One little adjective

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Todd Akin, nominee of the Republican party for a Senate seat in the fairly conservative state of Missouri, was being asked on TV about his opposition to abortion even in the case of rape, and was trying to clarify why he does not want to make rape grounds for an exception to his no-abortion stance. He said:

It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.

It's perfectly clear that by "if it's a legitimate rape" he meant "if it's genuinely a case of rape, legitimately classified as such." But what he said was a telescoping of that: "legitimate rape." And that one little ill-considered nominal — that attributive adjective paired with that noun — has caused a political firestorm. His candidacy may well go up in smoke as a result.

Of course, one could reasonably object to what he probably did mean. That adjunct meaning "if it's genuinely a case of rape" seems to carry an implication that it might not be. He seems to be implying that girls are forever tempting us red-blooded men to give them a bit of hot sexy action and then afterward changing their little minds and trying to pretend we forced them. I think Akin may well have such familiar and demeaning views about the typical rape in the back of his mind (or indeed, in the middle). That would have been quite bad enough to make a large percentage of the women in his audience angry.

The same might be said about his physiological claim, about how "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." It would be excellent news for aggressive boyfriends of reluctant girls if that were true: no pregnancy, so no paternity test, so your word against hers, so you have carte blanche. But as far as I know, lack of consent to intercourse is not capable of triggering a convenient shutdown of the ovulation and fertilization process. This is Language Log, not Obsetrics and Gynecology Log, and I'm not a real doctor, but it sounds to me like he's deluded. The known consequences of the vile practice of mass rape as part of military conquest provide massive evidence that it is false.*

We can also see that Akin completely ignores the issue of the nine months of hell that a raped woman goes through if she is thereby impregnated: he thinks we have to concentrate on "punishment … of the rapist, and not attacking the child," and with stunning insensitivity he has nothing whatever to say about the crime victim. Surely any level-headed moral view should rank a year in the life of a traumatized woman — her right not to be plunged involuntarily into the potentially life-threatening birth and recuperation process — above the civil rights of a blastocyst.

But I review these three potential reasons for being appalled at Akin's views only to point out that the press seems to be ignoring all of them. Everyone is focusing on the phrase "legitimate rape".

Akin is confronting blistering criticism and withdrawal of support (you can check Google News as easily as I; at the time of writing there is even a Wikipedia page about the incident, though it is being considered for deletion). He is being treated as if he had intended to classify some rapes as wrong and others as legitimate and justifiable, which is almost certainly not the case.

"Inexcusable," said Mitch McConnell. And he's the Republican leader in the Senate, a senior member of the party Akin wants to represent in the Missouri race for the Senate. A couple of promises of $5 million donations to his campaign have now been withdrawn, and Democrats are now eager for him to stay in the race, because they can see that Claire McCaskill, possibly the most endangered Democrat in the Senate, could now win.

"Rape is rape," said President Obama, tautologously seizing the propaganda opportunity; "And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we're talking about doesn't make sense to the American people and certainly doesn't make sense to me." No it doesn't, and I don't believe Akin thought it did, but who cares; this is election-year politics!

Akin is in deep trouble. He has already said the fateful words "I am not a quitter," declining to offer his resignation as a candidate, so I'd say he's on the skids. When someone has to make a public announcement that they do not intend to resign, they're generally one to three days away from resigning. Time will tell. (Frankly, I am wondering if I can post these words on Language Log before the resignation news comes in.)

But in the meantime, a warning to candidates for elective office: watch every word, every little attributive adjective. You may not have meant it the way it sounds; they may not even believe you meant it; but if you utter even a two-word phrase that sounds outrageous, that'll be enough rope for them to hang you with. They are playing linguistic Gotcha, and the game is deadly serious, and losers don't get elected. Be careful out there. Get your adjectives checked out by a linguist up front. And stay away from TV studios if you aren't a master of on-the-fly self-editing.


Added later: I've now heard from a couple of Language Log readers who have more experience than I do in Akin-watching. The first points out that Akin in fact has a long history of questioning the legitimacy of rape claims. He also has a history of trying to redefine the seriousness of rape by distinguishing "forcible" from "non-forcible" rape. "Under Akin's forcible/non-forcible definitions," says my correspondent, "my friend whose father molested her for 5 years wouldn't be eligible for an abortion because he didn't punch her in the face first." Akin has also raised concerns that marital rape laws would make it too easy for women to falsely accuse men of rape, and has authored legislation that implied that additional violence is needed to justify rape charges. The general drift of his intent seems to have been to downplay the seriousness of "non-forcible" rapes so that he can prevent more low-income rape victims from using government programs to seek abortions.

On the point about whether women's bodies automatically protect themselves from pregnancies due to violent intromission, my correspondent cites a figure of 5% of rapes by intercourse resulting in pregnancy, which seems to be not very different from the numbers for consensual intercourse. She adds that "it would be nice if someone who has spent as much time attempting to legislate rape as Rep. Akin has was working off of more than wishful thinking. If he's had time to author legislation about the topic, he's certainly had plenty of time to think more rationally about these issues, and if he hasn't heard the arguments from the other side, it's because he didn't care to listen." Given his record, she concludes, "it doesn't look like his problems stem from speaking off the cuff."

The other person who wrote to me notes that Akin has himself clarified that he actually was qualifying different types of rape: according to ABC News, "When asked by Huckabee to clarify what he meant by 'legitimate rape,' Akin said, 'I was talking about forcible rape and it was absolutely the wrong word'." By his own testimony, therefore, he used "legitimate" not to mean "genuine" (as I conjectured above), but to mean "forcible" — i.e., accompanied by actual physical violence going beyond the seizure, restraint, and non-consensual intromission that are inherent in rape.

My point above, about the political perils of a mistaken adjective choice, is still sound; but it looks like the error was not the one I conjectured ("legitimate" for "legitimately so called" hence "genuine"), but a considerably stranger one: He said "legitimate" but claims to have meant "with concomitant grievous bodily harm". That's both stranger and in some ways nastier and less defensible. Women should not have to put their lives at risk, by insisting on getting physically beaten and injured, just to keep themselves eligible for the civil right of not having to unwillingly bear the offspring of a violent felon.

*As of 9 p.m. on August 21, I'm watching the political programs on American cable TV, where they have of course contacted real doctors for an opinion (yes, the gynecologists' view is that Akin's can't-get-pregnant thesis is completely nuts), and they are interviewing Cristen Hemmings, the Mississippi rape victim who is now an activist against rape and against those who minimize rape. But still Akin has not dropped out of the Senate race.

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