‘Let It Be Unto Me’: Akin, Rape, and the Early Church

“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… I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), on KTVI-TV, August 19, 2012

When the Akin story broke, the third thing that went through my mind (right after “WhuuuuuuuuuuuutIcan’teven!!!” and “*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk* Ow! Dang.”) was “Wow, I wish I could talk to esteemed scholars Thomas Laqueur and Virginia Burrus about this—except I don’t know them at all.”

(No, really. One of the side effects of a humanities Ph.D. is that your inner mental pinball machine slowly sheds its flashy chutes and blinky lights, and instead acquires a large trough in the middle labeled “Library” where your shiny mind-ball goes and sits quietly. That’s not a judgment, just an FYI.)

As it turns out, UC Berkeley historian Thomas Laqueur, and Virginia Burrus, Professor of Early Church History at Drew University, are both very generous souls who kindly received my inquiry, and “sat down” with RD for an email conversation.


RD: I’d like to begin by asking both of you: What were your first thoughts—or perhaps I should say first coherent thoughts, if your reactions were like mine and involved some initial sputtering and spitting of coffee—when you heard about Todd Akin’s remarks?

Thomas Laqueur: Good god, I thought, seventeenth-century forensic medicine is alive and well in Missouri. There must be a folk tradition that quietly perpetuates these views beneath the surface of science.

Virginia Burrus: As soon as I began hearing the news reports of Akin’s remarks, I was haunted by similarities with the thought of the late Roman theologian Augustine. I hasten to say that I would not want to compare Akin in any general way to Augustine, who was a brilliant theologian and writer, accolades I would not by any means assign to Akin! The comparison I have in mind is quite specific, and that is Augustine’s discussion at the very beginning of his famous work City of God of the rape of Lucretia, a traditional Roman tale that he revisits in the context of real or anticipated wartime rapes of women of the Christian community.

Lucretia was a Roman woman renowned for her extreme virtue, known to have killed herself after she was raped in an effort to restore her honor by making it clear that she in no way colluded with her rapist. That itself is sufficiently telling testimony to the burden that rape places on its victims! But Augustine—in one of his lowest moments—makes it worse. For what he does is essentially to blame the victim nonetheless, much as Akin seems to do. He suggests (while acknowledging that only Lucretia herself could have known this) that Lucretia must have been “so enticed by her own desire that she consented to the act” (City of God 1:19). And in this she is, in Augustine’s eyes, condemned.

Augustine was defending himself in the face of critics who asked how it was that Christian women could suffer rape if God was looking after them. We should question his mode of defense! In so doing, we should also question Akin’s assumption that the victim is to be blamed—a stance that has arguably been taken even without the extenuating wartime circumstances that shaped Augustine’s response (never mind its utter absurdity with regard to biological facts known by most women in this country).

Surely Lucretia did not “consent to the act” of her own rape, which led to her suicide. And surely no woman who is raped consents in any way to the conception of a child. To suggest that she has the power to resist or prevent this is not only biologically absurd but also morally wrong and deeply offensive.

RD: Dr. Laqueur, you open your book Making Sex with the story of an “interpretive chasm” separating two versions of the same story; the first told in 1752 and the second in 1836. A monk is told to keep watch over the body of a girl whose family believes has recently died, but instead forces himself upon her sexually. In the morning, it turns out that she is not dead, but was just in a coma. In due course it becomes clear that she is pregnant.

In the 1752 version it is assumed that the monk must have known she was alive, because she could not have conceived without experiencing some sort of evident sexual pleasure. In the 1836 version, the story is meant to show just the opposite: that, for women, orgasm is irrelevant for conception.

You go on to argue that this interpretive chasm exists because of two different understandings of sexual difference: a one-sex model in which women are somewhat unfortunately rearranged men (so, being the same, all parties must experience evident sexual pleasure in order to conceive) and a two-sex model in which women are the opposite of men in every sense (in which case a woman’s orgasm is irrelevant). What should we make of the fact that Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape” seem to evoke the one-sex model? Is this representative of wider cultural trends?

Laqueur: I think that Akin’s remarks reflects less the one sex model per se than one of its components: the idea that the body is always open to the world and its processes are influenced directly by outside stimuli. So a pregnant woman seeing a strawberry might convey a birthmark [to] her child; a woman standing over the grave of someone who died of some sort of uterine disease can come down with it herself; and a woman who is truly raped will close down—will certainly not feel the sexual stimulation necessary to conceive.

