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Rep. Todd Akin's ideas about rape hark back to the colonial era

Op-Ed

In early America, such notions had profound implications for women seeking justice after rape resulted in pregnancy. Today, they are used to affect abortion laws.

August 22, 2012|By Thomas A. Foster
  • Todd Akin (R-Mo.) speaks to reporters after addressing the Missouri Farm Bureau in Jefferson City on Aug. 10. Anger continues to grow over Akin's comments -- that pregnancy from "legitimate rape" is rare.
Todd Akin (R-Mo.) speaks to reporters after addressing the Missouri Farm… (Christian Gooden / St. Louis…)

Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP's candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri, caused a huge stir the other day with his comments about how women who are true rape victims rarely get pregnant.

"If it's a legitimate rape," he said, "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

In a piece that was typical of the widespread outrage the remarks stirred, the Atlantic magazine called them the "contemporary equivalent of the early American belief that only witches float."

The writer was onto something important. Akin's ideas truly do date back to the colonial era.

In those days, prior to modern medical understanding of conception, women were considered to be "more amorous" than men, and it was believed that both partners needed to have orgasms in order for conception to occur.

Nicholas Culpeper's 17th century midwife manuals espoused that it was a woman's "womb, skipping as it were for joy" that produced "in that pang of Pleasure" the "seed" needed for conception to occur. If both husband and wife were not properly in love and enjoying sex, conception would fail, he asserted, because "the woman, being averse, does not produce sufficient quantities of the spirits with which her genitals should normally swell."

Although many women in early America undoubtedly knew that orgasm was not required for pregnancy to occur, many women also embraced the two-seed theory of reproduction.

Jane Sharp's 17th century manual, for example, explicitly discussed the clitoris, and described it as the location for women's physical sexual pleasures and the key to women's ability to conceive. "By the stirring of the Clitoris," she wrote, "the imagination causeth the Vessels to cast out that Seed that lyeth deep in the body."

Such notions of fertilization could have profound implications for women who sought justice after rape resulted in pregnancy. As historian of rape in early America Sharon Block has shown, colonial courts were notoriously suspicious of women who brought rape accusations. Women were seldom taken at their word and the status of the accused and the accuser became central to the outcome of the case. Moreover, a recurring theme in newspapers of the era was that that men needed to protect themselves against women — "the cunning sex" — who were out to falsely accuse them of rape.

Women who bore the added burden of pregnancy as a result of rape might come under special criticism in an already skeptical legal and social setting. Given the understanding of conception outlined above, if a woman became pregnant as the result of rape, consent would be assumed. Newspapers in early America routinely mocked women who dared to speak about rape and sexual assault by implying that they had wanted the sexual contact.

Indeed, the idea of women as bewitching seductresses was common in early America. In 1759, a woman named Anna Donham was brought before the Plymouth General Session for having had "a wicked and diabolical intent to corrupt and debauch" the local men, inciting them "to commit fornication and adultery." She was fined and sentenced to public lashing, but the men who enjoyed her company were not accused of any crime.

In the 1980s, politicians and activists again embraced the idea expressed by Akin, that women who were raped generally could not conceive. They did so for the same reasons as Akin — to affect abortion legislation. But by the 1980s, such discussions were centuries behind the times. A generation later, politicians embracing this rhetoric remain willfully ignorant and dangerously powerful.

This campaign season, let's redefine the traditional "sex scandal" to include misinforming the public about sex and sexuality.

Thomas A. Foster is an associate professor and chairman of the history department at DePaul University. He is the editor of "Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America."

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