Frame Game

The Rape Skeptic

Todd Akin didn’t misspeak. He showed what he thinks: that rape is too broadly interpreted and reported.

Todd Akin’s video apology for his comments about “legitimate rape.”

Photo courtesy of Todd Akin for U.S. Senate

Todd Akin wants to be forgiven. Two days after his catastrophic interview on KTVI-TV in St. Louis—in which he claimed that pregnancy from rape was “really rare” because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”—Akin has issued a video apology. “I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize,” he tells the camera. “The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold.”

Really? Was Akin’s gaffe just a poor choice of words? Or does it reflect a deeper problem?

Akin’s track record on this issue goes back to 1991, when he was a state legislator in Missouri. At the time, Missouri was one of four states in which husbands, by definition, couldn’t be prosecuted for raping their wives. A bill came to the floor of the Missouri House that would abolish this exemption, making spousal rape a crime. Akin joined 118 of 134 state representatives in voting for the bill. But during the debate, according to a contemporaneous report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (flagged two weeks ago by Sahil Kapur in Talking Points Memo), Akin warned that a law against marital rape might be abused ”in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband.”

Akin was elected to Congress in 2000. A decade later, in January 2011, he co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which, among other things, would have tightened the definition of rape in U.S. abortion law. At the time, federal laws against abortion funding exempted pregnancies caused by rape. The “No Taxpayer” bill altered this formulation, exempting only “forcible” rapes. The change of language (first reported by Nick Baumann in Mother Jones) was widely condemned for excluding statutory rape and for supposedly implying that date rape wasn’t really rape. Eventually, the bill’s sponsor removed the word “forcible.”

Today, this episode is being depicted on liberal blogs as a conspiracy by Akin and Paul Ryan to change the definition of rape. That’s a stretch: Akin and Ryan were among more than 160 co-sponsors of the bill. Nothing in the record suggests Akin had anything to do with the rape language, which was peripheral to the bill. But yesterday on Mike Huckabee’s radio show, Akin pleaded that when he referred in the KTVI interview to “legitimate” rape, “I was talking about forcible rape.” So he affirms the distinction drawn in the 2011 bill.

When you look at the three episodes side by side—the 1991 comment about marital rape, the 2011 specification of “forcible rape,” the 2012 reference to “legitimate rape”—it’s hard to explain away the pattern. Nobody uses the wrong words accidentally three times in a row. But if you watch Akin’s whole interview on KTVI, you’ll see that the pattern is actually larger. He trusts some people more than others. Women who report rape are among the people he doesn’t quite trust.

Five minutes before the abortion exchange, Akin’s interviewer, Charles Jaco, brought up conservative proposals to revise the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He asked Akin whether we no longer need those laws. Akin answered that everyone has a right to vote, but only once, and only if you’re alive. He said states can be trusted to manage their own voting laws. Jaco asked whether voter identification cards are necessary, since only one case of voter fraud has been documented in Missouri, and that was in 1936. Akin replied that voter ID is important to keep elections clean. He even made a case for indirect election: letting state lawmakers rather than citizens choose U.S. senators. He trusts states more than voters.

Go back through Akin’s years in the House, and you’ll see whom he trusts. He opposed “bureaucratic red-tape” and “regulatory burdens” on business. He voted to loosen restrictions on small-business loans, limit obesity lawsuits against the food industry, and repeal “ergonomic regulations” that “would hamstring American businesses.” He fought to “protect physicians” from malpractice liability and to “safeguard the privacy of taxpayers” from IRS snooping. He opposed saddling Internet vendors with the “compliance burdens” of “responsibility to collect state sales and use taxes.” He opposed trigger locks, expanded the right to carry concealed firearms, and co-sponsored legislation to relax restrictions on interstate gun sales.

You’ll also see whom Akin doesn’t trust. While opposing campaign finance laws, he insisted that “first-time voters must provide proof of identity.” He demanded “proof of citizenship” from anyone in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, plus “a citizenship check before receiving benefits” such as Medicare and Social Security. He introduced legislation requiring “written notice … to parents before contraceptive drugs and devices are distributed to their minor child.” He voted to tighten policing of media indecency and to subject Terri Schiavo’s husband to an extra court hearing before her feeding tube could be withdrawn.

That doesn’t mean Akin hates Hispanics, paupers, or minority voters, or that he’s blind to tax fraud, corporate malfeasance, or firearms abuse. But it does tell you which way he leans. He aims his scrutiny at some people rather than others. And that’s the key to understanding his remarks about rape. A man who talks repeatedly about “legitimate” rape, “forcible” rape, and spousal rape laws as a “legal weapon to beat up on the husband” isn’t worrying that that too many rapes go unreported. He’s worrying that rape is defined too broadly and asserted too often.

That’s why Akin’s apology doesn’t cut it. He didn’t just “misspeak” in a thoughtless moment. He exposed a longstanding streak of suspicion, aimed not at accused rapists but at rape accusers. Todd Akin is a rape skeptic. If he won’t face that fact, the voters of Missouri will face it for him.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: