Thursday, August 23, 2012

Some Comments on the Medieval Nature of Todd Akin's Assertion about "Legitimate" Rape And Conception

Recent articles and op-ed pieces in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have noted that Rep. Todd Akin's (R-MO) comments about the medical implausibility of a woman becoming pregnant from a forced sexual encounter are based in medieval ideas about female sexuality and anatomy. Vanessa Heggie, in The Guardian, points to a 13th century English legal text, Fleta (in which I am not expert), which states "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." Heggie goes on to cite a late 18th century text on medical jurisprudence and further asserts that both texts were grounded in a biological understanding of human sexuality called the one-sex body. Jennifer Wheeler's article, appearing in the HuffPo a day after Heggie's piece appeared in The Guardian, repeated Heggie's claims about Fleta and Dr. Samuel Farr's book on medical jurisprudence. James Taranto, in the WSJ, wrote a piece titled "Middle Ages Man," but none of the sources he mentions or quotes are from the medieval period (one piece, an op-ed in the LA Times, refers only to examples from colonial America).

The initially striking thing about these pieces is that they assert a medieval world-view by relying on evidence from outside the medieval period. With the exception of Fletus, none of the examples are medieval. Heggie, by invoking the idea of the one-sex body and genital homology, mistakenly ascribes an idea that was present in late 16th and 17th centuries to the medieval period. Yet, several scholars have demonstrated that the one-sex body was not a commonly held belief among medical authorities in the medieval period. This reliance on non-medieval sources to reveal a "medieval" set of ideas is a long-standing trope of medievalism: that anything that is backward, or unscientific, or cruel can be termed "medieval." It also betrays a misunderstanding of the historical period called the Middle Ages. It does not extend into the 18th century (or the 17th, or even the 16th in some places). 

Perhaps more relevant to Todd Akin's ideas about rape and conception are 12th century theologians. William of Conches, a theologian and philosopher, puzzled over the reason why forced intercourse could result in a pregnancy. "Although raped women dislike the act in the beginning, in the end, however, from the weakness of the flesh, they like it. Furthermore, there are two wills in humans, the rational and natural, which we often feel are warring within us: for often what pleases the flesh displeases reason. Although, therefore, a raped woman does not assent with her rational will, she does have carnal pleasure" (Dragmaticon philosophiae 6.8.10). This seems to be more in line with Akin's beliefs. If a woman conceives after being raped, then she must have liked it, which means that it wasn't really rape at all. Akin privileges theology over science (after all, many acts of unprotected consensual sex do not result in pregnancy, and plenty of embryos are created in vitro).

I am sometimes asked what a person from the Middle Ages would be most surprised by if they time-traveled to our world (no lie). One of things that I think would be most shocking for a medieval person to discover is that autonomy, economic opportunity, education, and participation in public life have been extended to many more kinds of people than in the medieval period. Akin's views are medieval, but not in the way Heggie, Wheeler, Taranto, and others have asserted. They are based on his ideas of who should hold authority over women's bodies and whence that authority derives (from theology, not science or personal autonomy). I love the Middle Ages, but I don't want to live there.


Jen B. said...

Your last sentence is so true. Thanks for this great summary of the issues!

Drvh said...

I realise that Laqueur’s one-sex model is vigorously debated, and it’s clear that the simplistic version of it doesn’t hold for either the medieval or early modern period (hence the reference to Crooke!). I actually had a sentence or two on the topic in an original draft, but took the decision to remove it because it seemed irrelevant to the main thrust of the post and very distracting; I think that sort of historiographical debate can be confusing unless it’s the focus of the piece.

Any 500 word blog post, especially one for a general audience, is inevitably going to rely on a bit of simplification, and I am still pretty happy with the tone and the gist; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that it was a commonly held popular and medical view (and _clearly_ a legal position) that women’s orgasms were important for conception, and that this therefore had an impact on claims of rape (not to get into the fact that the definition of rape changed considerably over the time period!).