RD: Dr. Burrus, your work explores the ways in which ancient understandings of gender have a lot to do with the architecture of classical Christian theology—even in areas that most people wouldn’t immediately suppose. Akin is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America and has a master of divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, so we can assume that he has been formed by the Calvinist/Reformed tradition as well as the more recent development of American evangelicalism.

Can you connect any theological dots between the theologians you focus on and the theological ideas we see playing out here—both in Akin’s remarks and the reactions?

Burrus: What strikes me is both the connections and the disconnections. Certainly classical trinitarianism tends to suppress the maternal role, with its focus on the begetting Father and the only-begotten Son who is the perfect image of that Father. (The ambiguously-gendered Holy Spirit hovers in the wings.) The Virgin Mary brings the maternal back into the theological picture, one might say, especially in so-called Alexandrian traditions that emphasize the union of human and divine natures in Christ in such a way that Mary may be seen not only as the mother of the human but also the “God-bearer” or “Theotokos.”

However, Calvinist and other Reformation traditions reject the veneration of Mary and are inclined to see her as the mother of the human but not of the God. I rehearse these well-known theological doctrines to point out that the Christian theological tradition may collude in the downplaying of the maternal figure, who becomes a mere receptacle for male insemination. Thus, Akin is quick to protect the rights of the unborn child, who should not be “punished,” and [he] will in the case of rape insist on punishment of the father, or rapist, but he does not seem to focus on what this means for the sexually violated involuntary mother. It seems she is expected to say, like Mary in Luke’s Gospel when the angel Gabriel announces her unexpected pregnancy, “Let it be unto me according to your word.” [1:38]

Yet at the same time that Akin seems to downplay the female figure and to render her passive, he also imbues her with astonishing powers—namely, the ability to prevent conception in the case of “legitimate” rape. (As I indicated in my prior comment, the implication is that if she does not prevent conception, then it wasn’t “legitimate” rape; that is, she in some way colluded with her rapist.)

To my mind, this is inconsistent with the way that gender, the erotic, and procreation figure in the theological tradition—which is not in itself problematic, but in this case turns out to be hugely problematic indeed, from a feminist perspective! There is something especially gratuitous in the offense.

One could nonetheless discern possible influence of the Christian theological tradition even here, I suppose, if we think of the emphasis placed on the figure of the Virgin Mary, and on virginal figures more generally, as symbols of the closed nature of the church, defended against heresy or paganism—or whatever else might seem to present a threat.

So there the female body carries a huge burden of representation: her ability to protect the boundaries of her body, and to maintain her purity, reflects the church’s ability to do the same. In the case of a raped woman, we cannot deny that a boundary has been violated, so then we have to imagine that in another sense it has not really been violated; conception has not occurred.

RD: Is there anything that isn’t currently part of the election-year conversation about religion, gender, sex, and politics—or which is there, but isn’t prominent—that you wish would become more prominent? What do you think it would be nice if more people understood?

Burrus: I wish there were more awareness of the complexity and diversity of religious understandings of gender and sexuality, and that the Christian religious right did not seem to control the discourse so completely. Here I have tried to bring out some of what I view as the more troubling aspects of the Christian theological tradition, because it is these that haunt us, especially but not only in the wake of Akin’s recent remarks.

But there are also many positive resources, of course. Augustine himself, however ambivalent the results were, was in his moment trying to defend the dignity of rape victims by insisting that the physical rape itself could not implicate them in sin, that sin is a matter of the will or desire, not of physical defilement, as some argued. He did not want these women to make martyrs of themselves as Lucretia had.

Beyond that, the Christian tradition is rooted in a rejection of facile “family values,” however surprising that may seem to some. There was from the start a strong ascetic tendency that was also a countercultural tendency, resisting the centrality of marriage and childbearing in defining social roles and also in circumscribing desire, and in this it was especially liberating for women, but not only women.

Laqueur: I would like to see the Democratic Party embrace the idea that gender equality is an aspect of individual rights more generally, and that these rights are good both for individuals and for society. I would also like it to acknowledge that civil rights for gay people is both radical and too long in coming.