Todd Akin, Professor Tucker, and Legitimate Medieval Rape

“The female body may not be able to shut down conception, but we can at least shut down Akin’s wild claims.”

If you study at a liberal arts college like Wesleyan, you’ve probably already recoiled in disgust at Representative Todd Akin’s comments last week regarding pregnancy and rape.

But if you teach history and science in society at a small liberal arts college like Wesleyan, you’ve probably already unpacked analyzed the decidedly medieval roots and implications of Representative Todd Akin’s curiously antiquated theories of pregnancy and rape. You may have even gotten the New York Times to publish it as an op-ed. 

Enter Professor Jennifer Tucker, who smartly pointed out last week that Todd Akin’s views of rape are in fact quite consistent with science—as long as you’re living in 12th century Germany. Akin, of course, suggested that women are unlikely to become pregnant from rape, because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Turns out this view is intriguingly consistent with what was preached by Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century:

During the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen, the head of a convent in the German Rhineland, a prolific writer and a mystic visionary, argued that parents’ feelings toward each other and the moment of conception determined a child’s temperament and character. She also expanded on the Aristotelian model of hotness: “When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed,” she wrote. “And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.”

Hildegard, Wikipedia claims (sorry, Prof. Tucker!), has since become a “figure of reverence within the contemporary New Age movement,” as well as a seemingly paradoxical figure among feminist scholars. Today, Hildegard even has an asteroid named after her. Beat that, Todd Akin.

Anyway, that is to say, Hildegard’s views rendered pregnancy through rape a scientific impossibility—or at least a great rarity:

Both men and women had to have orgasms because it was only in that heat that new people could be conceived — women needed to experience pleasure in order for fertilization to occur. By the 13th century, in legal terms, women who were raped and became pregnant were presumed not to have been raped.

Sound familiar? Fast forward a few centuries, and if that doesn’t remind you of Akin, English doctor Samuel Farr certainly will:

 Legal scholars of the time did not always agree on this matter. The English physician Samuel Farr, in his 1785 book “Elements of Medical Jurisprudence,” declared that “if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated” on a woman, “it is not likely that she would become pregnant.”

Not so fast, Tucker warns. Such a theory was considered outdated by the 19th century, when an Arkansas appellate judge declared the notion “quite exploded.” Today, it is inexcusably antiquated, and Tucker’s closing barb is appropriately sharp:

That Mr. Akin sits on the House Science and Technology Committee suggests, perhaps, that the Republican Party might as well recruit some historians of medieval and Victorian science as its future science policy advisers. The female body may not be able to shut down conception, but we can at least shut down Mr. Akin’s wild claims.

Tucker is an associate professor of history, associate professor of science and society, and chair and associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies. Her spring course on Modern Britain sounds totally awesome. 

[New York Times]