Dear Congressman Akin,
So I woke up with my boyfriend on top of me. He had just “finished.” I was out of it, high as a kite, near comatose. He hadn’t used anything. And just to let you know, this is “legitimate.” I got pregnant at 16.
The phrase “legitimate rape” has rung in my ears for the last few days, as I am sure it has rung in the ears of many others who have had experiences that your comments might be thought to reference, and in fact to negate. Or to delegitimate. It is clear that what you must have meant to say is that in cases of legitimate charges of rape, pregnancy is unlikely to happen, because, you know, a woman’s body has its ways. It’s an interesting thought. If a woman’s body—not her, mind you, but her body—has ways to inhibit conception when the sperm in the vicinity of an egg are uninvited, it’s as if there is an inherent biological capacity to retain the rights of private property, or to reject squatters. For that is how rape has been conceptualized for centuries: as the unlawful dispensation of property not rightfully owned. Property owned by fathers or husbands taken by interlopers who have not paid a fair market price for it. One can see how, by this framing of the concept, the issue of any male lover of one’s daughter who is considered undesirable by the father would be illegitimate. As in, lacking a legal contract.
So the word “legitimate” has a long and fascinating history in regard to sexual liaisons, coerced and uncoerced, desired and undesired. Both sex and children have been deemed illegitimate when existing outside the domain of conventional property management.
Though you, Congressman Akin, surely meant to refer to a legitimate charge of rape rather than a legitimate rape, your choice of words indicates a slip of the unconscious, perhaps a slip of the collective unconscious that reminds us of the ancient ways in which sex, rape, women’s bodies, conception, and children have been treated. For if we think about it from an experiential point of view—first person experiential, that is—the word legitimate has no relevance at all. I was surprised, or I was hurt, or I was manipulated, or I was used, or I was mistreated, and whether the current law that happens to exist in my neck of the world sanctions or recognizes or punishes any of this is rather beside the point. To call rape illegitimate is tautological, and even offensive to the extent it adds a legal imprimatur to a claim that should carry a normative, moral force whether or not the law is around to witness it and pass judgment.
Dear President Obama,
I appreciate your statement that rape is rape. I really do. Your intent, I am sure, is to reject the idea that there might be legitimate rapes and illegitimate rapes. But, alas, there are complexities to rape, just as there are complexities to life. There are (sometimes) gradations, ambiguities, complications, and varied amounts and forms of culpability. My boyfriend was not a monster. I know what monsters are, having unfortunately been trapped and caught by one when I was nine. That sort of thing changes your sense of humanity, the world, your future, your life. But at 16, I was not attracted to monsters. Alas, I was attracted to assholes. My boyfriend at the time was an asshole. He might have initiated sex with me when I was awake, after all. He could have tried for a two-way encounter, an embrace, the physical correlate to a conversation between equals, but that is not what he desired, apparently. He wanted to have sex with a jellyfish. I have never understood the attraction of this.
But I would not actually call it a rape, straight up. Like Mary Gaitskill, I reject the oversimplification of the rape/not rape binary that your Gertrude Stein-like phrase implies. Following the campus activists who invented the term ‘gray rape,’ I believe—and know from my own experience—that there is a complexity to human sexuality, including experiences of sexual violation. There are complexities to culpability and complexities to coercion. Maybe my boyfriend believed his use of my body was “legitimate,” given my obvious lack of struggle or because of my incapacity to form intentions while passed out. But, interestingly, the rest of his behavior with me while I was quite awake bore a striking coherence to his behavior with me while I was not awake, thus confirming my negative judgment of him (which began to dawn on me after that infamous evening). I asked him once what he would do if I ever got pregnant. Without missing a beat, he said he would “split town.” You see what I mean.
So I am not suggesting we reintroduce the word “legitimate” in order to be able to characterize such complex forms of sexual violations. That word adds nothing useful to our comprehension of coercion, manipulation, or the many forms that violation can take. But in order to begin to bring forward the experiences of sexual violence as victims experience them, we will need to allow for variable, even uncertain and ambiguous, formulations, and judgments that may not rise to the level of courtroom adjudication of guilt. If we want to listen to survivors, we will need to prepare ourselves to hear about the gray areas.
At first, I wanted the baby. Even though I was 16, still in high school, working as a check out girl at the local supermarket, and unable to talk to my family or even my older sister about anything in the vicinity of sex. After a couple of weeks (weeks early into the pregnancy, thank God), I realized that having the baby was not a terribly good idea, especially in the absence of a workable plan. But the main consideration, beyond the lack of a plan, was actually the fact of my asshole boyfriend, with whom I had cut off all relations and all communication shortly after our non-encounter encounter.
Congressman Akin, I didn’t know my father. I had never met him. I never had a letter, a card, an indication that he knew of my existence and was glad of it. I realize that children vary in their reactions to such situations. Some could care less, (or at least claim to be uninterested). But in my case, I did want to know my father. In fact, it killed me that I did not. Which may be a part of how I ended up under the boy who was not sufficiently interested in me to stay in town if I became pregnant.
My abortion was a legitimate exercise of thoughtful moral deliberation on my part. I have never felt guilt, only sadness. But it is a sadness mitigated by the wondrous experience later in life of producing two children who could know and love their father—as well as argue, criticize, and wrangle with him as all live encounters with sentient beings tend to involve. That was the choice I made.
Thank you for listening.