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March 14, 2014

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

So ended Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s chances of unseating Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in the 2012 U.S. election. Discussing pregnancy resulting from rape (timeline of the comments here), Akin was defending his belief that anti-abortion laws shouldn’t include exemptions for victims of rape. Akin’s words are a now-classic example of a “Kinsley gaffe,” when a politician slips up and says what s/he actually thinks—classic enough that the term “Akinize” now describes the tactic whereby a Democrat compares a Republican opponent’s words to Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments.

Akin was expressing a factually baseless belief that’s not a new idea, and was part of such a trend of election-cycle “rape and pregnancy controversies” that Wikipedia has a page devoted to it. He also was participating in a tradition dating back at least to the 1st/2nd-century CE Greek medical writer Soranus of Ephesus, whose treatise on gynecology is filled with quack-science gems akin to Akin’s. Yet there’s a key difference of opinion between Akin and Soranus, as we’ll see, that makes Akin’s comments more sinister by contrast.

At Gynaecology 1.37, Soranus writes:

For just as it isn’t possible for sperm to be discharged by males without desire, in the same way it isn’t possible for it [sperm] to be conceived by females without desire. And just like food swallowed down without desire and with some aversion isn’t ingested well and fails in the following process of digestion, so also the sperm can’t be taken up and, if taken, can’t be carried through to pregnancy, without the presence of an urge and desire for intercourse. For even if some women conceive after being raped, for them there’s this to say: that even in these women the quality of desire was present at any rate, but it was overshadowed by the judgment of the psyche. (Translation mine; online Greek text pasted below)

The resonances of Akin’s words with this heinous passage are clear: women cannot become pregnant without desire, thus pregnancy resulting from sexual violence is evidence that the victim desired the assault. It’s victim-blaming, pure and simple. Many commentators have already linked Akin to Soranus (often via Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex), including Justine Larbalestier, Thomas Lawrence Long, Shawn Laurence Otto, Lauren Caldwell, Molly Pistrang (PDF), and Lexi Whalen. Morgan Reinhart adduces biblical comparanda. Katie Huntley and Lisa McClain trace the idea’s transmission from ancient to modern medical writers.

Susan Celia Greenfield offers the most extensive examination of the intertext:

When the second-century Soranus said that conception proves a woman’s “sexual appetite” was merely “obscured by mental resolve,” he assumed her mental response was less important than her sexual one. The same is true of the early modern legal assumption that “a woman cannot conceive unless she doth consent.” Again, it appears, the pregnant body legally outweighs a woman’s mind. She may think she did not want to have sex—or get pregnant—but her body contradicts this and is granted the legal upper hand.

How different are these examples from Akin’s suggestion that, “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”? As my twenty-one year old daughter Anna told me, there is no ‘thinking woman’ in this statement. Rather, the woman’s body seems to do the only work. If her body really did not want to have sex, she would not have gotten pregnant in the first place. If she is now pregnant, her body must have both wanted to have sex and wanted to conceive, and she is now obligated to remain pregnant. It seems that as far as [the "legitimate rape" crowd] is concerned, once a woman is pregnant, her intellectual experience remains irrelevant.

Greenfield misses, I think, an important distinction between Soranus on the one hand and both “legitimate rape” and the early modern “a woman cannot conceive unless she doth consent” on the other. Soranus claims pregnancy is proof of the “quality of desire,” the pathos of desire (πάθος can mean “quality”/“property,” “emotion”/“passion,” or merely “accident”/“experience”). The early-modern formula claims instead that conception is proof of consent. Concealed in the phrase “legitimate rape,” too, is the idea of consent. What makes rape—i.e., nonconsensual sexual violence—“legitimate” is the very fact that it is nonconsensual.

For Soranus, a woman’s body is in control, her mind subordinate. Even if a woman’s psyche says no, her body with its hidden desire can overrule it. For modern proponents of this ideology, it’s mind over matter. If the woman’s psyche doesn’t desire, then the body follows the mind’s lead and shuts the whole thing down. The “legitimate rape” doctrine, therefore, is at once more modern and more repugnant. Unlike its Greek predecessor, which treats women as irrational creatures beholden to physical urges, the modern viewpoint grants women sovereignty of mind. But while Soranus describes pregnancy resulting from rape as a triumph of the body over the mind, “legitimate rape” attributes it to the mind’s complicity. If Soranus asserted, “she couldn’t help it, her body wanted it,” his modern counterpart might reply, “the body could’ve helped it, but the mind wanted it”—victim-blaming par excellence, exceeding the misogynistic models of ancient Greece and Rome.

Soranus Gynaecology 1.37, Corpus Medicorum Graecorum:

ὡς γὰρ χωρὶς ὀρέξεως οὐκ ἐνδεχόμενον ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρρένων τὸ σπέρμα καταβληθῆναι, τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον χωρὶς ὀρέξεως ὑπὸ τῶν θηλειῶν οὐκ ἐνδεχόμενον αὐτὸ συλληφθῆναι. καὶ ὡς ἡ τροφὴ χωρὶς ὀρέξεως καταποθεῖσα καὶ μετά τινος ἀποστροφῆς οὐ καλῶς κατατάσσεται καὶ τῆς ἐπιβαλλούσης <ἀπο>τυγχάνει πέψεως, οὕτως οὐδὲ τὸ σπέρμα δύναται ἀναληφθῆναί τε καὶ κρατηθὲν κυοφορηθῆναι δίχα τοῦ παρεῖναι πρὸς συνουσίαν ὁρμὴν καὶ ὄρεξιν. καὶ γὰρ εἴ τινες βιασθεῖσαι συνέλαβον, ἔστι καὶ ἐπὶ τούτων εἰπεῖν, ὅτι τὸ μὲν τῆς ὀρέξεως πάντως πάθος καὶ ταύταις παρῆν, ἐπεσκοτεῖτο δὲ ὑπὸ ψυχικῆς κρίσεως.


T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Editor-in-Chief of the SCS Blog and Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Satire, Plautus: Curculio, and two forthcoming books, A Commentary on Plautus' Curculio (Michigan) and Masks (Tangent). He can be contacted at