[Potential trigger warning: Discussion of rape and sexual assault in this post.]
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear:
If you have vaginal sex without protection, you can get pregnant.
For some reason, this concept can be remarkably difficult for people to grasp. It toes the line between “sad” and “kind of funny” when this ignorance simply leads people to wonder if they can successfully avoid pregnancy by having sex while standing up, in a hot tub, or without climaxing.
But when a Senate nominee like Representative Todd Akin tries to claim that a woman’s body can somehow “know” when she is being raped and avoid pregnancy as a result? That’s an entirely new, scary level of ignorance.
What exactly is it that Akin thinks the female body will “realize” is going on during a rape so that it knows to “shut down” the conception process? Is it that the sex itself is rough? Well, no, because Akin never tries to claim that women can’t get pregnant (either accidentally or intentionally) from consensually rough sex. Is it that rape victims don’t want to get pregnant? No, because Akin never tries to claim that “not wanting a baby” is a particularly effective birth control strategy either. It seems like Akin has managed to convince himself that there is something inherently unique about “legitimate” (aka forcible) rape that has nothing to do with it being rough or with the woman in question not wanting a baby, and that this completely indeterminate quality somehow allows the body to realize that it shouldn’t conceive a child, despite the fact that these magical ninja mind-body powers of control don’t extend to any other possible undesirable physical conditions that the person in question might want to “shut down” or avoid. Okay. Got it.
The real issue here extends far beyond the literal statement that Akin actually made. The real issue is that Akin is demonstrating exactly what a problem it can be when people don’t understand that your brain can screw around with your perceptions of the world. People never interpret the world around them in a consistently objective way. Instead, we are strongly swayed by biases and motivations that color practically everything we see, touch, or hear. Among other things, people are strongly motivated to believe that the world is a fair and just place, because that makes things predictable and safe. A man was murdered in a drive-by shooting? It must have somehow been his fault, or else that means I live in a world where I could be randomly murdered, and that’s really scary. A woman was raped? She did something to deserve it. If she didn’t, then I have to face the reality that I live in a chaotic, unpredictable world — and no matter how “good” I am or how hard I try to protect myself, something horrible could happen to me anyway. This could be why Akin felt the horrifying need to clarify that he was speaking about “legitimate” rape, which presumably means that it is a) forcible and/or b) committed by a stranger — in other words, it’s a situation in which it’s not quite so easy to find anything that you can blame the victim for doing wrong. If a woman is having consensual sex without wanting a baby, don’t worry! You can just blame her for being immoral or irresponsible if she accidentally gets pregnant anyway. And of course, if a woman is raped by someone she trusts (or simply knows), that means we can blame her for being a horrible person who deserves any negative events that come her way, right?
This might seem like a non-sequitur, but take a second to think back on grade school. Can you remember that common refrain always echoed by teachers and parents about bullies? “They’re only being so mean because they’re actually really unhappy and insecure deep down inside!” Well sure, that’s true for some bullies. But the fact is, plenty of childhood bullies are actually perfectly socially competent; they may even have plenty of friends, elevated levels of social intelligence, and higher social status as a direct result of their bullying.
Is this fair? No. But guess what? Life is not fair. Sometimes childhood bullies grow up to be attractive, wealthy, and genuinely happy people. Sometimes really cute puppies get hit by cars and they die. And sometimes, perfectly innocent people are raped, and they might even become pregnant as a result.
This is really, really hard for people to accept — especially if they have high levels of defense motivation (which is actually more common in political conservatives, for whatever it’s worth).1 In a now-classic demonstration of the just-world fallacy, researchers asked participants to watch a woman getting shocked whenever she provided wrong answers during a learning task.2 The researchers described this experiment differently to various subjects — some were told that the experiment had already happened and the learner was fine & had received compensation for her time, some were told that the experiment was going on at that moment and the learner would receive compensation for her time, and others watched her agree to participate in the painful experiment out of the goodness of her heart, as an altruistic way to help other participants who “needed her to go on” in order to get credit. Horrifyingly enough, the participants were more likely to rate the learner as unlikeable, immature, and generally unattractive in that last condition — the “martyr” condition. If they were able to grant her payment, protest against the experiment, or remedy the situation in a way that made them feel that things had somehow been rectified, they were more likely to rate the suffering woman positively. If they saw her as an innocent martyr and they had no way of doing anything to help her, they were more likely to rate her negatively, as if the painful shocks could somehow be justified because she wasn’t that great of a person to begin with.3
This effect has been shown over and over again. People who are high in “belief in a just world” are more likely to derogate poor people and those with HIV. When people evaluated different descriptions of a man who was injured in a traffic accident, they were more likely to derogate his character or blame him for the accident as the injury descriptions got more serious. In one particularly disturbing study, participants read one of three paragraphs describing an interaction between a man and a woman. The only thing that differed between the paragraphs was the final sentence — it either ended neutrally, with a marriage proposal, or with the woman being raped. Regardless of the outcome, the participants in each case judged the ending of the story as “inevitable,” and indicated that the woman had clearly acted in a way that “deserved it.”
When people are presented with the idea of an innocent victim, it threatens us with the vision of a world that is unpredictable, unsafe, and chaotic. It threatens us with a world that we cannot control, in which we too could be mugged, murdered, or impregnated by a rapist without any ability to stop it from happening. The only way to deal with it is to blame the victims for their own suffering. If the murdered man was actually a bad person, that means I won’t be murdered if I’m a good person. If the woman got pregnant from acquaintance rape, I can believe that she did something to “deserve” it. And if I absolutely cannot find any possible way to blame a woman for her “legitimate” rape — well, I need to believe that in those situations, you simply can’t get pregnant. Problem solved!
To a certain extent, Representative Akin is guilty of nothing more than the same terrified, grade school logic that lets us think that bullies must be suffering in some way for being so gosh darned mean. What kind of a world do we live in if bullies can be happy and good people can be made to suffer from punishing shocks? If women can be forcibly raped and still end up pregnant, how can anyone ever feel safe?
Sad to say, Representative Akin, you can’t construct governmental policy based on your fear of unpredictable danger. Sure, we’re all biased, and sure, we can all fall victim to the “just world” fallacy at times. But at some point, you need to recognize your biases and learn how to remove the fear-colored glasses. If you can’t explain the science behind why women who are forcibly raped cannot get pregnant, it’s probably because you are desperate for an explanation to make the world seem fair and that science does not actually exist. It’s bad enough to live in a world that’s unjust and unpredictable. Let’s not also make it a world where we try to govern other people’s bodies based on psychological fallacies.
1. As far as I know, it’s still unclear if the two characteristics are simply correlated, if political conservativism actually causes higher levels of defense motivation, or vice versa. I do know that there are biological bases for both political conservativism and high defense motivation.
2. Much like in the famous Milgram studies on obedience that used a “shocking” paradigm, the woman was a confederate and she was not really being harmed in any way.
3. The researchers also tested and disproved many alternative hypotheses that people generated for these findings over the years. For example, this happens in every different kind of subject population, regardless of race, gender, or age. This also has nothing to do with people assuming that the kind of person who would “allow herself to be shocked without any reason” should be derogated; when subjects thought that the woman had volunteered to be shocked but did not actually suffer, they did not derogate her character.
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