The Ugly Republican War On Abortion Rights: Redefining Rape

erin 12315This article contains triggers for descriptions and definitions of rape. Reader discretion is advised.

A bill that would have required female victims of rape and incest to report the assault before being able to seek an abortion, was shelved earlier this week by conservative politicians. Some Republican congresswomen objected to the bill’s lack of accommodation for rape victims, and the predominately male-led “pro-life” congress dropped the bill.

This action led to questions from “pro-life” groups, leaders, and voters, about the sincerity of their representatives, evident on Rep. Renee Ellmers’ Facebook page. The wording Renee Ellmers and others were challenging is this:

(ii) the pregnancy is the result of rape, or the result of incest against a minor, if the rape has been reported at any time prior to the abortion to an appropriate law enforcement agency, or if the incest against a minor has been reported at any time prior to the abortion to an appropriate law enforcement agency or to a government agency legally authorized to act on reports of child abuse or neglect.

As the bill was presented, any woman of childbearing age, who was pregnant as a result of sexual assault, would be forced to report said assault before she would be allowed to exercise her constitutional right to an abortion. Which brings us to what many think is the real problem: the majority of conservatives, especially men, have no idea what rape actually is.

As a two-time survivor of sexual assault (date-rape at 16, stranger rape in my 20’s), I know what rape is. So do rape counselors, therapists, ER physicians, and the FBI. The police often do not, prosecutors often do not, a large segment of our society does not, and obviously, many conservatives do not. The definition of rape, in the FBI’s own words:

Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.

No matter how slight. This seems to be the part conservatives, and others, have trouble grasping. I think people who don’t understand rape believe a female rape victim looks something likes this:

A woman crawls through the automatic doors of an emergency room. Her face is cut, swollen, and bleeding. Her clothes are torn, ripped from her body in some places. Her fingernails are broken down to the quick, and defensive wounds cover her arms. She was grabbed by a large man wearing a ski mask in an underground parking garage, thrown onto the hard asphalt behind a pylon, a knife held against her neck. And she was assaulted over and over again.

If you don’t present as the woman above, it seems to many conservatives, you have not been raped. If you have been drugged, if you do not have visible injury, if you were at a party, if you were on a date, if you went to his apartment/dorm room/house, if you’re a prostitute, if it’s a male relative but he denies it, if you were drinking, if you were dressed “provocatively,” to far too many people, it didn’t really happen.

When a person is mugged, they are seen as the victim of a crime. When a person’s car is stolen, they are seen as the victim of a crime. When a person is shot during the commission of a crime, the police do not ask that person why they didn’t move out of the way of the bullet. But when a woman is raped, she is often not viewed as a victim. During the Steubenville investigation, I overheard a woman say if teenage girls didn’t get all “tarted up,” this wouldn’t happen to them. In other words, if young women stopped wearing makeup, and dressing like “tarts,” they wouldn’t be assaulted. Women hear that all the time.

In 2005, a man named Richard Black gave a speech on the Virginia House floor, during which he commented on marital rape. Black said:

I do not know how on Earth you could validly get a conviction of a husband wife rape, when they’re living together, sleeping in the same bed, she’s in a nightie and so forth. There’s no injury, there’s no separation or anything.

There’s no injury. Marital rape is, in fact, real. But to Mr. Black, because a woman is in a “nightie,” and there’s no injury, marital rape does not exist.

Which brings us back to the language about rape in H.R. 36, and why it matters. According to an analysis of Justice Department data by RAINN, 97 out of every 100 rapists never receive punishment. Only 3 out of 100 rapists ever spend time in prison. From RAINN:

While the percentage of rapes reported to police has risen in recent years, a majority — 54% — still are not reported, according to the Justice Department. But increasing reporting alone won’t solve the problem: only about one out of four reported rapes leads to an arrest, and only about one out of four arrests leads to a felony conviction and incarceration.

The reason a crime is reported is the victim believes the police and the justice system are on their side. In the case of rape, that is often not the case. Missoula, Montana is a perfect example of law enforcement and prosecutors, two groups charged with helping victims, failing to do their jobs. When the majority of politicians that have control over both the Senate and Congress do not understand what rape is, it sadly makes sense that to those politicians, crafting a bill that requires rape victims to report their assault is perfectly fine.

