Back to the Dark Ages?

Generally speaking, I try to keep politics and the internet separate. This is partly because reading anything political on the internet is bad for the sanity; the comments section of any news website from Gawker to the Guardian is bound to be full of people saying horrible things, necessitating the need for saintlike self-control to keep from engaging with them. Besides, it’s dangerous for a fledgling blog to wade too deep into those waters. But this keeps troubling me, so here we go anyway.

You will by now have seen Republican congressional candidate Todd Akin’s comments about how ‘legitimate rape’ doesn’t result in pregnancy because ‘the female body can shut that down’. If you haven’t, take a minute to let it sink in. Now remember this man is on the House Science Committee, despite possessing less knowledge about actual science than your average fourth-grader. (At least, when I was a fourth-grader. This is, I suppose, one of the blatant problems of the Republicans’ ‘abstinence-only’ sex education, when not even married adult men understand where babies come from.)

I normally feel a stab of defensiveness when people say, in response to this kind of thing, that ‘[insert person/party here] want to take us back to the Dark Ages!’ I’m defensive because in many ways the ‘dark ages’, along with not being all that dark, were considerably more forward-thinking than a good chunk of the modern world. But in this case it’s not far off. The medieval Christian church really did put a good deal of stock in the idea of female orgasm being necessary for pregnancy–an idea that comes from the physiological models of second-century philosopher Galen of Pergamon. In theory, this was good news for married women, since their husbands were supposed to cater to them; in practice of course it meant that women’s ‘fallen nature’ and inherent sexuality could be blamed for them ‘enjoying’ basically anything that got them pregnant. It made it especially difficult in rape cases, since if the victim got pregnant, she would be assumed to have enjoyed the rape and therefore forfeit her right to prosecute her attacker, and if she didn’t get pregnant, she had a lot more trouble proving anything had happened1. In hagiography, though probably infrequently in real life, a raped virgin could sometimes appeal directly to God to have her attacker punished and her virginity restored–the female saints’ lives are full of chaste young women rejecting all sexual advances by men, but it was considered both infrequent and holy2. There’s a reason they’re saints. (Also, the men often didn’t take it well. Saint Winifred, for example, had her head chopped off when she refused her suitor3.)

In just about every other field of scientific enquiry, the human race has moved on considerably in the last two thousand years. We can treat the bubonic plague with readily available antibiotics; we’ve just landed a robot the size of a Mini Cooper on the nearest neighbouring planet. Why is something as basic as human biology–pregnancy, something that literally every generation of humanity ever has had some stake in learning about, so far behind the times that public figures can use theories from a second-century physician? I’ll close off with a Tweet I saw this morning: ‘I’d once have hoped that the big moral questions of 2012 would be about cyborg rights or suchlike… Not “Rape – grey area?“‘

1. Shahar, Shulamith, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, trans. Chaya Galai (Cambridge 1983), p.17

2.Bullough, Vern L., “Sex Education in Medieval Christianity,” The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Aug., 1977), pp.185-6

3. Cormack, Margaret. Saints and their cults in the Atlantic world. (Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press 2007). pp. 204–20

1 Comment

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One response to “Back to the Dark Ages?

  1. Thanks for pointing out the link between Todd Akin’s astonishing comments and Galen: who can still maintain that academic history is irrelevant to modern life?

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