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.