Rep. Ellmers did eventually remember who butters her political bread, and on January 21, Tweeted “To clear up any misinformation, I’ll be voting tomorrow to support H.R. 36 – The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protect Act. #prolife” Lindsey Graham , during a speech at Family Research Council‘s ProLifeCon, spoke about H.R. 36, saying in part:

I’m going to do more than bring my bill up. I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem of rape. We just need to find a consensus position on the rape exception. The rape exception will be part of the bill. That’s the Hyde position. We just need to find a way, definitionally, to not get us in a spot about where we’re debating what legitimate rape is. That’s not the cause that we’re in. We’re not here debating legitimate rapes. We’re here talking about saving babies at 20 weeks.

Legitimate rape. A “definitional problem.” No, Lindsey, there is no legitimate rape, nor is there a problem of definition. Rape is rape.

Note: I realize men are victims of rape. Given H.R. 36 is specifically about abortion, this article focuses on female rape victims and survivors. If you have been sexually assaulted-male or female-and you need someone to talk to, please visit

Erin Nanasi

Erin Nanasi is the creator of The Bachmann Diaries: Satirical Excerpts from Michele Bachmann's Fictional Diary. She hates writing about herself in the third person. Erin enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with family. And wombats. Come visit Erin on on Facebook. She also can be found on Twitter at @WriterENanasi.


Facebook comments

  • Arik Bjorn

    Where to begin, Erin? Thank you again for your pointed honesty and willingness to unabashedly tackle critical topics!

  • Cemetery Girl

    Wonderfully written! It is hard to make people get it. We have created a society where women question if they were raped, even if they didn’t want to have sex and expressed this there are many that won’t consider themselves raped. It was just sex they didn’t want to have. I have one friend that got drunk on spring break and was raped by three guys (and was informed that if she wanted to make a report then her underage drinking would also have to be pursued.) Another friend was raped by a guy she had thought was a friend when they decided to watch a movie together (and the reaction that she had it coming because she was willingly alone with someone she thought she could trust sent her into a year long depression.) Yet another friend was raped by an ex-boyfriend after he crawled in through a window (and was told that charges couldn’t be pressed because it was reasonable for him to believe that he would be welcome in her bedroom even though he had to jimmy open the window to get in.) Another had her fiancé (at the time) come home from a night out and found her sleeping in bed, began forcing himself on her, told her she could “make it easy or difficult” but either way there was going to be sex (she ended the relationship.) All were rape. All left the women with emotional trauma even though physically they had little physical signs. All of them had friends, family members, and/or law enforcement tell them that despite knowing they didn’t want to have sex the male hadn’t done anything wrong. Women are intelligent enough to know when they are willing to have sex. Women are also intelligent enough to know who they want to have sex with, because willingness to have sex with one person does not signal willingness to have sex with all.

    • Daniel Plotkin

      To further your point, the willingness to have sex with 100 people gives no rights to the 101st person if the woman says no. In the same thought, the willingness to have sex with someone once or 100 times does not mean they no longer need consent.

      • Cemetery Girl

        Very good points! As is, a woman can change her mind. She can have had sex with someone previously and then not be willing to do so ever again. She can go with someone willing to have sex with them and then change her mind.

  • GenerallyConfused

    No means no, period. Rape is rape, period. Perhaps these people need to actually speak to rape survivors.. oh but that would mean actually speaking to the constituents and having at least a shred of empathy for others.

    • Cemetery Girl

      I’m not sure if listening to survivors of rape would really help. Since only those that were attacked by a stranger, been properly physically beaten, have had a modest sexual history, had thorough enough evidence to secure an arrest and conviction, and all of their other criteria to constitute a “real” rape, I can’t imagine actually talking to survivors would help. We would have to find them survivors that are attractive enough that they shouldn’t be grateful for the sexual attention, yet not so attractive that they can argue the man couldn’t help himself; be modest, not too prudish that they can argue that the act was wanted but regretted, yet also not perceived promiscuous enough that it is unbelievable that she wouldn’t want sex; had to be strong enough to report the rape, yet weak enough that despite her best efforts to fight off her attacker; the attack couldn’t be the result of naive behavior like going out alone or in the evening; the attack must be made by a complete stranger, not someone she’s met in passing and had given an indication she is interested in a sexual relationship by doing things like being friendly, yet still there was enough evidence to track down the stranger and convict (proving the act was criminal). Super easy, right?

      • GenerallyConfused

        Yeah, should be easy like pie.

        Oohh you made my head hurt. lol

      • Cemetery Girl

        Sorry I inflicted pain! Then again, maybe we should blame those that have created these laundry lists of expectations to qualify a “legitimate rape” instead of just saying that unwanted sexual encounters are rape.