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How Surprising Are Congressman Akin's Remarks? Women, Rape, and Political Culture

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Is it really surprising what Congressman Todd Akin said? During an interview, the Congressman remarked that a woman who suffers "legitimate rape" cannot get pregnant "because the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down." It makes sense to me that he doesn't understand how a woman's body actually works. And, it makes complete sense to me that Congressman Akin doesn't understand what rape is or that he could link together the words "legitimate" and "rape."

The indignation and outrage is lovely to bear witness to -- but really, Mr. Akin's words are closer to popular cultural sensibilities than we we would like to admit.

How many men (and women too) really understand the female body? There is more preoccupation with merchandising, legislating, and ridiculing the female body, than understanding it. Few cultural and political spaces exist in which the female body, in pregnancy, in childbirth, in illness, and in its full complexity is contemplated, and with respect for its sacredness.

But it's not just that there is little understanding or care for the female body -- it is also that there are few honest conversations about gendered violence and the pervasiveness of rape.

It is always fascinating to me how the horrors of sexual violation are easily papered over in language and discourse. For example, the word "sexual assault" is frequently used to describe rape or attempted rape. It is such an easier term to use compared to the imagery, emotion, and implications that the word rape conjures up. Not surprisingly, media coverage of sexually violent acts of rape, violation, unwanted penetration and abuse, are often comfortably described as sexual assault.

Consider also the sanitary language to describe children being sold for sex: "domestic minor sex trafficking." Sounds like a traffic violation. Or the very polite, biblical name "John" for the person who purchases a 14 year-old child for sex.

This exceedingly sanitized discourse on sexual violence exists against a larger backdrop of the epidemic levels of violence perpetrated against women and girls. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently published the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Among the key findings were:

• Nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped at some point in their lives.
• Most female victims of rape are under the age of 25.

According to the CDC, in another nationally representative survey:

• 60.4% of female victims were first raped before age 18.
• 25.5% of female victims were first raped before age 12.

I am still waiting for the national outrage regarding how commonplace these stats suggest violence is in the lives of American women and girls, regardless of race, ethnicity, or class. Instead, I have read a number of op-eds in response to the CDC's findings penned by rape denialists.

It seems to me then that Congressman Akin's words are a very natural and expected extension of a political and popular culture that often makes a mockery of the female body, and routinely evades the heinous, everyday realities of sexual violence in the lives of American women and girls.