Embattled U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin claimed yesterday that "legitimate rape" somehow turns off the female body's reproductive capabilities. As I demonstrate below, that is absurd. But it is important to note that Akin's ideology is part of a broader set of misconceptions about how the body reacts to sexual assault.
There's nothing new about the idea that vaginal lubrication, orgasm, and pregnancy can occur only during a wanted sexual encounter. None of this is true. A 2004 paper from the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine addresses some of these misconceptions. The authors, Roy Levin and Willy van Berlo, considered reports from doctors, nurses, and therapists who work with rape survivors. Many of the clinicians had experienced distraught victims asking why they felt lubrication or even orgasm during rape.
One British nurse-therapist reported the following:
"Approximately 1 in 20 women who come to the clinic for treatment because of sexual abuse report that they have had an orgasm from previous unsolicited sexual arousal. It is not detailed in the [professional] literature because the victims usually do not want to tell/talk about it because they feel guilty, as people will think that if it happened they must have enjoyed it. The victims often say, 'My body let me down.' Some, however, cannot summon the courage to say even that."
Heartbreaking. Levin and van Berlo found that victims report physical evidence of arousal in as many as 21 percent of rape cases, even when they also report violence and high levels of fear and mental distress. Why? The researchers note that many rapes are comitted by acquaintances or romantic partners of the victims; initial familiarity or even attraction might be supplanted by terror as an encounter becomes coercive. This is relevant, I think, to the charges against Julian Assange, who is accused of sexual assault for refusing to wear a condom with female partners who had earlier consented to sex. If that occured, it is still rape: Physical force was used to violate the initial, consensual terms of the encounter.
Then there is the simple fact, obvious to most women, that the vagina can become lubricated during sex as a defense mechanism against tearing and pain, regardless of one's level of enthusiasm or emotional buy-in.
And it isn't just women who can experience these confusing sensations. In men, Levin and van Berlo actually found some links between "anxiety-inducing threats" and increased blood flood flow to the penis.
All of this is really hard to write and talk about it, because it exists in the murky area between what we desire and what we fear. Yes, force can provoke arousal, but that doesn't condone the non-consensual use of force. The authors conclude:
"A perpertrator's defence against the alleged assault built solely on the evidence that genital arousal or orgasm in the victim proves consent has no intrinsic validity and should be disregarded."