“Legitimate Rape” and the aftermath of Election 2012

By: Alana Chazan, Esq. 11/13/2012

For many, the 2012 election will be remembered as the “rape” election. Rape, which had generally been regarded as a bipartisan issue that both parties stood against, turned out to be the surprise issue of the election. By and large, it was the Republicans who seemed to keep bringing the topic up over and over again. Now in the aftermath of the election and a resounding defeat of the right, many in the Republican Party are trying to separate themselves from the candidates who spoke their views on rape. In an op-ed about damage control for the Republicans after the election, Bush’s former advisor, Karen Hughes, wrote in Politico: “And if another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue. The college-age daughters of many of my friends voted for Obama because they were completely turned off by Neanderthal comments like the suggestion of “legitimate rape.”

However, it was not just “Neanderthal[s]” and rouge agents of the party who spoke out about rape in the 2012 election, but Senatorial candidates, congressmen, and the vice presidential candidate himself – Paul Ryan. In case you have forgotten or rather tried to push out of your mind some of the choice statements made by candidates in 2012 regarding rape, lets review:

– “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.)
– “In that horrible situation of rape, that [pregnancy] is something God intended.” Senate Candidate Richard Murdock (R-In.)
– “Consensual sex can turn into rape in an awful hurry – some girls they rape so easy.” State Rep. Richard Rivard (R-WI.)
– “In cases of rape and incest – I am still pro-life.” Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Il.)
– “Having a baby out of wedlock – is similar [to rape].” Candidate John Koster (R-Wa.)
– “The method of conception [i.e. rape] doesn’t change the definition of life.” Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan (R-Wi.)

What the 2012 election really did, was it blew the cover of the anti-woman views that have been an undercurrent of the party for years. And this fact was not lost on the voters. In tallying votes there was found to be an 18 percent gap between the number of women who voted for Obama and those that voted for Romney, which is a significant gain from the 12-point gender gap in the 2008 election. In fact, Obama won single female voters in this election by a resounding 68% to 30% for Romney.

The good news – each of the candidate noted above lost in the 2012 election. The bad news, however, is that just because these candidates were defeated, this issue is not just fixed. The idea that survivors of rape bring the crime upon themself and deserve the consequences, is nothing new. In fact Rape Shield Laws were developed and fought for by feminists throughout this country in the 1970’s and 1980’s, precisely to defeat this ideology. For those not familiar, Rape Shield Laws are state evidentiary laws limiting a rape defendant’s ability to introduce evidence about the victim’s past sexual behavior. Such laws also generally protect the victim in a sexual assault case from having their identity made public. The idea behind the laws was to try and curtail the leading ideology of the time that a “loose” woman could not be raped.

Rape cases are notoriously difficult, with studies showing that only about one-third of rapes are ever reported to the police, and only a small fraction of those are ever prosecuted. Victims are generally forced to testify whether they want to or not, and between the police, the lawyers, and the courts, the victim often ends up feeling re-victimized in the process of trying to gain justice against their abuser. While Rape Shield Laws are supposed to protect victims from having their character put at issue in trial, the ideology that “some girls…rape easy” or that there is such thing as a “legitimate” or non-legitimate rape devalues the usefulness of existing Rape Shield Laws and makes survivors of such crimes feel even more scrutinized.

We live in what many are calling the “era of personal responsibility.” This idea in itself isn’t even a political split as both parties generally espouse the notion that we as people need to take personal responsibility for ourselves and our lives and actions. But how does the notion of “personal responsibility” affect the way we see survivors of crime and violence? How does it allow people to get around Rape Shield Laws by not addressing a victim’s past sexual conduct, but rather just blaming her for being raped at all? It says to survivors – since most people aren’t raped, what did you do to put yourself in the situation to be? It shifts the blame from being on the perpetrator to the victim itself, as though they should have known better than to get raped.

In this era of personal responsibility, the myth of the “perfect victim” has never been greater. The myth of the “perfect victim” is a myth, precisely because there is no such thing. And in this age of personal responsibility and the advent of a 24 hours news-cycle and social media, the idea that a victim of crime is somehow herself to blame for what has happened to her, is as prevalent as ever in even the most horrific of crimes.

Last year in Cleveland, Texas 18 men were arrested for the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old child. Rather than unanimous sympathy for this young girl who had been subject repeated gang rapes, Cleveland held a town hall meeting to discuss the incident where numerous residents blamed the child and her parents for the child’s own gang rape. The victim blaming in this case went so far that even an elected representative in Florida, Kathleen Passidomo, used the case to try and push her own political agenda by stating during a debate over a school uniform bill: “There was an article about an 11 year old girl who was gang raped in Texas by 18 young men because she was dressed like a 21-year-old prostitute…And her parents let her attend school like that. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to create some areas where students can be safe in school and show up in proper attire so what happened in Texas doesn’t happen to our students.” So here, the fault of the rape was not on the 18 men who gang raped an 11 year old, but rather on the girl herself, or her parents, for letting her dress in a way that should seemingly invite rape.

Recently in Arizona, prior to sentencing an off-duty police officer who had been found guilty of sexually assaulting a woman in a bar, Judge Kathleen Hatch, admonished not just the perpetrator, but the victim herself, stating: “If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you.” “When you blame others, you give up your power to change,” Judge Hatch stated said that her mother used to say to her. According to the Judge, the rape survivor had no one to blame but herself, that as a woman, she should expect such things to happen to her if she goes somewhere as indecent as a bar.

There are numerous other examples from the DSK case in New York just last year to every survivor of a sexual assault by a professional athlete whom has had to endure being outed, ridiculed and threatened by the public as being a lying slut. The ideas that some girls “rape easy,” that there is a “legitimate” form of rape and a non-legitimate form of rape, that rape can even be something “God intended,” are not just the ideologies of some fringe political candidates. They are real ingrained notions in the legislatures, the courts, and in the public itself. Just because the election is over does not mean the struggle to expose misogyny and victim blaming should be. Rather it should be a call to arms to strengthen our Rape Shield Laws and work to further protect survivors of rape and sexual abuse.