Missouri Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin has found himself in some trouble after foolishly stating that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy. (Read more about this here.) Just so you know: his statement is utterly false. Pregnancy can and does occur after rape. In fact, some research has found the pregnancy rate to be higher than consensual sex.
The question I have is where does this idea - that rape rarely leads to pregnancy -- come from? Sadly, he's not the only one to believe this.
First, let's take the word "legitimate" out of the equation right now. Rape is sex against the will of the man or woman it is being forced upon. So let's call it what it is: rape.
The idea that rape can't cause pregnancy, or that it must be very rare, I believe is just another variation of blaming the victim. In other words, if the woman really didn't want sex, then she wouldn't get pregnant. It's a ridiculous thought path to go on, but it wouldn't surprise me if that is at least in part responsible for this relatively common misconception.
The other possible root for this belief is a misunderstanding of how sexual arousal and pregnancy work together, and of how the body reacts to rape.
It's true that the body, when aroused, makes changes during or right before sex to increase the chances of conception. For example, the vaginal canal lengthens (by the cervix moving further up), the sexual organs shift around slightly, and more fertile cervical fluids are released when a woman is aroused, which is meant to boost the odds of conception. Female orgasm may also play a role in boosting the odds of conception, though this is debatable.
However, none of this has anything to do with pregnancy and rape. First of all, all of those changes that occur during sexual arousal are unnecessary to lead to conception. If none of them happen, sex may be less enjoyable or less comfortable, but it won't prevent pregnancy. Not liking sex or not wanting sex is not a form of birth control by any means.
Second of all - and this is the uncomfortable truth - rape can involve unwanted sexual arousal. Orgasm can occur, and the woman's body (or man's body, if he is a rape victim) can react in a similar way to wanted sex. This unwanted arousal often makes rape even more difficult to cope with, as it causes tremendous shame.
However, experiencing orgasm during sexual assault, or experiencing sexual arousal of any sort during rape, doesn't mean the woman wanted it or changed her mind. In other words, it doesn't make it "illegitimate rape." It just means the sexual organs of the body reacted to stimulation, the same way tickling may make a person laugh even if they hate being tickled.
Something else I've seen thrown around is that the trauma of the assault prevents pregnancy. This goes back to the "stress prevents pregnancy" line of thinking. While stress can delay ovulation, most of the time it doesn't. As I've said many times, stress doesn't prevent pregnancy. If trauma and stress prevented pregnancy, then during times of war there would be no babies conceived, which we know isn't how things work.
Plus, ovulation is a complex process. It's not like the body has one switch that either allows ovulation or prevents it. Ovulation involves a symphony of hormones and organs. If the rape occurs the day or so before ovulation, during her most fertile time, chances are nothing is going to stop ovulation from occurring at that point. The inner hormonal triggers have already been set into motion.
Bottom line: Rape can and does lead to pregnancy. It doesn't always lead to pregnancy, but neither does sex that's wanted, or even sex performed with the hopes of conception. Sadly, the fact that there's no scientific background to Akin's comment won't keep people from believing it.
People in general have trouble accepting uncomfortable truths. They want to believe that they would never go to a midnight showing of a movie, so they would never get shot in a mass shooting. They want to believe they never eat processed foods or forget sunscreen, so they will never get cancer. They want to believe they would never have difficulty conceiving because they would never wait "so long" to start a family and they would never let the stress of conception get to them. And they want to believe they would never be raped, because they would never dress "immodestly", or never go to shady neighborhoods, or never date a man who could do such a thing. They want to believe a raped woman could never get pregnant if it was really against her will, because believing otherwise is a difficult reality to accept.
Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment; I'd love to hear from you.