Monday, August 20, 2012

The Myth of the “Legitimate" Rape

Rape is sometimes reported falsely. To claim otherwise would be to ignore highly publicized instances like the Duke Lacrosse case. Statistics on the prevalence of false reports vary, but they are generally found to be the exception, not the rule. These exceptions, however, have only strengthened the cultural myth of the “legitimate" rape. More important to victims, however, is the flip side of the coin, the perception of the “illegitimate" rape victim.

The definitions for these terms are somewhat murky, but you will hear echoes of illegitimacy in the public discussion of rapes where the victim was in a relationship with the attacker, where the victim was intoxicated, or where the prosecution did not file charges. Legitimacy questions follow some standard scripts- Was she/he just mad at a partner? Is this a ploy in a divorce case? Did the victim know and trust the perpetrator? Was she/he drunk? What was she/he wearing? Why didn’t she/he report the crime immediately? Why was no one ever charged with the crime? Now, in the wake of comments by Missouri Republican Senate Nominee, Todd Akin, you can add “Did she get pregnant?” to the list.

From my perspective, the greatest problem with Mr. Akin’s statement is not that it shows a lack of understanding about the female body. Instead, it is his promulgation of the myth of the “legitimate rape,” as if all rape victims must somehow pass a public- not police or courts- scrutiny before being deemed “innocent” enough to be worthy of our sympathy. The more of these types of questions that are asked about rape victims in the public discourse, the narrower the definition of legitimacy becomes. It becomes not just a question of if the rape occurred, but the circumstances under which it occurred, as if a stranger rape is somehow more legitimate than marital rape or an intoxicated victim is more to blame for his/her victimization than someone who was sober. These questions and subsequent degrees of legitimacy and illegitimacy only serve to promote societal myths and to make reporting rape more difficult for the victim than it already is.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services 

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