If a woman reports that a man raped her and later discovers she is pregnant from that attack, was it really rape? GOP Senate nominee Todd Akin of Missouri raised this issue in August in a television interview, during which he discussed his controversial anti-choice platform that permits no exceptions to allow an abortion in the case of rape. Akin claimed, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] that’s really rare… If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” National news outlets, such as CBS News, the Washington Post, and The New York Times publicized Akin’s absurd comments as well as the scientific evidence refuting his specious assertions.

From Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, Isagoge Brevis (1522)

From Jacopo Berengario da Carpi’s Isagoge brevis (1522). The woman has had her uterus removed and it is lying on the table. She gestures to it, proclaiming in the text that “you see how the neck [of the uterus]… resembles a penis.”

His comments left many people asking, “Where did he come up with this? What doctors was he talking to? And what exactly constitutes a ‘legitimate’ rape?” But if Akin had lived several hundred or even two thousand years ago, he would have had plenty of company in his beliefs about women’s bodies and sexual violence against women. Greek and Roman medical writers, for example, put forward many ideas about women’s bodies and health, though they clearly lacked knowledge and understanding. As Thomas Laqueur Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1992).has theorized, these authors believed men and women shared the same body parts, just in different places and with women’s organs endowed with lesser degrees of perfection. Hippocrates of Cos, a Greek physician from the fourth century BCE, wrote that women’s bodies could expel sperm. From: On Generation and On The Nature of the ChildThe woman does so on her own initiative. If men and women had the same sexual organs and men clearly expelled sperm, women must do so also, although in a different manner. Galen of Pergamum, a second century CE physician who interpreted Hippocrates’ writings, maintained that a woman needed to reach orgasm in order to conceive. Since naturally a woman would not enjoy herself while being raped, she would not be able to conceive.

Aetius of Amida agreed that desire was necessary for the conception of children. He claimed it was a “hindrance to conception when an unwilling woman is to have intercourse with her husband, for a woman who is in love makes the seed fit together and because of this intercourse with passion produces children much faster.” As historian Peter Brown has observed, this belief was meant to discourage coercion of women into sex. Of course, the argument was used against women as well. In the second century CE, the physician Soranus of Ephesos acknowledged instances where women had become pregnant after claiming to have been raped. He explained it with the old adage that the woman must have really wanted it.  He wrote, “even if some women have gotten pregnant from rape, we should rather say in their case the sensation of appetite was in fact present in them, but was blocked by mental judgment.”

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer, 3rd-2nd Century BCE, Greek via The Met.

What is important to remember about these male medical writers is that they are trying to understand how biology works In these ancient medical texts, the authors discuss abortions and contraceptive means, which would seem to be unnecessary if women’s bodies were capable of expelling sperm. Hippocrates, in his work On the Nature of Women, prescribed a thick drink of beans and water in order to prevent conception for one year. Soranus recommended that women grind pomegranate peel with oak gall to apply as a suppository after menstruation to prevent conception.using the best information they had available. Many of the texts were written in the context of long-standing debates about particular medical topics. For example, Galen’s treatise On Semen was written in response to Aristotle’s argument that sperm is an active agent setting into motion the processes of menstruation and conception; Galen believed it was a material element in the creation of offspring. Now of course, Galen was arguing a case and has a particular opinion, but this reveals that there were a number of different schools of thought on various medical issues circulating in the ancient world.

While the Greco-Roman physicians lacked modern scientific tools and methods, they also lacked vital practical experience. Other women—either female physicians (iatrinē or medica) or midwives (maia or obstetrix)— exclusively handled women’s healthcare. Unfortunately these women were never able to record their own observations and experiences. Other than some fragments of lyric poetry, we have little writing from ancient Greek or Roman women.

