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Rachel Gurevich

Rape Can and Does Cause Pregnancy, So Why Do People Think Otherwise?

By August 20, 2012

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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.

More on this issue:

Comments
August 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm
(1) BBB says:

Excellent post! Should be required reading of all politicians.

August 21, 2012 at 1:55 pm
(2) chris says:

Saying what he said was “utterly false” is just stupid. You do realize you gave all the scientific facts to back up Akin’s comment then disregarded them with your own opinion. What Akin said should have worded better but what he meant was true. Which side of the argument you’re on simply depends on ignorance/hate versus facts/reason.

August 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm
(3) Doug says:

This is an excellent post, well written and objective. However Chris’s comment above is not so. What Akin said is that rape almost never leads to pregnancy. The implication here is that an abortion exception in the case of rape is not necessary, since pregnancy after rape is so rare. The further implication is that if a woman does become pregnant after a rape she must have become aroused, “wanted it” and therefore it was not a “legitimate” rape. This statement is, in fact, utterly false and highly offensive to women who become pregnant after a rape. I’m a guy and have no standing to comment but can certainly understand the outrage over Akin’s remarks.

August 21, 2012 at 2:12 pm
(4) Ron says:

I sort of agree with the previous person that posted. First, his words were very poorly chosen. We can all agree on that. But I want to know if what he said is true. Obviously, a women can get pregnant while raped. The question is whether the things you mentioned significantly decrease the odds of preganacy. Scientific testing and percentages are all that will answer that question. It did seem as though the things you mentioned backed up Akin’s position, but then you said …yes a woman can get pregnant while raped. He never said they couldn’t. He was saying the body decreased the odds of it happening, and really you didn’t address that. If anything you supported the idea. I don’t know what the truth is, but I’d like to know. The human body is wondrous and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out there’s more truth than not in this.

August 21, 2012 at 2:44 pm
(5) infertility says:

For those wanting research on this, this study found that rape related pregnancy occurs even more frequently than consensual sex.

http://www.springerlink.com/content/wp5cnp43k6byxj4d/

August 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm
(6) Laurie says:

Why are men so clueless. 32,000 rapes a year result in pregnancy.

Hello?

August 22, 2012 at 8:46 am
(7) kit says:

Thank you. Rape can lead to pregnacy. It is beyond the victim”s control.
EIngelligent and excellent article.

August 22, 2012 at 10:10 am
(8) MARYA says:

If you change out the word “forcible” for “legitimate” the comment sounds different and is what I think he meant to say. He may or may not have a “blame the victim” mentality at all. The morning after pill is in every rape kit in hospitals across the U. S. Even in Catholic hospitals they are administered after a test which shows that ovulation has not occurred and ovulation is suppressed and sperm washed out. The US Conference of American Bishops website gives a good explanation of even the most conservative position. Ovulation is suppressed when a woman completely breast feeds her baby, so the idea of the body suppressing ovulation isn’t all that crazy. Posttraumatic stress can cause a woman to skip her period. However should she conceive, and a womsan is only fertile in a 48 hr. period per month, the child she is carrying still has 23 of the woman’s chromosomes. It could traumatize her again to abort and I know someone in my own family who was violently raped and refused morning after pill, even though she morally could use them at that time. More importantly, the California laws are such that the rapist went free because he made it look like date rape–he crashed a party, attacked this beautiful young girl –then took her home, when she had fought him off. The police were angry and she was treated, but they could do nothing–in California. Abortion actually has a way of being the excuse not to get into a messy trial. Just get it over with and move on.

August 22, 2012 at 12:56 pm
(9) TeamSanity says:

If so many American politicians and citizens weren’t so astoundingly ignorant of world history, let alone what’s happening right now in the countries outside our borders, this wouldn’t even be a debate.

The children born of rape in war-torn areas around the world are a recognized humanitarian crisis, and have been for decades – they’ve been an issue for centuries too, but let’s stick to recent history.

Sudan
Rwanda
Serbo-Croatian conflict

Just learn a little bit about something besides US news!

August 22, 2012 at 11:06 pm
(10) Cheeseus Sonofdog says:

Humans don’t rely on rape to reproduce our species. In fact, most females seek out long term relationships and choose their partners. There is a biological reason. The simple fact is that pregnancy is designed to happen more when the woman chooses her partner and time of copulation. Her body reacts differently. her sexual response and hormones are different compared to when she is raped.

Regarding “legitimate”. The question was about abortion being outlawed except for rape. If that happened, it is obvious many women would just cry rape as a loophole. Since government made the restriction, they would make a legal definition of what rape is. They would have a threshold to prove rape was legitimate. Similar to if I go to get welfare and claim I am poor. Government would want me to prove I had a legitimate claim.

August 28, 2012 at 11:16 am
(11) Johnny says:

Thank you for posting this wonderful article, Informative article.

Many years ago my Wife and I experienced difficulties having a child. We were in our 20′s and both in good health so the primary explanation for our difficuties was stress on my wife’s part. Her extreme stress as a result of the situation was understandable. She always wanted to be a Mother. To further add to the stress everybody else around us seemed to be getting pregnant (brothers, sisters, friends and their pets!). When we discussed our dificulties with others the issue of stress/rape was occasionally brought up. Several times people mentioned that the stress that could be hindering our efforts to have a child also made it unlikely that a victim of rape could be impregnated. What shocked us most was that these statements were make by reasonably intellegent but misinformed people ( both men and women) out of ignorance. After all but giving up on ever having a child my wife found out she was pregant (the happy result of a much needed get away weekend and a good bottle of wine!). We now have 3 wonderful children (0ne boy and two girls). My wife and I are consider ourselves to be “personally” pro-life. She would not consider having and abortion under normal circumstances and I wouldn’t want her to. However, the thought that any of my Daughters or any one elses Daughter could be raped is an unbearable thought. The thought from anyone a pregnancy resulting from this heinous act meant that they or any other victim wasn’t actually raped would add further horror to an already horrendous situation. Rape and incest are not choices. They are evil acts that in my opinion are akin to murder. Some say ignorance is bliss. The statements made by the congressmen from MO show that ignorance can also be dangerous. Thank you again for posting this informative and intelligent article. The best way to combat ignorance is with knowlege.

