What does Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) have in common with St. Augustine? More than you might think. Scholars Thomas Laqueur and Virginia Burrus chatted via e-mail with Sarah Morice-Brubaker of Religion Dispatches about what Augustine and other leaders of the early church had to say about rape. Laqueur notes that when he first heard Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and a woman’s ability to “shut that whole thing down,” his first thought was “Good God, … seventeenth-century forensic medicine is alive and well in Missouri. There must be a folk tradition that quietly perpetuates these views beneath the surface of science.” Burrus had this to say:
As soon as I began hearing the news reports of Akin’s remarks, I was haunted by similarities with the thought of the late Roman theologian Augustine. I hasten to say that I would not want to compare Akin in any general way to Augustine, who was a brilliant theologian and writer, accolades I would not by any means assign to Akin! The comparison I have in mind is quite specific, and that is Augustine’s discussion at the very beginning of his famous work City of God of the rape of Lucretia, a traditional Roman tale that he revisits in the context of real or anticipated wartime rapes of women of the Christian community.
Lucretia was a Roman woman renowned for her extreme virtue, known to have killed herself after she was raped in an effort to restore her honor by making it clear that she in no way colluded with her rapist. That itself is sufficiently telling testimony to the burden that rape places on its victims! But Augustine—in one of his lowest moments—makes it worse. For what he does is essentially to blame the victim nonetheless, much as Akin seems to do. He suggests (while acknowledging that only Lucretia herself could have known this) that Lucretia must have been “so enticed by her own desire that she consented to the act” (City of God 1:19). And in this she is, in Augustine’s eyes, condemned.
Augustine was defending himself in the face of critics who asked how it was that Christian women could suffer rape if God was looking after them. We should question his mode of defense! In so doing, we should also question Akin’s assumption that the victim is to be blamed—a stance that has arguably been taken even without the extenuating wartime circumstances that shaped Augustine’s response (never mind its utter absurdity with regard to biological facts known by most women in this country).
Surely Lucretia did not “consent to the act” of her own rape, which led to her suicide. And surely no woman who is raped consents in any way to the conception of a child. To suggest that she has the power to resist or prevent this is not only biologically absurd but also morally wrong and deeply offensive.
Read full text of their discussion here.