Mansplanations

The other day, Rebecca Solnit (a.k.a. America’s National Treasure) wrote a column for TomDispatch that The Nation‘s website picked up.  The title is “Men Still Explain Things to Me.”  Ms Solnit tells a little story about a strange man who responded to some comment she’d made about photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge by chastising her for not having read a new book about Muybridge that had come out earlier that year.  It turned out that the book he had in mind was River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by- Rebecca Solnit.   Ms Solnit’s friends repeatedly tried to tell the man that the woman he was scolding for not knowing the book was in fact its author; that didn’t slow him down a bit.  Ms Solnit gives other examples of men shutting women down by loudly and persistently “explaining” to them.  Acknowledging that not all men use this passive-aggressive technique and that those who do use it  sometimes use it against other men, Ms Solnit mentions that young women nowadays call the technique “mansplaining.”

Ms Solnit posted this piece shortly before a truly spectacular example of mansplaining burst into public view and briefly dominated the US political news cycle.  US Congressman Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, is his party’s nominee for the US Senate from that state in this year’s election.  In response to a question from a television interviewer, Mr Akin said that he did not believe that abortion should be legal.  Asked about women who become pregnant as the result of rape, he said that he would not make an exception for them, in part because he believes that such a scenario is rare.  “The female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” he said, launching into an explanation of physiological processes that, according to him, prevent women who are the victims of what the congressman called “legitimate rape” from becoming pregnant.

In the aftermath of Mr Akin’s remarks, several prominent Republicans, including presidential nominee Willard “Mitt” Romney, criticized him harshly.  At this writing, it is unclear whether Mr Akin will remain a candidate.  A Google search estimates over 900,000 results for “Akin vows to stay in race”; usually candidates vow to stay in a race shortly before they announce their withdrawals.

A couple of interesting pieces have appeared in response to this matter.  On The Nation‘s website, health columnist Dana Goldstein contributes a handy guide to “How the Body Reacts to Sexual Assault” (spoiler: not by spontaneously producing contraceptives.) Ms Goldstein explains that ideas about sexual response that are not informed by biology lead many people, victims of rape among them, to draw distinctions between women who are more worthy or less worthy of support and respect after sexual assault.  These distinctions, Ms Goldstein argues, turn rape exceptions to abortion bans into a means by which other people can exercise unwanted control over a woman’s body.  As such, they reenact the original offense.

And at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner writes a fascinating analysis of “The Theological Roots of Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Comment.”  Mr Akin is an outspoken member of the Presbyterian Church in America (or PCA,) the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the USA.  Unlike the larger and quite liberal Presbyterian Church USA, the PCA is fiercely traditional both in its general theology and in its views of relations between the sexes.  Posner cites a series of PCA position papers on abortion which mirror Mr Akin’s remarks very closely.  They even go into detail about the unlikelihood of pregnancy resulting from rape, details unsupported by documentation.  Ms Posner links to a column by Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic; Ms Franke-Ruta describes some of the political infrastructure that has been developed to popularize the idea that rape rarely causes conception, including a group called “Physicians for Life” which seems to consist of physicians who trained and practice in some parallel universe.   A parallel universe which sends representatives to the US Congress, for some reason.

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1 Comment

  1. acilius

     /  August 29, 2012

    Actually the part of Rebecca Solnit’s essay that I quote was published in 2008. The article reprinting it did go up shortly before Mr Akin made his bizarre remarks, however.

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