When men wrote about women’s bodies, what we see represented are ideologies about women and concern for only one aspect of a woman: her reproductive system. Male authors wrote these texts for a male audience. They address such topics as how female anatomy differed from male, the best time for conception, ways to enhance fertility, the stages of pregnancy, and how to ensure a child resembled his father. In Greek ideology, a woman served no other purpose than to produce children. The myth of Pandora as recorded by the Greek poet Hesiod (8th Century, BCE) stated in no ambiguous terms that woman was man’s punishment from the gods. Pandora released all evil from a jar, in which only hope remained. That hope was the promise of future generations. Aristotle maintained that he did not see what possible use women could be to men if the process of generation were eliminated. Soranus declared that men married women for the sake of children and succession, not happiness or pleasure. Hippocrates, further demonstrating this focus on women’s reproductivity, declared that the cause of all women’s troubles was the womb. Hippocrates’ Places in Human Anatomy In a condition termed by modern scholars as the “wandering womb syndrome,” all ailments in a woman were caused by her womb detaching and floating about her body. The technical term for this condition was hysteria, and the ancient medical writers wrote about it obsessively. It caused everything from leg cramps to suffocation. For the ancients there was one cure: get the girl married (if she wasn’t already) and pregnant. Hippocrates’ On Virgins

For over a thousand years, medieval physicians and scholars generally accepted the medical theories of the great physicians of the classical era. We must remember that the microscope had not been invented to allow for a closer look at egg and sperm. Furthermore, the Roman Church, with the Council of Tours in 1163, prohibited human dissection, based on its belief that humans would be resurrected bodily at the Last Judgment. Medieval doctors had little opportunity or ability to refine the theories of an Aristotle or a Hippocrates.

Lucretia, by Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1621)

Lucretia, by Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1621). Portrays the emotional torment of Lucretia before she commits suicide as a result of having been raped. Lucretia was a well-born woman living in the sixth century BCE. She was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the King of Rome, Tarquin. The outcry over her rape helped topple Tarquin rule and establish the Roman Republic. The artist, Gentileschi, was also a victim of rape. She brought her rapist to trial and he was convicted.

The humanist spirit behind the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, however, breathed new life into anatomical studies, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, despite the Roman Church’s censure. Scholars and scientists such as the Belgian Andreas Vesalius and the Englishman William Harvey dissected human cadavers and examined the workings of the human body. The Inquisition sentenced Vesalius to death in 1564 for violating the Roman Church’s prohibitions with his public dissections. William Harvey, living in a Protestant country, enjoyed the legal freedom granted by London’s Royal College of Physicians in 1565 to dissect human cadavers.

But while scientists in this era generally delighted in overturning the accepted medical wisdom of the ancients with their anatomical discoveries, they often fell short in their efforts to apply science to their understandings of women’s bodies. For example, although dissections would quite clearly reveal that women possessed different types of sexual organs than men, anatomists such as Vesalius failed to see what was in front of their eyes, continuing to refer to Fallopian tubes as semen conductors to the uterus and ovaries as “female testes.” They suspended reason and disregarded evidence because they assumed they already knew about women and reproduction. Instead, they used “science” to confirm old views about men’s biological superiority and that women’s pleasure was necessary for conception to occur. Their application of what was then “modern science” gave the older ideas more legitimacy for having been “proven.”

The impact to rape victims’ ability to bring their attackers to justice because of this “scientific” failure can be seen in legal texts from this era that deal with sexual assault. According to Fleta (c.1290), one of the earliest texts on English Common Law—the system on which the U.S. legal system was originally based—although a woman might allege rape, “if, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman’s consent she could not conceive.” Such standards were present in legal texts until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the English legal-medical text, Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1814), Samuel Farr claimed that, “without an excitation of lust or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Even if a woman claimed she was raped, conception exposed her lie.

Such views were also present in wider society; the political philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau represented this view in Book V of Emile. According to Rousseau, men no longer believed in rape. Rape, he asserted, rarely occurred because rape is not necessary. “For the attacker to be victorious, the one who is attacked must permit or arrange it.” A woman could repulse a man’s desire if she really wanted to. Rousseau, for example, claimed that if a woman alleged a rape occurred in town, of course she would not be believed. Why not? Because if she had really been raped, she would have cried out, someone would have heard her, and the attack would have been halted. Everyone knew such things, he claimed. And having been legitimated by such a revered theorist as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, such ideas had even more power for having been “proven.”

