What Todd Akin gets right about rape and evolution

by Alan Cohen

OK, I’m about to piss a lot of people off. Here goes…

US Senate candidate Todd Akin said, “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Todd Akin is an idiot. Tood Akin is ignorant. Todd Akin is insensitive to women. Todd Akin is a religious lunatic. All true. But Tood Akin is also (a little bit) right about rape, and about evolution (which I presume he doesn’t believe in).

Hear me out. I’m not saying no one gets pregnant from rape. I’m not saying we can distinguish between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape legally or morally. But I do think that women’s own perceptions of rape can be more or less severe, and that there are biological mechanisms to reduce the probability of pregnancy following a rape.

There is only one fundamental law of biology, and it is this: whenever you think you understand something, it’s more complex than that. Almost every major principle of biology has later been shown to have exceptions or caveats. One example of a simplistic principle is that once sperm are released, nothing the woman does affects the probability of fertilization. In fact, it is well-established that muscular contractions during a woman’s orgasm help draw in sperm and increase the probability of fertilization. During rape, no orgasm. No orgasm, no contractions. No contractions, lower probability of fertilization.

I do not know if other potential mechanisms for avoiding pregnancy from rape have been discovered, but I would bet they exist. It’s not hard to imagine that acute psychological trauma could release hormones that would reduce the probability of implantation, for example. Natural selection should fairly strongly favor avoidance of pregnancy via rape – the psychological trauma caused by rape is itself presumably the result of strong evolutionary pressure on women to make them avoid rape as much as possible.

And if psychological trauma does reduce the chances of pregnancy (I’m not saying it does, I’m saying it might), it is likely that the degree of trauma affects the probability of getting pregnant: more trauma, less probability of getting pregnant. So then we have the question: is all rape equally traumatic? I have no idea. I’m not a woman and I can’t say. But my guess (please, women, correct me if I’m wrong) is that it would be possible to imagine various rape scenarios, some more traumatic and some less. I’m not saying the different scenarios are morally different or legally different; I’m saying that the woman would perceive them as more or less traumatic. Todd Akin was 100% wrong to try to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate rape, but many commentators may have also been wrong to assert that, biologically speaking, all rape (or all insemination) is equivalent.

So let’s criticize Tood Akin for the many things he is guilty of, not for being wrong about biology when the biology is not necessarily well-known, and when his statement contains at least a grain of truth. And let’s take pleasure in the fact that even this religious nutcase has inadvertently invoked evolution in his understanding of rape!