A SYTYCB entry.
In a macabre coincidence of global-meets-local, an angry twitterverse informed me of Akin’s bizarre and offensive “legitimate rape” comments here in the U.S. while I was reviewing the latest report on violence against women globally by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
As an activist focusing on violations of female rights and dignity at home as well as abroad, I’m accustomed to the Western tendency to distance or “other” women’s rights abuses. We want to believe that harrowing reports of acid attacks, so-called “honor” killings and rape only happen “out there,” where “they” don’t know how to treat “their women.” But Akin’s assertion of “legitimate rape” (which sounds a lot like acceptable rape), which implies that not all rape is rape, that not all rape is a crime, that women’s bodies have some comic-book superhero-like ability to search out and destroy “bad guy” sperm, and that the state therefore has no responsibility whatsoever to respond, is just the latest in a series of indications to the contrary.
Rates of violence against women are startlingly similar across the globe, regardless of race, class, religion. The idea of American exceptionalism when it comes to violence against women is a much-loved yet devastating farce, and one that presents profound threats to our legal foundation for preventing and responding to these crimes.
“Impunity for violence against women compounds the effects of such violence as a mechanism of control. When the State fails to hold perpetrators accountable, impunity not only intensifies the subordination and powerlessness of the targets of violence, but also sends a message to society that male violence against women is both acceptable and inevitable,” said UN Secretary General Ban upon receiving the report. Exactly. Akin’s universe is no less culpable in this regard than Afghanistan’s.
Let’s take a little survey of rape discourse around the world–the similarities are eerie, and the ramifications for State response are unnerving:
Thanks to Akin, the idea of “legitimate rape” is now part of the American lexicon (and thanks to him and Ryan, “forcible rape” already was). In Akin’s vision, the so-called “legitimacy” of rape has real ramifications for policy—no need for legal access to abortion, because in the case of “legitimate rape,” women’s superhero bodies will mete out the cure on their own. If they don’t, well, it clearly wasn’t really rape. All this on the heels of a summer where Congress waged a partisan war over Domestic Violence Act reauthorization, a policy that had previously sailed through the reauthorization process with strong bipartisan backing.
Across the pond in the United Kingdom, the same week that brought the Akin comment saw an MP developing his own definition of acceptable rape when he decided that raping a woman in her sleep didn’t count. The implication there was that Julian Assange should not be held accountable for charges of sex crimes, because they weren’t really crimes after all. South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world, and so-called “corrective rape” is directed at lesbians to both “cure” and punish them. Reported perpetrators range from gangs of men in the cities, to lone men on rural roads, to, most chillingly, members of the police.
In much of the world, the word “wife” is euphemized for rape, in order to give the act more acceptable social standing. Combatants in DRC who take sex slaves as they ravage the countryside refer to their victims as wives, and state response has been practically nonexistent despite the existence of a “zero tolerance” policy for gender-based violence. Male relatives of widows in Nigeria, Afghanistan and other countries at times declare their grieving relatives to be their own property or second wives upon the death of the spouse. Then there’s child marriage, which claims an estimated 10 million girls around the world each year, who are then forced to submit to older men in the name of marriage. In both of these cases, social norms around the practice afford impunity for the perpetrator, regardless of the letter of the law. Many countries don’t recognize marital rape as a crime.
Rape is rape. Crime is crime. All people deserve equal protection under the law, and the state is responsible for ensuring justice is served to perpetrators and services are available to survivors. At home and abroad, we’re not just in the midst of a culture war over the value of women, we’re witnessing a full-scale attack on women’s rights and an eroding of the very institutions that were designed to protect them.
It starts with dispute over definitions: Marital rape. Forcible rape. Legitimate rape. Corrective rape. It may well end with Secretary General Ban’s gloomy forecast: a world in which impunity intensifies the subordination and powerlessness of women, who are left with no recourse whatsoever.