Using the Right Words About Rape

I have something to say about Todd Akin’s unforgivable comments about what he considers a “legitimate” or “forcible” rape. I say it as a woman but I say it more as a mother of daughters as well as sons. I say it as an educator who leads both young men and young women in the American public education system. I say it as an evaluator of teachers who has to do things like go into science classrooms knowing their curriculum and who must meet state mandates on that which is taught because science, I am recently reminded, isn’t taken seriously. Mostly, though, I say it as a mother. That trumps everything else and all roles I play in my career and life.

The first time I had a conversation with my oldest daughter about sex it was natural and came about organically. We talked openly about her body and how it changes and what she can expect. When she went through menses it was also natural and there was no freaking out as I’d already done my part as her mom to discuss what those biological changes would mean. In our discussions she asked about birth controls pills (What are they and how do they work, mom?) and condoms (So, who should be responsible in knowing how to put one on?) and pregnancy. Mallory didn’t have to ask too many questions about pregnancy because I explained well enough to her how I got pregnant at 14. It came up naturally during her upbringing because of the other people we met who would curiously ask how old I was. I had to explain, quite often, that I was not the babysitter or the au pair, but the mom. At PTO meetings when she was 5 and I was 20 I had to ensure the other moms that I belonged there. Trust me when I say that I didn’t plan on having all those discussions with her at a young age but that they came up because of the nosiness of other people.

By the time she was in high school we had every conversation imaginable about sex, both heterosexual and homosexual. As a mom, I had no doubt that my child understood how this all worked. How Todd Akin, a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, can fail to understand female reproduction is a mystery to me. In case there’s any doubt about his misguided comments, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists prepared a statement today to help the science-hating Todd Akins of the world understand that his comments were “medically inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous.”

The other thing I did, in teaching my daughter to be responsible about sex and her own human biology, was to teach her discernment. All kinds of discernment. For instance, I taught her to be careful about the friends she chose and hoped that they would always help her be the best version of herself. I also wanted her to know that her intelligence and kindness and generosity were more important to her self-worth than what she looked like or how she fixed her hair. It was crucial to me that she have a vast knowledge of the world and people and that a voluminous vocabulary would take her far in life. It’s that last bit that reminds me of an important conversation we had when she was a young woman.

“What is the difference between rape and sexual assault?” she asked.

“I don’t like the words ‘sexual assault’ when talking about rape.” I told her. “One is accurate and the other is confusing.”

Simple sentences didn’t satisfy Mallory. She pressed on and wanted to know why people use the phrase “sexual assault” when a woman is raped. Why the two different terms? she wanted to know.

“I think they do that because if they can bring the word ‘sex’ into it, they can make it seem like the woman’s fault. Make no mistake about this: rape is an act of violence and has nothing to do with sex the way we have been talking about it. Yes, it’s an ugly word and yes, it’s an ugly violent deed. But we call it what it is and I don’t want you to ever try to make it sound pretty just because you’re in the company of someone who finds the word distasteful.”

I firmly believe that my role as a mother dictates that I talk to my children, all of my children, about biology and health and even all the ugly things in our world. It was important to talk frankly about sex and it was important to have that conversation, difficult as it was, with Mallory and then again with the rest of my children.

Everything has a name and we learn what that is. We call things what they are. As a family, we talked about rape and qualifiers weren’t necessary to delineate something that fit our own personal and political agendas. Shame on Todd Akin for committing that dangerous and highly ignorant act. Shame on him for our daughters and for our sons.

Let me be clear: call it what it is, Todd Akin. And please, for the love of all those affected by the policies you want to put in place as a politician, take a Biology 101 course again. The nice thing is that female reproduction hasn’t changed since the last time you took it but failed to pay even the slightest bit of attention. There’s nothing more that I’d like to do than to address the illiteracy and incomprehension of the remarks he made about how women can’t reproduce after a rape than to shut that whole thing down.


Read more from Kelly at her personal blog, Mocha Momma

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