Following from this, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that one source for this belief was the idea that male and female sexual organs were variants of one another, and had homologous features, such as ejaculation and seed (and the second link in the blog post is to a paper on the medieval origins of that belief). That doesn’t necessarily translate into the simple ‘one-sex’ model, exactly as proposed by Laqueur, but I’m hard pushed to find a better short hand to explain the concept in general to an audience who by and large won’t have read him (and probably never will).

I was careful not to say that *everyone* believed this (and careful not to say it was necessarily an ancient belief, as I know the scholarship on that is also fraught!) but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest I was miles out with my interpretation! I can’t speak for the later reworking of my piece by journalists elsewhere…


E. R. Truitt said...

Vanessa, thanks for your comment. I didn't suggest that you were "miles out" with your interpretation. However, I think that Park and Cadden (along with Green and, I think, van der Lugt, among others) have convincingly demonstrated that the one-sex model was *not* commonly held in the medieval period by medical authorities and writers. Indeed, the ancient medical references that Laqueur cited in _Making Sex_ were known only piecemeal and did not circulate widely in the Middle Ages, and were instead part of a renewed interest in Galen in the 16th and 17th centuries (as Park outlines). You can also look at the essay review of the book that Park and Nye wrote; it appeared in The New Republic (18.2.1991): 53-57. It's inaccurate to say that genital homology was a commonly held *medical* belief in the medieval period.

Furthermore, I think it's a distraction from the larger point you seemed to be making. It was medieval theologians and jurists (as indeed, you pointed out in your original Guardian post and in your comment above) who were far more vocal and explicit about making the connection between female pleasure and conception, and the attendant consequences for the legal definition of rape. That seems much more resonant for thinking about Akin's claims, as he's clearly using theological ideas, rather than scientific (or medical) facts, to support his legislative agenda. Invoking the one-sex model only clouds the issue, as it seems to suggest that medical writers, jurists, and theologians were all thinking about conception in the same way, and by relying on the same textual (or experiential) knowledge, when that's not at all the case. Instead, just as the case with contemporary American politics, legislation (or jurisprudence) could (can) be independent of scientific or medical knowledge, even when that knowledge would seem to be integral to understanding the issue at hand (conception, global warming, etc.).

ProMedievalist said...

Another way to frame the problem, at least for me, is that the article suggests a (as in one) medieval worldview, when in reality there were many, especially on this particular issue. It's a monolithizing move that gets under professional medievalists' skin. So it's not Akin = medieval = bad, it's Akin = old fashioned and ignorant = bad. And thus to tweak Elly's great last line, I like the past (medieval and everywhere else) but I wouldn't want to live there, not in "the medieval, not in "the classical," not in the nineteenth century, not in 1960 (well, maybe 1960 for a bit)...

Drvh said...

I do understand the frustration of the lazy ‘medieval=backward’ cliché, but I’m still not convinced that the subtlety of the arguments of Park et al really belong in the post (or would have helped with the interpretation).

The discussion of female seed as ‘expressed’ through female orgasm is a form of homologous thinking, and I _think_ I only say that it’s this seed/orgasm/pregnancy link which was widespread in the (late) medieval period rather than specifically the full genital homology. I don’t think there’s anything particularly controversial or problematic about the former claim, while I’m ambivalent about the evidence for the latter.

Part of the reason I linked to the wiki entry for Laqueur – not necessarily my first choice of reference source! – is because it actually mentions the criticisms of the one-sex to two-sex shift, which I thought actually an OK starting point for anyone interested enough to read further.

Obviously, no post is going to please everyone; but I do think that the best place to critique it, if you’re really keen on making the point to a broad audience, is in the comments! I’ve no idea what the word limit is, but it’s probably more than I have to post with in the first place – and will be seen by many more people who might absorb some of your more nuanced ideas about what is and is not ‘medieval’!


E. R. Truitt said...

ProMedievalist, yes. Framing the issue as unitary medieval worldview is a big part of the problem. However, I recognize that, for most people who aren't medievalists, the thousand-year period is totally undifferentiated, and leads to the false equivalencies that you point out. My goal for this blog post was to try to point some of that out, and also to provide valid historical evidence for the ways in which Akin's thinking is in line with that of medieval theologians.

Vanessa, thanks for the great suggestion. I've posted a link to this blog entry, including the comments, on the Guardian page.