Because of these lingering scientific and cultural views, it became difficult to prosecute rape and gain redress for victims. Only the most horrific cases came to trial. But a small number of scientists, physicians, and legal professionals formed the vanguard that would eventually overturn the medical and legal misunderstandings of female reproduction, conception, and rape that Western society inherited from the classical era. Revolutionaries, such as the seventeenth-century physician Helkiah Crooke, were few in number, harshly criticized, and virtually forgotten in history. Crooke’s anatomy text, Microcosmographia (1615), proposed a novel concept: that female sexual organs were not simply imperfect, differently located versions of men’s. Furthermore, Crooke suggested that women did not need to orgasm for conception to occur. Few listened at the time. The Bishop of London harshly criticized Microcosmographia, describing the chapters on reproductive anatomy and conception as “indecent.” He called on the College of Physicians to repress the book.

Among legal understandings, the 30 published editions of Richard Burn’s manual of legal practices for local judicial officers, Justice of the Peace, allows us to see the slow evolution of changes taking place in ideas about rape and conception. The 1756 edition perpetuated the same old standard—“A woman cannot conceive unless she doth consent,”—taken originally from ancient Greeks and Romans but perpetuated by English Common Law. Burn, however, may signal the beginnings of change, as he pointed out that some contemporary jurists found the precedent dubious. By the nineteenth century, editions of this text had evolved to propose that it would be difficult to find anyone who had even the most rudimentary of educations who still believed pregnancy ruled out the possibility of rape.

Yet we still hear such ideas in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Who really got raped? Who gets to judge if a rape is “legitimate” and on what criteria? Although Akin ultimately apologized for his comments, saying he misspoke and that he has “deep empathy” for women who have been raped, he appears to have honestly believed in his original views about the relationship between conception and rape based on what he perceived as credible information from medical professionals. Washington Post political blogger Aaron Blake noted that Akin is far from alone. Similar views have been expressed by a federal judge nominated by George W. Bush Judge James Leon Holmes and Idaho State Senator Chuck Winder and by conservative state lawmakers in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Idaho.  What is perhaps the most troubling aspect of Akin’s and other lawmakers’ comments is the unacknowledged attitudes behind such statements that seek to discount many women’s experiences of rape, echoing Rousseau’s perspective from centuries ago. As long as we choose to make distinctions between what we as outside observers classify as  “legitimate” rapes and some other, presumably less serious, type of rape (one wonders what would we call this other category), we must ask ourselves how far we’ve really come as a society.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.

  • boisean

    The 16th century failure to see the obvious seems to be enduring trend in the evangelical attmept to discredit science, whether by creationism or misogonistic attempts to legitimize rape. Thanks for the context.

  • Amanda Johnson

    Excellent article and provides a useful historical take although depressing since some of the views still stand despite evolutions in technology, science, and common sense.

  • EmilyWalton

    So nice to read a research-based article that explores this topic and adds some historical context. Thanks Blue Review!

  • marbella

    Please send this article to Todd Akin. He would be pleased to know that his ignorance has a long history and was even sanctified by Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and many of Idaho’s Republican legislators.

  • Hanako Wakatsuki

    Very interesting! Enjoyed the historical context and saddened by the thought that some people still promote this antiquated thought…

  • Seth Ashley

    Excellent historical context. So important to understanding where our ideas come from and how they change (or don’t).

  • I am so glad I followed the link from Addicting Info to this story. I could not stop reading the historical record of the Classical and Renaissance thinkers who’s theories continue polluting to this day.

  • Thank you for putting men like Aiken–whose belief system is as antiquated as our discussion of “Legitimate” rape should be–in his place.

