“Legitimate Rape” and Other Craptastic Beliefs From the Olden Days

During the course of my PhD research for the book that became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction I had to learn a lot about ye olden day beliefs about sex and sexuality, including conception. For instance I came across this in Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex:

Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that “without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that “if some women who were forced to have intercourse conceived . . . the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve,” and no one before the second half of the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century question the physiological basis of this judgement. The 1756 edition of Burn’s Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that “a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent.” It does, however, go on to point out that as matter of law, if not of biology, this doctrine is dubious. Another writer argued that pregnancy ought to be taken as proof of acquiescence since the fear, terror, and aversion that accompany a true rape would prevent an orgasm from occurring and thus make conception unlikely.

Thus the statement of Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Missouri, that

from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down

does not come out of nowhere. It comes out of long debunked pseudo-science dating back centuries to a time when it was also believed that women could give birth to rabbits.

I naively thought that it did not need saying but it seems that it does:

There is no such thing as “legitimate” rape. There is no “true” rape. There is no “rape rape.” There is only rape.

USA, time to stop this insane discourse that has no bearing on reality. Wow. I leave the country for a few months and it goes completely insane.



  1. Gabrielle Prendergast on #

    I personally have seen to the abortion of at least four pregnancies resulting from rape, when I was a counsellor in a clinic in Australia. One the girl was 15, “circumcised” and fully shrouded by a hijab. She didn’t know how she got pregnant. Another was a teenage Asian exchange student raped in a back alley. She spoke no English. Another was 13 years old. Another was 20 years old, had four children already, the father of whom was her uncle. I worked there for about a year. I also knew several birth-mothers and adoptees whose life stories resulted from rape when I worked in an adoption reunion center. I can’t even…urgh.

  2. Justine on #

    Gabrielle Prendergast: I’m with you on the can’t even. That he can glibly dismiss the experience of tens of thousands of women in his own country and millions worldwide. Aargh.

  3. Cheryl on #

    I thought they didn’t think female orgasm existed back then.

  4. Justine on #

    Cheryl: I can’t find a citation for it but I do remember from my research that the notion that women don’t orgasm is recent: as in 19th century. And I think started off as specifically British. But again can’t find the evidence.

  5. Jessica on #

    Cheryl: But you don’t have to orgasm to feel “an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act.”

  6. Lori S. on #

    I’m afraid this country went completely insane a bit before that. :/

  7. Sean the Bookonaut on #

    Every time I think we are going downhill in Aus, some daft republican douche steps up and makes me feel a little better about living here.

    Mind you the level of misogyny in our current political climate has me worried about the lengths the liberal party and some far right commentators will go to to.

  8. cameowalkin on #

    In the Bible, mention is made of a young wife (Susannah, I think) who was almost put to death on the accusations of two evil creeps (businessmen) who snuck into her garden to peep at her while she was bathing, while her husband was away at business. (I think it was the future King David who stuck up for her, questioning the men and uncovering the lies.) The only reason she wasn’t raped was that her maid came back into the courtyard.

    In 1785, at the time Samuel Farr wrote the above material, it was commonplace for doctors to masterbate their female patients (thought to be “the cure” for hysteria & melancholia, they conveniently diagnosed it at every opportunity).

    And yet among many people, there’s an assumption that the women wanted this; they don’t remember that men made their women see the doctor, under threat of being put into a mental institution, which happened to the non-compliant regularly, at their men’s whim. To this day, if you smile at your (male) doctor, the (female) staff look at you suspiciously. Some habits (of thought) die hard, it seems.

    But as bizarre as Todd Aiken’s comments were, it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that kind of reference, and I seem to be hearing it more these days. There’s this comment about “legitimate” rape (is that the old ’60’s courtroom burden of rape that’s been photographed from several positions and confirmed by several witnesses? nobody got convicted by those rules! the witnesses were either dissuaded, or were in on the rape, and usually they wouldn’t pose for pictures which, often enough, the victim didn’t have a camera on hand to take). At least that’s my experience.

    And recently someone on TV (a “nice” man, bible teacher) made a comment about the church needing to support orphans and widows, “but only legitimate widows … not those women who are exploiting their situation to take advantage and get ahead.” Hmm…

    I must tell you … it bothers me. It makes me think that in the churches, and especially among white conservative men, that they feel smarter by disbelieving women who’ve been victimized — that they disbelieve (or disavow) to get themselves off the hook, or avoid responsibility for caring and providing. That kind of behavior isn’t unusual for men (ask any woman trying to collect child-support payments, or prove her child’s paternity).

    But to see it become acceptable and commonplace among religious and political leaders is a sad reflection of the self-hatred and loathing that American men seem to save up for their women and children. But they’re mistaken if they think they can win an election by misdirecting us again. We’re not having it.

  9. Dana W on #

    I have a copy of Psychopatia Sexualis, The 19th century book on sexual disorders that was used by some doctors as late as 1970.

    It considered female orgasm as a form of dysfunction “immature, undeveloped female sexuality” and suggested clitoral removal if it was happening regularly.

    It also considered “hydrotherapy” with pressure hoses for other female sexual disorders, such as aggression, unusual drive to education or an urge to wear unacceptably masculine clothing or take up traditionally male occupations.

    Read this book if you want to die a little inside, or to see what kind of world the present batch of teabaggers wants to saddle us with.

  10. Nancy Jane Moore on #

    I don’t want to counter the image that the US political discourse is insane, because it is. But the Fort Worth Star-Telegram just published an insightful piece on date and acquaintance rape showing that in most cases the perpetrators were serial rapists who targeted victims and manipulated them into situations where rape was possible. This is a very effective response to all the myths around date rape, which I’m sure is one of the types of rape not considered “legitimate” by the US nutcase right.

  11. aikanae on #

    Rachel Maddow Show (Aug 20) began with clips from Republican’s (male and female) saying this same thing since the 70’s. Atkins statement wasn’t the only time. Ryan has similar views. Morman’s aren’t well known for supporting women’s issues either.

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