Monday, August 20th, 2012...8:38 pm

Akin Medievalism

Jump to Comments

By now infamous, Republicon Congressman Todd Akin’s medical discourse on rape and pregnancy–

“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.”

has been shown to be refried pseudo-science (his “doctors” must be witch doctors) that has been regurgitated cud-like by anti-abortion forces for a couple of decades, as The Atlantic observes in “A Canard That Will Not Die: ‘Legitimate Rape’ Doesn’t Cause Pregnancy.”

What is less well known is that the canard has an even older pedigree.

As Thomas Laqueur documents in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, authors from Classical antiquity (Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Soranus) and the Middle Ages (Pseudo-Aristotle, Avicenna) postulated a connection between sexual pleasure and conception. As Laqueur notes:

Pregnancy from rape provides the limiting case for a woman’s conceiving without pleasure or desire. Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that “without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that “if some women who were forced to have intercourse have conceived . . . the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve,” and no one before the second half of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century questioned the physiological basis of this judgment. The 1756 edition of Burns’s Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutesof Justinian to the effect that “a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent.” (Laqueur, p. 161-162)

Laqueur also notes that, “Without orgasm, another widely circulated text announced, ‘the fair sex [would] neither desire nuptial embraces, nor have pleasure in them, nor conceive by them'” (p. 3). The text in question here was the infamous Aristotle’s Masterpiece or the Secrets of Generation Displayed (published in London in 1684 in the instance cited here, but frequently published in multiple versions and editions), that served as Colonial British America’s and the Early Republic’s first sex manual, which Johns Hopkins medical historian Mary Fissell has been researching in recent years, like her article in the William & Mary Quarterly “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle‚Äôs Masterpiece” (3rd ser., vol. 60, no. 1) or her chapter “Making a Masterpiece: The Aristotle Texts in Vernacular Medical Culture,” a chapter included in Charles E. Rosenberg, ed., Right Living: An Angl0-American Tradition of Self-Help Medicine and Hygiene (Johns Hopkins UP, 2003).

This vile episode once again demonstrates the Right’s infinite capacity to worship the past without knowing it or learning its lessons.


  • Excellent as usual, Tom. Apparently the link between sexual pleasure and conception is not such a widely accepted fallacy in the countries where young girls are routinely “circumcised,” making sexual pleasure impossible although conception remains likely and even more dangerous after the mutilation. The Akin debacle has been making me grumpy all morning, so I will point out that for me the reference to “witch doctor” is unfortunate in an article about medievalism. At that time especially, wise women were punished with that term and often were murdered as a result. Among the dreaded “witchcrafts” they practiced were early methods of preventing or ending unwanted pregnancies.

  • Of course there are no women authors signing in on this, even the term lesbian wasn’t around until the last century or used much until the sixties. When you consider there are film clips still available of Suffragettes protesting for the right to vote gives an idea how long women have suffered at the hands of men. And in our Judeo-Christian world, which is dominated by men, submission of women to men is still taught and practiced. If there is a god, why then are the followers kept in the dark?

Leave a Reply