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How You Define ‘Rare’ Depends on your Politics. The Todd Akin Mathematics.

Asked by a reporter if he supported abortion in the case of rape, Congressman Todd Akin replied with his now infamous quote:

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

In those few sentences Congressman Akin managed to offend in not just one but three very different ways:

  • He implies that there are legitimate and non-legitimate rapes.
  • He claims that pregnancies resulting from rape are rare.
  • He doesn't seem to emphasize punishment.

And while most of the political world was quick to shun him, with even his closest allies calling for him to drop his bid for re-election, I can't help but feel annoyed by the mindlessly reactionary responses.  I'm no friend to Republicans, I disagree with most of the claimed conservative values, but I am no more a friend to the Democrats and progressives when they seem unable to look at things rationally and instead seek refuge behind politically correct positions and chants.

I don't think most congressmen belong in congress, and I see no reason to think any differently of Congressman Akin, but that doesn't mean I find his statements worse than they are.

Let's take a look at Congressman Akin's offenses in turn.

Legitimate Rapes

Congressman Akin's statement about legitimate rapes does certainly imply there must exist illegitimate rapes.  Most of the furor surrounding this quote seems to rest on this point.  But while I understand that his statement could suggest the disgustingly archaic viewpoint that women invite, allow, or invent almost all of the sexual assault they report, it seems far more reasonable to imagine he meant only to exclude those who fit this last criteria.  A congressman could make a statement like, "If it's a legitimate robbery then this bill will force the insurance companies to pay up."  without anyone getting even remotely upset.  It acknowledges the existence of the same phenomena, false reporting of a crime.  His poorly phrased statement seems to be trying to address his response at the (majority of) cases where rape was not falsely claimed.

The reality is that some percentage of all reported crimes are wholly false, the alleged criminal act did not occur at all.  The heinous crime of rape is not immune to this deceit.  A few studies have been done to try to determine what percentage of rapes are false but to date there are no universally accepted statistics.  Frequently mentioned statistics seem to range anywhere from 2% to 12%.  The most common figure I've seen on sites supporting women's causes is roughly 6%.  The Violence Against Women journal included a study based on a thorough review of college rape investigations and puts the number of false allegations at 5.9%, as mentioned in this blog entry of the title False Rape Allegations Are Rare.  I've seen many quotes from people on the left saying exactly the same thing, that false claims of rape are "rare".  "Rare" is the key word here, as they are applying it to something which they agree happens roughly 6% of the time.

The phrase "illegitimate rape" should clearly never be uttered because it offends and is taken with historical context to de-legitimize those who have been raped.  But we must as honest men and women acknowledge that a small percentage of rape claims are not true, and must allow others to acknowledge this fact as well, and be able to refer to them in discussion, even when it involves charged topics like abortion.  We cannot simply shout down our adversaries for poor phraseology, those are the chief argumentation tactics of the Rush Limbaughs and the Howard Sterms.

As an aside, I was stunned when I first learned that ~6% of rape accusations were wholly false.  The figure is touted by women as a positive, as though the number was impressively low, which is likely because of the historical context of the public apparently believing that most rape allegations are false.  But I grew up assuming that 99.9% of rape allegations were true, not comprehending that anyone could or would make up such a thing, and so for me to discover that 6% were false was shocking and vastly more than I would have ever imagined.  

Pregnancies from Rapes are Rare

Congressman Akin's claim that women's bodies have some mechanism by which it can prevent unwanted fertilization of an egg is not supported by science or medicine.  While many wish to see it as an evil statement, born of a desire to blame the woman should she become pregnant, such an explanation is not required.  It may be plain but unremarkable ignorance.

What I find most infuriating about the anger at Todd Akin is that it suggests that all those condemning him know so very much better, and I am very sure most of them do not!  Those pillorying him may assume better, may have guessed better, or may just know better how to toe the politically correct party line, but very likely most of them are no more scientifically or medically informed or grounded.

Considering first exactly what he said we find rank hypocrisy coming from many of his accusers.  His claim (leaving out for a moment his incorrect explanation) is that pregnancy as a result of rape is rare.  And in that he is correct if we use the definition of "rare" that all those who are most vitriolic towards Akin are.  Various studies have strongly suggested that 5 - 8% of women who are raped become pregnant as a result.  If we consider that many advocates for women argue that false rape accusations are rare at 6% then surely we would expect them to consider pregnancy as a result of pregnancy at 5-8% to be a similarly rare occurrence.  If they did, however, this aspect of Congressman Akin's comment would not be worth mentioning.  To have useful discussions and dialogue we must be consistent in our use and interpretation of language, to make language or math political is idiocy.

