It's October and a new semester is under way at Wellesley. Once again I am teaching political science to eager young women, something I've done for several decades. This year began unfortunately with the news about the exploitation of women by the B.U. hockey team and its pervasive culture of "sexual entitlement." It is bad enough for drunken college men to think that they can force any woman to have sex. It is worse when prominent politicians fail to understand what rape means.
Insensitive and inaccurate statements made by politicians are now being called "Todd Akin moments." But this "moment" signified so much more than an embarrassing slip of the mind and tongue, and it calls for further reflection. Behind Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's witless comments in the service of the anti-abortion movement is the idea that some women might claim rape just to obtain an abortion. Given the social stigma imposed on rape victims, the anti-abortion movement has little to worry about.
It is a brave woman or man who admits to having been raped. In my second year of teaching at Wellesley I witnessed an extraordinary young woman make her own sexual assault public by warning other students in an open letter to the college newspaper. Susan Estrich went on to become the first female editor of the Harvard Law Review, a presidential campaign manager, law professor, and author of the book Real Rape. Estrich's story is unusual.
A few years later a student who complained of "date rape," was assigned to an over-burdened public prosecutor and lost her case to a wealthy, well-defended student from a neighboring university. She tried to commit suicide. Yet another student told me that at a house party, a man she knew took her into a room, grabbed her and banged her head on the floor. When she began to scream, he told her: "Do you really want people to see you like this? What will they think?" And then he raped her. She never told her family.
The experiences of these two women is much more the norm than most of us realize. Several studies based on large national samples of college women have shown that about 5 percent are raped in a given year. One study found that another 5 percent of college women had been raped prior to entering college. Other research shows that 95 percent of college rape victims do not report the assault. The stigma attached to rape victims is so widespread that it is the only violent crime where news media refrain from mentioning the victim's name.
Todd Akin was apparently surprised that the concept of "legitimate rape" caused such a furor, but fear of rape cuts across all ages, races, and classes of women. While anti-abortion fanatics worry about "fake" rape, they have even invented some pseudo-science to reassure women that rape never results in pregnancy. We know from the use of rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia, Rwanda and elsewhere that this assertion is patently untrue. Wartime victims of violent rapes do bear children and suffer social rejection or worse.
Even outside the circle of anti-abortion radicals, popular culture draws a fuzzy line between ardent passion and forcible rape. Many young -- and apparently middle-aged -- men believe that physically overpowering a woman to have sex is what women want. Remember the scene in Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler carries a resisting Scarlet O'Hara off to bed? The myth is that overpowering a woman will convert her into a passionate sex partner. It is an old story. William the Conqueror began his career by conquering Matilda. He is said to have grabbed her braids and hurled her to the floor -- after which she insisted on marrying him and bore him nine children. Around the world there are cultures where kidnapping the bride proves that she has no desire to marry (or, presumably, to have sex) which makes her a desirable mate.
My students do not have to worry about bride-napping, but they have to be concerned about a male culture of sexual entitlement and misguided concepts like "legitimate rape" from the likes of Todd Akin and Governor Bob (Vaginal Probe) McDonnell. These guys do not understand biology, psychology, and weapons of war. It's a shame that they never got the broad education that is required of my students.