After Missouri Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin shared his view that the female body could mysteriously and miraculously prevent conception in cases of “legitimate rape,” his remarks were swiftly condemned by even his own Republican party. Much of the response, and Akin’s own apology, focused on his use of the word “legitimate” when in fact he’d meant “forcible,” a modifier whose political implications are, to many, no less offensive. Of course, the reaction to Akin’s politics has in some quarters overshadowed consideration of his complete lack of understanding of the female reproductive system. As explained last week in an op-ed by Jennifer Tucker, and further considered on Saturday’s episode of Up With Chris Hayes, the long-dismissed “logic” of Akin’s thoughts on conception stem from the ancient notion that female reproductive organs were merely inward-turned analogues of male. If the male needed to achieve orgasm for conception to occur, then so did the female; the victim of a “legitimate rape” would take no pleasure; hence no orgasm; hence the raped woman’s ability to “shut that whole thing down.”
For more on the trajectory of Akin’s medical fairytale, we turned to Thomas Laqueur’s indispensable Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, from which the following passage is excerpted.
An interpretive chasm separates two interpretations, fifty years apart, of the same story of death and desire told by an eighteenth-century physician obsessed with the problem of distinguishing real from apparent death.
The story begins when a young aristocrat whose family circumstances forced him into religious orders came one day to a country inn. He found the innkeepers overwhelmed with grief at the death of their only daughter, a girl of great beauty. She was not to be buried until the next day, and the bereaved parents asked the young monk to keep watch over her body through the night. This he did, and more. Reports of her beauty had piqued his curiosity. He pulled back the shroud and, instead of finding the corpse “disfigured by the horrors of death,” found its features still gracefully animated. The young man lost all restraint, forgot his vows, and took “the same liberties with the dead that the sacraments of marriage would have permitted in life.” Ashamed of what he had done, the hapless necrophilic monk departed hastily in the morning without waiting for the scheduled interment.
When time for burial came, indeed just as the coffin bearing the dead girl was being lowered into the ground, someone felt movement coming from the inside. The lid was torn off; the girl began to stir and soon recovered from what proved not to have been real death at all but only a coma. Needless to say, the parents were overjoyed to have their daughter back, although their pleasure was severely diminished by the discovery that she was pregnant and, moreover, could give no satisfactory account of how she had come to be that way. In their embarrassment, the innkeepers consigned the daughter to a convent as soon as her baby was born.
Soon business brought the young aristocrat, oblivious of the consequences of his passion but far richer and no longer in holy orders because he had come into his inheritance, back to the scene of his crime. Once again he found the innkeepers in a state of consternation and quickly understood his part in causing their new misfortune. He hastened to the convent and found the object of his necrophilic desire more beautiful alive than dead. He asked for her hand and with the sacrament of marriage legitimized their child.
The moral that Jacques-Jean Bruhier asks his readers to draw from this story is that only scientific tests can make certain that a person is really dead and that even very intimate contact with a body leaves room for mistakes. But Bruhier’s contemporary, the noted surgeon Antoine Louis, came to a very different conclusion, one more germane to the subject of this book, when he analyzed the case in 1752. Based on the evidence that Bruhier himself offered, Louis argues, no one could have doubted that the girl was not dead: she did not, as the young monk testified, look dead and moreover who knows if she did not give some “demonstrative signs” in proof of her liveliness, signs that any eighteenth-century doctor or even layperson would have expected in the circumstances.
Bruhier earlier on in his book had cited numerous instances of seemingly dead young women who were revived and saved from untimely burial by amorous embraces; sexual ecstasy, “dying” in eighteenth-century parlance, turned out for some to be the path to life. Love, that “wonderful satisfactory Death and ... voluntary Separation of Soul and Body,” as an English physician called it, guarded the gates of the tomb. But in this case it would have seemed extremely unlikely to an eighteenth-century observer that the innkeepers’ daughter could have conceived a child without moving and thereby betraying her death. Any medical book or one of the scores of popular midwifery, health, or marriage manuals circulating in all the languages of Europe reported it as a commonplace that “when the seed issues in the act of generation [from both men and women] there at the same time arises an extra-ordinary titillation and delight in all members of the body.” Without orgasm, another widely circulated text announced, “the fair sex [would] neither desire nuptial embraces, nor have pleasure in them, nor conceive by them.”
The girl must have shuddered, just a bit. If not her rosy cheeks then the tremors of venereal orgasm would have given her away. Bruhier’s story was thus one of fraud and not of apparent death; the innkeepers’ daughter and the monk simply conspired, Louis concludes, to escape culpability by feigning coma until the last possible moment before burial.
In 1836 the tale was told again, but now with a new twist. This time, the reality of the girl’s deathlike comatose state was not questioned. On the contrary, her becoming pregnant under these conditions was cited by Dr. Michael Ryan as one among many other cases of intercourse with insensible women to prove that orgasm was irrelevant to conception. (In one story, for example, an ostler confesses that he came to an inn and had sex with, and made pregnant, a girl who was so dead asleep before the fire that he was long gone before she awoke.) Not only need a woman not feel pleasure to conceive; she need not even be conscious.
Near the end of the Enlightenment, in the period between these two rehearsals of the tale of the innkeepers’ daughter, medical science and those who relied on it ceased to regard the female orgasm as relevant to generation. Conception, it was held, could take place secretly, with no telltale shivers or signs of arousal; the ancient wisdom that “apart from pleasure nothing of mortal kind comes into existence” was uprooted. Previously a sign of the generative process, deeply embedded in the bodies of men and women, a feeling whose existence was no more open to debate than was the warm, pleasurable glow that usually accompanies a good meal, orgasm was relegated to the realm of mere sensation, to the periphery of human physiology—accidental, expendable, a contingent bonus of the reproductive act.
This reorientation applied in principle to the sexual functioning of both men and women. But no one writing on such matters ever so much as entertained the idea that male passions and pleasures in general did not exist or that orgasm did not accompany ejaculation during coition. Not so for women. The newly “discovered” contingency of delight opened up the possibility of female passivity and “passionlessness.” The purported independence of generation from pleasure created the space in which women’s sexual nature could be redefined, debated, denied, or qualified. And so it was of course. Endlessly.