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.


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