Let’s talk about language

A few days ago, in relation to his anti-abortion stance, Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate hopeful, stated, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The reactions came almost immediately, and from every angle.  It seems no one was staying silent on the issue, and several days after making the remarks, Akin is receiving requests to quit the race from all political parties (republican and tea party included).

I do not think it’s necessary for me to explain what is wrong with Akin’s irrevocably moronic assertion that the human body will prevent pregnancy in the case of rape. What I want to focus on is the language, more specifically the use of two words; “legitimate rape.”

Language is a powerful tool. We are a taught from a young age that our words can easily hurt, and I imagine that all of us, at one time or another, have experienced the sting of words being used against them or negatively around them.

With that said, often times, harmful language is used out of habit. I would argue that in this case, however, the choice of the word “legitimate” could not have been more strategic. Had Akin stated that a woman’s body shuts down when raped, this statement would just be wrong. But, Akin introduced the issue of “legitimate rape”.

Assuming that certain “kinds” of rape are not actually rape only re-victimizes those who have been sexually assaulted. To use the word “legitimate” also implies that certain lives are less valued than others, and asserts that the survivor who was assaulted did not actually endure any harm from their experience – that the harm they claim is fabricated.  

Let’s set the record straight here, asserting that an individual was sexually violated because of what that person chose to wear, how much they chose to drink, the situation they put themselves in, or even that they changed their mind about a sexual encounter is to violate that person’s right to choose when, how, and who touches their body.

If I take the issue of legitimate rape to its logical conclusion, then what does this imply for rape in conflict? Were the women who got pregnant as result of rape in wars such as those in Bosnia and the Congo not legitimately raped just because they got pregnant?

Sadly, this argument goes beyond Akin, even though it’s much easier to blame a single person than to consider that there is something bigger at stake that needs to be examined. This is about a mentality that actually devalues the lived experiences of individuals who have endured sexual assault to such an extent that politicians feel that they have the right to weigh in on what qualifies as legitimate rape. Akin’s statement sends a clear message of value: that those who are survivors of sexual assault and are pregnant by it are not valued enough to be supported or even recognized as survivors.

However, this is not simply about words, it is about the material implications of language; about what happens to policies, programs, and budgets that are established and monitored by those who might choose to use such language. For this reason, politicians and civil society alike need to consider the language they are using, every word matters, a single word (or in this case two) can send a very loud and clear message to society, and in turn, policy makers, about what is valued and what is not.

by Alex Anastasia, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

For more information about rape in conflict and the links between violence against women and militarism please visit CWGL’s 16 Days Campaign website

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