During the 2012 election, a whole bunch of Republican candidates, most notably Todd Akin, got it in their heads that it was a good idea to minimize the horrors of rape, usually in service of justifying abortion bans that don’t include exceptions for rape or incest. This turned out to be a really bad idea, as nearly every candidate caught saying dumb things about rape went down in defeat. The powers that be in the Republican party saw the writing on the wall, and held trainings where they basically begged politicians never to address the topic.
Unfortunately for party leaders, opining on rape and how it’s not that big a deal is a habit Republican politicians just can’t break. Since 2012, there’s been an exhausting parade of Republican politicians and conservative pundits who just want to say mean things about rape victims or minimize the seriousness of the issue. George Will claimed being a rape victim was a “coveted status.” Lindsey Graham wrote off the issue as a “definitional problem with rape.” A number of Republican state legislators have gone on the record suggesting that women routinely lie about rape to avoid the supposed consequences of consensual sex.
Recently Scott Walker, who hasn’t formally announced but is clearly toying with a presidential run, has thrown in some dumb rape comments. When asked to justify his apparent support for a 20-week ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape, Walker gave a big ol’ shrug to show how little he cared about this issue and said, “I mean, I think for most people who are concerned about that, it’s in the initial months where they’re most concerned about it.” The implication was clear: Rape victims who need abortions after 20 weeks must be lazy or stupid, but whatever they are, they are undeserving of compassion.
Walker’s hateful insinuation about rape victims isn’t true, of course. Rape victims may find themselves aborting after 20 weeks because of legal obstacles, financial problems or just plain inability to recognize pregnancy symptoms because of trauma.
But all this raises another question: Why can’t Republicans stop picking on rape victims? It seems like it would be the easiest thing in the world to do, especially when the evidence shows that the voting public really doesn’t like it when politicians say insensitive things about rape. But there’s a number of reasons Republicans keep stepping into this trap, even though they should know it’s a bad idea.
Conservatives struggle with the problem of consent. One of the reasons conservatives continue to slip up on this issue is that it is hard to work a meaningful definition of “consent” into the conservative ideology. For all their talk about freedom and individuality, sociological evidence shows that, in fact, conservative morality is rooted in authority, purity and hierarchy. Liberal morality is more about fairness and preventing harm.
Liberals believe rape is wrong because it’s a violation of a person’s right to bodily autonomy. But obviously the same conservatives who think a woman should be forced to carry a baby against her will don’t really respect bodily autonomy as a concept. Rape is contextualized as wrong more because it violates the rules, is a sexual sin, and violates a woman's purity. (That’s why conservatives so frequently treat rape like a lesser crime if the victim is someone who has had consensual sex in the past.) That’s why we’re seeing some conservatives defend the Duggars in light of revelations that their eldest son molested young girls in his teens. Sexual abuse is seen as another stripe of sexual sin, like fornication or adultery, and less like a crime against a woman’s right to control her own body.
Violence against women has become a culture war issue.The conservative inability to thoroughly grasp why rape is wrong has only become worse in recent years, as violence against women and rape specifically have become culture war issues. Feminists, especially campus feminists, have been agitating more loudly about rape. And whenever liberals, especially feminists, want something, that causes many on the right to have knee-jerk opposition to it.
Subsequently, there’s a growing chorus of voices on the right trying to stick it to the liberals by claiming rape is overblown, exaggerated or even an invention of liberal feminists who are claimed to be acting out from a nefarious and unexplained desire to get men. Republican politicians, by acting cavalier or even hostile to rape victims, are just responding to political pressures from their base.
Conservatives want to portray forced pregnancy as a favor they’re doing women.In the past few years, the official talking point on the right is that they are not waging a war on women by attacking legal abortion from every angle they can. No, they claim, they’re doing this to protect women. The claim is that women who choose abortion are not in their right minds, on the grounds that every woman, because she’s a woman, deep down inside wants to have babies, and that if they aren’t stopped from making a rash decision to abort, they will inevitably regret their decision and suffer from dire mental health consequences. It’s a lie that nearly every anti-choice organization and politician is sticking to.
Allowing exceptions for rape, however, makes it hard to maintain the façade. If you allow that it’s not great for a woman to be forced to have a rapist’s baby, that opens the door to the suggestion that there might be other occasions when forced childbirth might be less than the joyous occasion anti-choicers feel duty-bound to pretend it is. So there’s increasing pressure on the right to hold the line and argue that every forced childbirth, no matter how stressful or traumatic, is a magic elixir that will make a woman feel perfect and whole and never happier in her whole life.
While it’s never fun to hear pundits and politicians treat rape with a shrug of the shoulders, Scott Walker-style, we should all be ultimately grateful that Republicans just can’t leave this issue alone. Every time a conservative opens his mouth to talk about rape, he reminds the voters that the conservative ideology about sex and consent is radically opposed to where the rest of the country is headed. Better, after all, that we know where we stand than to elect them unwittingly and allow them to turn these backwards ideas into law.