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All in the Definition

The New Lexicon of Rape

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

 Peacably if we can, forcibly if we must.

– Henry Clay, Speech 1811

The campaign season thus far has convinced many of us that we have no idea whether social security cuts proposed by Republicans are going to save the taxpayer $750 million or cost the taxpayer $6 billion or whether raising taxes on the wealthy will cost jobs or cutting taxes will help create jobs.  And now we find out that a subject we thought we understood and could define is much more subtle than most of us had suspected.  The subject is rape.

For years, conventional wisdom accepted the definition of rape that was found in the Concise Oxford English dictionary.  It defined rape as “forceful or fraudulent intercourse.”   We now learn that that definition is excessively simplistic.  For that information we are indebted to research done by Michelle Goldberg and Anna North that informs this column and enables me to provide a glossary so that readers will not be caught short when finding rape discussed at table, as it almost surely will be.

Rape has achieved prominence in recent years since the threshold question for opponents of abortion is whether abortion should be permitted when a child is conceived as a result of a rape.  It is that question that has given rise to nice distinctions in the kinds of rape of which few of my readers will have been aware.  The first kind of rape to which I will devote attention is the kind where the victim is “truly raped.”

Being “truly raped” entered the lexicon in 1994 when Representative Henry Aldridge, a 74-year-old periodontist from North Carolina was testifying before the House Appropriations Committee.  In his testimony he told members of the Committee that: “The facts show that people who are raped-who are truly raped-the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant.  Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.”  He elaborated a bit saying:   “to get pregnant, it takes a little cooperation.  And there ain’t much cooperation in a rape.”  He is, of course, referring to those who are “truly raped.”

Out of chronological order, the next kind of rape we examine is “legitimate rape.”  It is similar to “truly raped” in that its victims are unlikely to become pregnant.  We learned this from Todd Akin who hopes to become Missouri’s newest U.S. Senator. Using a modified form of Mr. Aldridge’s 1994 words he said:  “If it’s a legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  The criminal statutes that define “rape” do not make it obvious when what the statute describes as the crime of rape loses its criminal attributes by being called legitimate.  That may become apparent when legitimacy is entered as a defense by someone charged with the crime.

The next kind of rape we examine is something called “assault rape.”  Its consequences are the same as the consequences of a “true rape” or a “legitimate rape” in that its victims are unlikely to become pregnant. “Assault Rape” was introduced into the lexicon in 1999 by John C. Wilke, a Cincinnati physician and the former president of the National Right to Life Committee.  In an article entitled:  “Assault Rape Pregnancies Are Rare” he confirms what Mr. Aldridge, and later, Mr. Akin said.  Being a physician his explanation was slightly more sophisticated.  He said that in order to get 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 readily influenced by emotions.  There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape.”  He also said that “assault rape pregnancies are extremely rare” and that pregnancies could result from as few as one in 1,000 cases of rape.

The last kind of rape we examine is “forcible rape.”  (This name is redundant since the dictionary definition of rape already includes the word “forcible” and it is not clear that referring to the act of rape as  “forcible, forceful or fraudulent intercourse” adds a great deal to the definition.)

Forcible rape has been in the lexicon for some time since it has routinely been used by those opposed to abortion.  In 2011 Mr. Akin and Paul Ryan, were among 227 co-sponsors of H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act.”  As introduced, that act said abortions could be funded by the federal government if the pregnancy was the result of “forcible rape.”  (The word “forcible” was removed from the legislation before it passed the House and the legislation was not considered in the Senate.) The addition of “forcible” adds emphasis to the fact that force is part of the rape and, therefore, apparently different from the others we have examined. It also differs from the other three kinds of rape in that no one has suggested its victims do not become pregnant.  That is why it comes up in discussions about abortions.

As the foregoing suggests, the physical consequences of rape are all in the definition.  Who’d have thought it?

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu