articles like this, which, while very well-intentioned and very powerful as personal narratives, are simply insulting when used as some kind of meaningful contribution to the debate on access to abortion after an assault–as if every rape victim could or should feel the same way.

Enough with the insistence that there are no thorny dilemmas and competing claims here, that recognizing the rights of the fetus will simultaneously–in fact, automatically–create a paradise for women.

Enough with the pretense that positive thinking or personal responsibility or magical fallopian tubes, or whatever the catchphrases currently are, will mitigate or erase the traumas of rape and pregnancy.

Enough with the imperative to de-legitimaze or erase any experience that doesn’t fit into this compulsively upbeat narrative.

Rape exceptions are a useless distraction, and pro-lifers must resist the temptation to dodge real soul-searching in favor of meaningless compromises or patronizing bromides. The lies we tell ourselves about abortion and rape may provide temporary shelter, but if justice is our goal, we are building on sand.

Further reading: Darwin sums it up much better and more succinctly.

Legitimate Children of Rape

I Don’t Care About Safe Legal Rare

How’s that for a culture war chant?*

So, here is an interview with the anti-Nat Hentoff, a Christian obstetrician who began performing abortions. It’s fairly unremarkable stuff, but this exchage caught me.

Q. You say women in their second trimester often have the most compelling need for an abortion. Why?

 A. They lack access to health care or don’t have an understanding of their body changes, and often figure out later that they’re pregnant. Or they find out early enough that they’re pregnant, but their lack of access to health care or volatile, dysfunctional relationships delay seeking help.

This kind of hedging and excusing is standard for the “safe, legal, and rare” crowd, and it’s always driven me a bit mad:  this need to explain how these women don’t really deserve to be pregnant, that they wouldn’t have waited so long to seek an abortion had they known, never would have put us in this unpleasant position of ending the life of something that looks just a little bit more like us than it did five weeks ago. Because that really is the only reason to make a moral distinction about viability or repeat abortions once we’ve decided that the person growing in the womb lacks moral standing due to its inhabitance of a woman’s body–our own comfort. The comfort of telling ourselves that we would never be like those skanky women who don’t use condoms, that we would never be in that position, that good heavens, our support for abortion rights does not encompass such gross if undefined “irresponsibility;” the comfort of stroking our reasonable, nuanced, moderate respectability.

Here’s the thing: pregnancy isn’t a punishment for the bad girls, and abortion isn’t a gold-star for women who use their vaginas in the ways we find appropriate . Opposition to abortion does not rest on the premise that women must be punished, so it baffles me when its supporters go down that route.  The only compelling argument for abortion I’ve ever encountered is that no creature has the right to life when that life exists at the expense of the bodily integrity and autonomy of another–I don’t find it that compelling, obviously, but I can see the point.  And the point is not one that brooks a lot of sniffy moderation: either women must exercise full and unquestioned control over the fetus as resident of their bodies, or the fetus must be granted all the rights and protections of personhood from the first moment of its existence as a human organism.

But for the love of all that’s holy, people,  pick which side you’re on. Stop trying to pretend that your death-grip on a tidy world is the same as moral seriousness, or that taking a stand means that nobody gets hurt.


*This may be why no one pays me to write these things.