Rape, Patriarchy and the Bomb

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

“Every sperm is sacred . . .”

Todd Akin could have worked on the script for the 1983 Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

But wait, there’s more. “But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something,” the Missouri Senate candidate said in his recent, now infamous TV interview. “You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be at the rapist and not attacking the child.”

This is where I heard the bell toll. He hypothesizes that the rape is “legitimate” but the woman manages to get pregnant anyway. So punish the rapist, he says, not “the child” (i.e., embryo) by, presumably, allowing it to be aborted. Who hovers in utter irrelevancy in this scenario? The woman. She’s no more than a fertile medium for the rapist’s “child” and has no say in what should happen next.

“Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.”

Akin’s words brought the good old days — that is, most of recorded history — back to life. Rape was once a property crime. Under patriarchal law, the victim was the husband or father, who suffered a loss of value when his wife or daughter was sexually violated. “Given this entrenched historical and cultural legacy,” Rebecca Whisnant writes in an entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “feminists’ redefinition of ‘rape’ as a crime against the woman herself is nothing short of revolutionary.”

This era is far from over. Only in the last few generations has patriarchal certitude about gender been seriously challenged. When I was growing up, the expression “it’s a man’s world” still masqueraded as common sense. Not only did males have more basic rights and privileges, but most of them thoughtlessly exuded an attitude that equated “female” qualities (nurturing, love, empathy) with weakness.

We still live in the world this mindset has created. The changes over the last 50 years have been largely on the surface; that is, women have more access to society’s institutions — politics, the military, the corporate boardroom — but, for the most part, the institutions themselves haven’t undergone the revolutionary transformation Whisnant spoke of. Their focus remains power and dominance. And in this realm, men rule.

For instance, women now constitute 14 percent of the U.S. military, the ultimate preserve of macho, phallus-centered culture. Hurray for equal rights! But guess what? According to the Pentagon, an estimated 19,000 women get raped in the military every year — a stat that doesn’t change despite periodic scandals that spawn horrific headlines and vows for reform. Furthermore, barely one in six of those rapes even gets reported, because it’s usually the victim, not the perp, who winds up getting humiliated, punished and shunned, often to the utter destruction of her career.

A consciousness of power over others permeates military culture, and women who succeed in this culture must adapt to it. In a Bloomberg Businessweek story last month, retired Navy Rear Admiral Marianne Drew, who played a role in modernizing the Navy’s sexual harassment policies after the 1991 Tailhook scandal, exemplified this in her comments on the most recent military rape scandal, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where 15 military instructors are under investigation for sexual misconduct involving numerous trainees.

The instructors “have complete control over these kids,” she said, adding: “and it’s important that they do. But it’s possible to get somebody in there who takes that too far.”

It’s not just possible. It’s inevitable.

An extraordinary insight into this can be found in a 1987 essay by Dr. Carol Cohn, director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, titled “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” The essay is quoted extensively by Marilyn French in her book The War Against Women. (I first learned of it from a comment on the Common Dreams website posted by artemix.)

Cohn, who spent a summer studying with nuclear weapons scientists, became fascinated with the sexual and reproductive imagery that permeated discussion of the bomb. The successful Trinity test in the New Mexico desert was called “Oppenheimer’s baby” and, she writes: “In early tests, before they were certain that the bombs would work, the scientists expressed their concern by saying that they hoped the baby was a boy, not a girl — that is, not a dud.” And: “In 1952, (Edward) Teller’s exultant telegram to Los Alamos announcing the successful test of the hydrogen bomb, ‘Mike,’ at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, read, ‘It’s a boy.’”

Most tellingly of all, Cohn explained that, to defense intellectuals, nuclear disarmament equaled “emasculation.” Thus, “how could any real man even consider it?”

A patriarchal, dominance-obsessed sexuality permeates the most deeply entrenched institutions of American society. Values are changing, but opposition to it is fierce, because for many of those committed to the fixed beliefs of the past, change — which includes women’s rights, indeed, their full humanity — is a loss of raw power. For some, the unconscious metaphor for this is emasculation.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.