A few months ago, we looked on in horror as Republican Representative Todd Akin made a bizarre comment about pregnancies from rape, and that were it a “legitimate rape” the body has “a way of shutting it down”.
Akin was not a lone man with a quirky grasp of biology and what rape is: his thinking is reflective of a broader problem with society’s thinking about sexual violence.
Last week, a US judge faced a public admonishment from the Commission for Judicial Performance for comments he made in sentencing a rape case where a man had threatened to mutilate his ex-girlfriend, beaten her with a metal baton and then raped her and forced oral sex on her.
Judge Derek Johnson sentenced the man to six years in
(rather than the recommended sixteen years), and, in his summing up, explained why:
"I'm not a gynecologist, but I can tell you something: If someone doesn't want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case. That tells me that the victim in this case, although she wasn't necessarily willing, she didn't put up a fight.”
His views, are, of course, patently nonsense. There is no biological mechanism for shutting the body down during rape. However, we cannot merely shake our heads at the state of biology teaching across the Atlantic and move on with our lives. His thinking, while an extreme instance of excusing rape, is rooted in pervasive attitudes towards rape.
Society has a certain map for what rape looks like: it typically involves a stranger leaping out of a bush and beating a woman (who lives like a saint) into submission before raping her. The victim is expected to put up a fight throughout. Some rapes happen like this, but many do not, and there are many reasons someone may not fight back: fear, having been entirely overpowered, the cultural belief that we should just grit our teeth and get on with sex we do not want and that it isn’t rape because it doesn’t involve that stranger leaping out of the bush.
Judge Johnson said that the case he was in his courtroom was “an insult” that “trivialises rape” which shows the power of this belief in what a rape looks like.
Does the Commission’s decision to publicly admonish the judge show some kind of sea-change, an indication that the tides are finally turning against these old rape myths? Unfortunately, not really. The case happened in 2008, and it is only now that ten judges have voted to condemn these remarks. There has been no mention in the news as to whether the sentence he handed down based on his beliefs will be revised, merely that other judges noticed it four years later and want to give this judge the legal equivalent of a stern glare.
We need to get better in our thinking about rape. Judge Johnson’s concerning comments only came to light because of their demonstrable absurdity, while these attitudes live on in the hearts and minds of many to some extent or another. Calling out only the most extreme occurrences is ultimately unhelpful, as it fails to attack the real issue - that there are a lot of people who believe ludicrous and dangerous things about rape, and this needs to change.