August 29, 2012 at 10:12 am
(12) InterestedObserver says:

Akin clearly did not say pregnancy NEVER results from rape. By your admission, you BELIEVE pregnancy occurs more often from rape, yet you ADMIT that the science is still out on that subject. You wrongly say that there is no scientific evidence that suggests that pregnancy occurs from rape less often than consensual intercourse. There is some evidence that pregnancy occurs from rape less often, although there are studies that suggest otherwise. The point is, there is some evidence that pregnancy occurs less often from rape. It is not an assertion devoid of any scientific proof.

Akin did not say rape is legitimate. Notice his grammatical structure. He used the word “legitimate” as an adjective to clearly distinguish between one form of intercourse an another. In this case he distinguished between true rape allegations and false rape allegations. He did not say “rape is legitimate.” We have read recently about a rape recantation after a man served several years in prison. We have read of rape exonerations based on DNA evidence, after a woman picked a man out of a police lineup and swore under oath that the man raped her.

Akin might have been wrong on the science of why rape causes pregnancy less often, but in the body of your article you mentioned physiological changes that increase the probability of pregnancy in an aroused woman. If things like the shifting of the cervix, the increased lubrication and the orgasmic response are thought to increase the chance of pregnancy, then the corollary of that statement is that when these things are static in rape cases, chances of pregnancy are lower than in consensual sex. You admitted that orgasm happens during rape only sometimes. You certainly didn’t say that orgasm happens during rape as frequently as during consensual intercourse.

August 29, 2012 at 10:29 am
(13) InterestedObserver says:

Here are some links from this website that contradict what this woman is saying. On one hand, she admits that she believes pregnancy from rape is more frequent than pregnancy from consensual intercourse. If that is true, then why would it make sense for women who are seeking to become pregnant do certain things to increase their chances of pregnancy that don’t happen during rape? Here are the links:

The research isn’t clear, but some studies indicate [orgasm] just may give sperm a boost.
http://infertility.about.com/od/sextogetpregnant/tp/A-Complete-Guide-To-Baby-Making-Sex.htm
you are more likely to get pregnant from conception sex that occurs on just three days out of the month.
there is some debate on whether or not the missionary position (man on top) may be best.
No one is certain whether this helps, but there has been some research on IUI treatment

August 29, 2012 at 11:22 am
(14) Rachel says:

To be clear, I don’t “believe” that pregnancy is more likely to occur during rape than a one-off sexual encounter. It’s what research has found, which I linked to above in the post:

http://www.springerlink.com/content/wp5cnp43k6byxj4d/

This blog post is not comparing sex for the purposes to get pregnant, but comparing a one-off sexual encounter to rape. They are obviously too very different things, and yes, sex with the intention to get pregnant (timed for ovulation AND frequent) is SIGNIFICANTLY more likely to lead to pregnancy. That’s not what this blog post, however, is about.

Akin said:

“First of all, 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.

That statement is not true — the body doesn’t have a way to “shut that whole thing down” — and that is what this post was discussing.

September 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm
(15) Tracy says:

This is an exellent article. Very well stated. I think it should be “required reading by everyone! Thank you for writing this.

September 30, 2012 at 1:24 am
(16) Harry says:

Misquoted word “rape”. Why is that word so frequently used out of context so much these days for, when it originally meant to steal from a village?

November 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm
(17) hayley says:

The research that I have found states based on statistics 225-275 rapes ended in pregnancy in the United States each year. So you could say 5 or 6 women from each state that were raped got pregnant. I would say that is a very very low amount. Your article seemed to be based on nothing but your own opinion.

December 29, 2012 at 9:50 pm
(18) ItsAboutTime says:

Does it happen? You should be ashamed to even ask! Does ethnic cleansing ring a bell? In the Bosnian war, rape and the resulting pregnancies were used as a weapon of war and a tool for ethnic cleansing. Early United Nations investigations concluded that: (UN Quote) “For the Serbs, the desire to degrade, humiliate, and impregnate Bosnian Muslim women with ‘little Chetniks’ was paramount and well documented.” (END quote). In addition, women were forced to go full term with their pregnancies and give birth. Many of the reports illustrated the ethnic dimension of the rapes, in that pregnancy was the goal. Is that enough proof for you? Wake up folks.

January 17, 2013 at 12:34 am
(19) Vic says:

“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”

I don’t think that babies being produced during war time proves that stress wouldn’t intervene in the situation of these girls. Although war time is extremely tense and many soldiers experience severe trauma, not everyone in a society at war experiences this level of stress and trauma therefore the fact that all pregnancy isn’t halted doesn’t exactly prove your point. Rape is a much more intense trauma experienced by an individual than how most citizens are affected by war (at least in the States when it is not fought on our homeland, I am NOT saying that no one is affected to this extent – but rather that the entire population isn’t). I agree that this trauma wouldn’t always prevent pregnancy but I don’t think you can make the statement that it never will because pregnancies happen during times of war…

January 25, 2013 at 9:59 am
(20) how do i get pregnant says:

Today, I went to the beachfront with my children.

I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year
old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.
There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She
never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

February 4, 2013 at 2:43 am
(21) Levitra says:

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