But let's look at his erroneous explanation of why pregnancy from rape is rare.  Taken at its core his statement requires that women are less likely to become pregnant as a result of rape than consensual sex.  On this point he seems proven entirely wrong, studies have only suggested the opposite.  But his (and others') expectation that rape would be less likely to produce pregnancy is easily explained, logical, and almost certainly the common belief until recent studies began to show otherwise.  There are many objective reasons to suspect rape would be less likely to result in pregnancy.  I am sure most of his attackers are no better read on the available studies than he was.  As such, lets consider not his logic, which apparently depended on only one particular doctor's viewpoint, but on the overall expectation which exists to draft most people's expectations.  Included in these facts:

  • Rapists often do not ejaculate.  While exact numbers are hard to come by I saw some things which said that only 10% of the time was semen recoverable from rape victims, meaning the attacker did not ejaculate, withdrew before ejaculating, or wore a condom.
  • Rapists use condoms as often as 10-15% of the time.
  • Stress is widely believed to increase miscarriages and many have assumed stress hormones would interfere with conception, implantation, and fetal development.  Rape marks the beginning of a long and horribly stressful journey back to any sort of normal.
  • Rape is (generally) a single event, relatively short in duration, whereas consensual sex is more likely to be prolonged and repeated.

Taking just the above objective facts a reasonable person would conclude that pregnancy as a result of rape should occur much less often than from consensual un-protected intercourse.  And if we know that the average likelihood that a woman will become pregnant as a result of unprotected consensual sex is 5% then surely many reasonable people would estimate a rape would result in pregnancy at a rate one order of magnitude less than with consensual sex.

That "reasonable" guesstimate happens to be wrong, as has been established in studies, but the conclusion was not the result of stupidity.  There were, however, some key factors that were overlooked:

  • Rapists more often prey on victims during their most fertile years, so the overall rate of pregnancy from one incident of intercourse within that age range is higher than 5%, making pregnancy from rape also higher.
  • Unknown evolutionary forces might be at play giving aggressive males an advantage at fertilizing women.  This is wildly speculative, but has been offered as one possible explanation for what otherwise seems unexpected.  No studies I'm aware of support this as yet.

I don't want to discourage people from trying to understand the world in which they live using the facts available to them.  We should not call the conclusions people come to nor the people themselves "stupid" as a result of a genuine attempt to figure things out as best they can.  People are only stupid when they choose to ignore facts which might have otherwise altered their positions.

Todd Akin is no more nor less intelligent than most of his detractors, no more or better informed.  We must be able to present him with new evidence and only deem him worthy of contempt if he fails to update his view based on superior evidence.

Punishing the Rapists

When I heard the offensive quote what offended me the most was in fact the last part of the oft repeated quote.  He seems to show so little interest in the prosecution of the guilty.   "I think there should be some punishment..." sounds so anemic, as though he feels forced to grudgingly acknowledge some mild punishment is expected.  His statement is something I'd expect a disinterested father saying to a supermarket cashier after his child was caught with a pack of gum he didn't pay for.  If I were of a mind to be outraged by my interpretation of the first part of his quote then this line would absolutely be the nail in the coffin for me.  Not only does he seem to think many victims deserved what happened to them, not only does he not acknowledge the problem of further traumatizing victims and populating the planet with children born from violence, but he proves he doesn't think it's a real crime by barely conceding that any punishment is warranted.  I likely am reading way too much into this portion of his statement, but in part that's my point.  Others who found this quote offensive were apparently willing to give this part of his statement a pass, assuming he really meant something different, or at that this wasn't the worst of what he said, when for me it was.  I have yet to hear anyone even mention this part of the quote in the discussion.


Rape is in no way to be tolerated, and I cannot fathom how our legal system permits the freeing of those who are found guilty of heinous crimes such as rape, molestation, kidnapping, murder, etc.  In my view, society should be forever protected from people who have demonstrated certain criminal tendencies.  Having felt the intense violation and fear that comes from being a victim of far lesser crimes, I can only begin to dimly imagine the horror one might feel as a result of this sort of sexual assault.  I do not support Todd Akin or anyone espousing archaic views about women, sexuality, gender, etc.  I just want to ensure that all of us can communicate about these topics, can freely discuss them without the ignorant, knee-jerk politics or political correctness that only entrenches people further in their ignorance.  Only through that openness is there any hope for them or for us.