Emily Strang (left) and Jerry Dunn speak at News at Noon’s discussion ‘Legitimate Rape:’ The Power of Words in Politics. Photo: Yeseul Park / The Current.


By Albert Nall, Staff Writer for The Current

Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s controversial remark about “legitimate rape” generated nationwide controversy. His comments and their political power were the topic of the semester’s first News at Noon discussion, “Legitimate Rape: the Power of Words in an Election,” on September 19 from 12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. in Millennium Student Center room 316.

News at Noon is a monthly forum for faculty and student discussions about current events accompanied by a free pizza lunch. The lunch discussion series is co-sponsored by The Current and The New York Times. Support is also provided by the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Des Lee Collaborative Vision Community Outreach & Engagement and the Office of Student Life.

This discussion was co-sponsored by the Gender Studies Program. Cate Marquis, editor-in-chief of The Current, served as moderator. Discussion leaders were UMSL faculty members Jerry Dunn, Clinical Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Child Advocacy Center, David Kimball, Professor of political science and Emily Strang, a graduate student in clinical psychology.

More than 40 people, mostly students, filled the room for News at Noon. The event began with presentations by the discussion leaders before the topic was taken up for general discussion.

Copies of two New York Times articles, “Akin Controversy Stirs Up Abortion Issue in Campaign” and “G.O.P. Trying to Oust Akin from Race for Rape Remarks,” were distributed to provide background information.

The controversy followed remarks made by Akin, who is seeking to replace Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. On August 19, Akin told viewers on a St. Louis television news program, KTVI-TV’s “Jaco Report,” that women are unlikely to become pregnant as a result of “legitimate rape.”

“From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy caused by rape,] that’s really rare,” Akin said on the news program while discussing his views on restricting access to abortion. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments sparked outrage from several groups as well as refutation by physicians. They also brought abortion and women’s issues to the forefront of political discussion.

Republican party leaders moved to cut off funds for the Akin campaign and urged Akin to step down as a candidate, which he has so far refused to do.

Some in the media point out that while Republican leaders were quick to withdraw support from the Akin campaign, Akin’s positions on reproductive choice are really no different from most of his Republican House colleagues. Although congressional Republicans denounced Akin’s remarks, House Republicans have largely moved in step with an agenda to roll back abortion access.

Strang presented a brief legal history of rape and offered some other information, noting that one in six women has been a victim of rape or attempted rape. Statistics on rape and sexual assault from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) note that “44 percent of sexual crimes are against victims under the age of 18,” “54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police,” and “two-thirds of assaults are committed by somebody known to the victim.”

“Rape was, throughout history, a crime against property,” Strang said as she began the discussion. “In this case, it was a civil crime against the man that a woman belonged to, whether it be a husband or a father, for thousands of years.  At some point, rape became recognized as a crime against the person of a woman that is now subject to criminal prosecution.”

Dunn explained that there are many different definitions and interpretations of sexual abuse. She went on to define rape as a public health problem that affects children coping with the trauma of being sexually violated.

According to Dunn, the impact often entails significant emotional and behavioral fallout.

“Just because something was not substantiated does not mean that it did not happen,” Dunn said. “With self-blame for the victims, Akin’s remarks sent a message to perpetrators that the sexual abuse of children will be okay since the victims will not be believed. In that sense, the rhetoric of Todd Akin’s remarks has taken root.”

“This projects a ‘war-on-women’ style of politics, where words matter,” Kimball said. “The objective of this war is an agenda established by conservatives who oppose abortion rights without exception. This will often play off of the difficult relationship that party leaders have with a demographic on both sides of the reproductive choice debate, where the general public has ambivalent attitudes on abortion in general.”

The presentations were followed by a wide-ranging discussion. Several UMSL faculty members attended, including Kathleen Nigro, assistant teaching professor of English, Sally Barr Ebest, professor of English and the Director of the Women and Gender Studies Program and Peggy Cohen, Associate Provost, associate professor of education and Academic Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Laura Rand Orthwein, a feminist pioneer and activist who goes by the name Laura X, also attended. She offered a number of comments and also recapped some of her legislative confrontations with Akin.

Akin’s remarks were also subject of the Philosophers’ Forum event the day before the News at Noon discussion. Orthwein was one of a few who attended both discussions.