White men need to stop talking about rape. Specifically, Republican senators and congressmen, whose claims provoke national firestorms, should cease rape-talk. Such comments spark cable news punditry and panels and prompt gleeful hand rubbing by Democrats, but essentially cloud the larger and far more toxic issue of a societal rape culture in which so few prosecutions of rapists are successful. It makes sense why so few victims come forward, because in our present rape culture, survivors carry the stigma and trauma of the sexual violence for years and those who rape walk away -- potentially to commit another crime -- bolstered by justice and media systems that re-traumatize rape survivors.
Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock is the latest to feel the wrath of public opinion in response to his comments during a live Tuesday night debate in which he said: "I... came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." One day before Mourdock made that comment Governor Mitt Romney endorsed him in an ad. Following the awful remarks, the Democratic Party created its own ad where they spliced Mourdock's comments with Governor Romney's endorsement the visual resulted in a damning indictment of a Republican Party and leader out of step with a deeply sensitive issue.
Mourdock's remarks follow those of his fellow Republican, six-term Tea Party backed Missouri Congressman Todd Akin who, during a live television interview, when asked about his views on rape and abortion said: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." In The Guardian, Jill Filipovic details other extraordinarily dangerous statements by other white Republican men around rape including:
• Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard who asserted: "Some girls rape easy."
• Douglas Henry, a Tennessee state senator, who told his colleagues: "Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse."
• When asked a few years back about what kind of rape victim should be allowed to have an abortion, South Dakota Republican Bill Napoli answered: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."
Can someone please explain the tendency for those caught with feet firmly rammed into mouths to dismiss that as "mis-speaking" -- is there a definition for that? What exactly does it mean? Post Akin's comments articles were written that showed such remarks were part of a wider and deep-rooted Republican ideology. Michelle Goldberg in The Daily Beast revealed Akin's record on abortion, tied it to the GOP VP hopeful Paul Ryan and acknowledged it as a fairly common reality in today's GOP. Goldberg wrote of Akin: "his policy position -- that abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest -- is quite common in today's GOP." References were made to John Wilke, the godfather of anti-abortion rhetoric whose philosophy peddled positions articulated by Akin. Michelle Goldberg noted the following in The Daily Beast:
... a 1999 article by John C. Willke, former president of the National Right to Life Committee, headlined, "Assault Rape Pregnancies Are Rare." First, Willke argues that rape statistics are uncertain, because while some women don't report rapes, others "pregnant from consensual intercourse, have later claimed rape." Secondly, he continues, when women are actually raped, the trauma upsets their endocrine system in a way that prevents pregnancy. "To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape."
Political gain made from the ludicrous remarks around rape by Republicans keeps distracting from the key issue: legislating the shaming of women and continuing to allow the devastating tools of silence and judgment to dominate society's reaction to a woman's articulation of rape -- both of which perpetuate rape culture. I then think of how little focus there is on the consequences of a pregnancy via rape and how society supports and deals with the woman and the child who was conceived.
On CNN back in August 2012, Shauna R. Prewitt a lawyer in Chicago and the author of Giving Birth to a 'Rapist's Child': A Discussion and Analysis of the Limited Legal Protections Afforded to Women Who Become Mothers Through Rape, was interviewed about a letter she had written. In it she describes being raped at 21 and then discovering she was pregnant, dealing with the conflicting emotions due to the pregnancy and finally giving birth to a baby girl who is now 7. In the letter, Prewitt reveals her rapist: " ... filed for sole custody." Prewitt adds she learned:
... in the vast majority of states -- 31 -- men who father through rape are able to assert the same custody and visitation rights to their children that other fathers enjoy. When no law prohibits a rapist from exercising these rights, a woman may feel forced to bargain away her legal rights to a criminal trial in exchange for the rapist dropping the bid to have access to her child.In other words, a woman may trade justice for herself as a rape survivor as a means to guard against access to the child on the part of the rapist. Is that choice? It is the consequence of a society that seeks to legislate and interfere with a woman's body but has given far less thought to the behaviors, actions and reactions of men. So, the choice for women in those 31 states becomes this: justice or access? Plus, of the 19 states that do have laws dealing with the custody of children conceived by rape, 13 require proof of rape conviction in order to waive the alleged rapist's parental rights. Only 9 out of every 100 rapes are prosecuted and only 5 of those lead to a felony conviction.
And here's the thing, black and brown men need not feel they can stand comfortably and throw shade at the statements from now Mourdock and Akin that sparked such outrage. Rape culture encompasses conventional masculinity, which means it specifically makes violence an intimate and acceptable fabric of society that prompts the shaming and silencing of women who are victims of sexual violence. That is not a function of party politics or color, it is one of culture -- so liberals or progressives need not crow too loudly -- rape culture has no allegiance to any party. And of course, neither liberals nor progressives are seeking to legislate against women's bodies, rape culture needs no such sanction, it is already ripe, real, active.
We may be smarter about the language we choose, but rape culture is about ideology -- and that is all too present within our society. Indeed, while we stand in a place of outrage, it is no less important to note that women, too, are complicit in the silencing, shaming, judging of women who cry sexual violence. That silencing occurs on multiple levels by both genders: individual, familial, communal, cultural, institutional and societal. In a round table on MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes post the Akin comments on August 25, featuring Michelle Goldberg, Katha Pollitt of TheNation.com, comedian and host of Totally Biased W. Kamau Bell and myself, I argued that Akin's comments reflected our cultural sensibility of suspicion when women make rape accusations, that statistics and research reflect that most rapists are known to their victims, reminding us of the cancer around notions such as 'perfect victims' where women's character and sexual behavior is put on trial before calculation that rape could be a legitimate conclusion.
To rid our society of the rape culture that invades it, we need 'Emotional Justice.' Emotional justice is a call to deal with our legacy of untreated trauma. That means having larger, more profound, provocative and difficult conversations about how that legacy of untreated trauma has become an inheritance passed down generation to generation. Silence as a response to sexual violence is common due to all the ways society's rape culture blames women, shames them, tries and convicts them with almost no equal focus on the accused. Women carry scars from that sexual violence and its trauma, from a journey to justice and being put on trial, and the consequence of being judged, shamed, blamed and convicted while -- as the evidence shows -- so many alleged rapists walk free. What if we changed that narrative, actually held the larger conversation about society's rape culture and how that needs to be challenged and changed?
Follow Esther Armah on Twitter: www.twitter.com/estherarmah