  • odie11

    It is interesting to me that the author calls Rep Akin’s comments “specious,” because that is exactly what I think of the author’s efforts as well. When Akins said “legitimate rape,” he was referring to “assault rape” or what most people now call “rape-rape.” In this respect Mr. Akins was pretty accurate. (Spoiler Alert: I am neither a fan nor supporter of Akin and I am pro-abortion). Anyone with any intimate knowledge of women having difficulty conceiving and fertility experts’ admonitions about mood, stress, mental attitude and women putting more pressure on themselves to conceive will recognize some truth to Akin’s comments. When you consider that women are only fertile a set number of days, and add to this the fact that a woman has to be attacked at the right time, Akin’s comments are not THAT far out of line. And, when one considers that there are no truly definitive statistics on this subject it is perplexing that someone in academia would use his (Akin’s) comments as a lead on an article like this. The reality is that Akin’s comments have little if anything to do with the historical data on women’s reproductive perspectives from a medical historical standpoint. The two are totally unrelated. This tirade sounds more like a Women’s Studies hatchet piece than it does as an objective analysis of reproductive medical history. The author should also point out that historically, bleeding was also considered medically beneficial, and this was for both men and women. So to imply that it is essentially the inherent gender bias that caused physicians to perceive of women in this manner is hardly objective.
    Because of the intense politicalization of rape, legally, many states have begun using the terms Sexual Assault I, II and III. And, this politicalization has caused both the average citizen and jurors to be completely confused by the often times contradictory nature of the issue of rape. Because of rape’s highly emotionally charged crime status, both men and women see rape from completely different perspectives. Even the accusation of rape can vary dramatically from one state to the other. For example in a few states in the USA, one can be charged with rape without getting within five feet of a ” victim.” A man can be accused of rape without a woman even giving the slightest hint of resistance. This would not conform to the definition of rape even 25 years ago. The average citizen’s definition of rape is someone taking a woman and dragging her into a dark alley or hallway and putting a knife to her head. Unfortunately the legal definition of rape can be one in which a prostitute is not paid–or short changed–and that constitutes rape–even though she willfully and consciously wanted to engage in sex. A wife wanting to get even with her husband can accuse him of rape–the fact that having sex for both husband and wives is considered by law as a “conjugal duty” only exacerbates the confusion. Or, a 17 year old having sex with a 15 year old is also considered rape even when she consents because she is under age and therefore cannot give consent–unless of course she becomes impregnated at which point she is “magically” considered and adult and CAN give consent to an abortion without parental consent. And today, we have even gone so far in politicizing rape as to have the male “transgressor” be completely responsible for the sex act. In the ongoing case of Julian Assange, uber feminist Naomi Wolf made an aggressive defense of the Australian in that his implying that he was wearing a condom but really wasn’t prior to entering his two girlfriends (that filed charges in Sweden) did not constitute actual rape–even though swedish law implies that he did but was rather politically motivated by the USA in order to be able to extradite him to the USA for criminal prosecution. And the efforts of both women to retract their initial charges gives substantial credit to the charge that rape is no longer about subjecting a woman to a male’s aggression, but rather a political tool to obtain a gender advantage.
    But what is most egregious about this article and what it really does highlight is the growing lack of both respect and credibility that academia has with the American people as a whole. To pretend this highly manipulative and one sided article is unbiased is what causes the average citizen rail against the lazy, self serving, inept and incompetently facile standards of today’s academics. Unfortunately this article panders to the lowest common denominator of both sexes–it pretends to be objective from a woman’s perspective and it reinforces the belief in males ( and many females) that academia has become so corrupted when it comes to issues of gender, that it cannot be trusted to be objective, fair and balanced. And in the end, academicians that ARE interested in an objective, fair and balanced approach are mixed in with those that are only looking for self serving advantage and when that happens, everyone looses. It is the responsibility of fair minded academicians to call out these one sided articles that masquerade as objective and separate themselves from those wishing to promote their own agendas.. .

  • Greg Hampikian

    Great history, and an engaging piece.

  • naadirasahra

    Interesting article but Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist was actually acquitted.