Abortion, Mothering, Rape

Old Husbands’ Tales

I’ve been speechless for the past couple of days.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the words Todd Akin used to describe rape. I’ve been thinking and reading the words of others in their responses to him.

On religious websites, the comments devolve immediately into an argument over a woman’s right to choose. I recognize that I know a lot of people, some of them reading this perhaps, who would disagree with my pro-choice position and others who would not share my philosophy that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

But we get distracted at our peril, because no matter where you stand on abortion, Akin is spouting “Old Husband’s Tales” as fact, showing an ignorance about and disdain for women that is appalling.

Women form more than half the population. We are not children. We are equally created human beings. Unfortunately we are also sexually vulnerable.

Men are, too, of course. They can be assaulted and invaded, and it’s happened historically and it happens all the time.

But women can be willfully entered and impregnated, an act that has lifelong consequences for the woman and also for a potential child. To suggest that some sort of voodoo hormones will protect women from conception is absurd, so ridiculous that I can’t believe I’m having to write it down or think about it.

Old Husbands’ Tales are based in a belief that women are unequal to men, that they are in effect property to be used at will. What’s a “legitimate” rape? An attack by a stranger on an innocent virgin? It’s an Old Husbands’ Tale that there can be no rape in marriage, because a man has the right to do what he wants with his wife. It’s an Old Husbands’ Tale that a woman can run faster with her skirt up than a man with his pants down. (Yes, some people call that a joke.) It’s an Old Husbands’ Tale that “men have needs,” and that takes us down other roads that show a disregard for women as a class. It’s an Old Husbands’ Tale that women don’t even know if they’ve been raped.

The violent attack of a stranger is a terrible thing. The intentional and non-consensual act of a partner you have trusted is also a terrible thing. Neither one comes with a Magic Diaphragm of Holy Conception Preventing Power.

Some women who are raped by strangers and impregnated carry the children and even raise them.

But I don’t need a survey to tell me that more women are impregnated by spouses and partners who did not bother to be sure “the female body,” as Akin calls us, was actually willing.

I’m the mother of three, two sons and a daughter. I’ve been teaching all of them, for years, to practice a Love Ethic where sex is concerned. When the time comes, I said, remember what Jesus wanted from us, to love God and love others as ourselves. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Please. Remember that the other person is also a human being, created by God and loved by God.

I don’t hear that from the Christian Right. I hear a fear that men will lose the power to put their seed wherever they want it to go. I hear a fear that some people, men and women, will honor women’s experience and value them equally. I hear a fear that Old Husbands’ Tales will be dismissed for the ignorant prattle they are.

The fear of people who are losing their power is dangerous.

So please, don’t let us be distracted by arguments over abortion. The issue is half the human race. The issue is the value of living women. We are being called liars and fools, told we are weak and need everything clarified for us. I’ll tell you, if I had that Magic Diaphragm, I would use it like a shield to hold off the violation by words that goes on every day in our public discourse, where people are free to say anything they like and no one has to accept that facts contradict opinion and people believe the loudest voice wins.

My voice is soft, but I am ready to speak now.

I have had my own moments in which trust was broken. I have been violated, but the details matter less than the larger, sadder truth. There are men and some women, too, who will continue to defend hetero-normative patriarchy by any means necessary. They will wrap it in Jesus, or the Trinity, or the American flag. They would wrap it in Zeus if anyone still worshiped him. They will make a mockery of my faith in a loving God and my belief in a nation where freedom and equality matter. They will do their best to break my heart. I believe their numbers are in decline, but I can also see that they will fight to the end, ruthlessly. We who are gentle must find our strength. We who speak softly must raise our voices. We who know better must give the lie to Old Husbands’ Tales.

47 thoughts on “Old Husbands’ Tales”

  1. Thank you for this Martha. I have been so distraught about all of this, and your words articulate what my feelings haven’t been able to.

  2. thanks, Martha. You’re talking here about something that I’ve never yet quite been able to put into words, but “Old Husband’s Tales” just catches it. The amount of sheer, fearful, MISINFORMATION about women and women’s bodies that men impart to each other and solemnly, uncritically, pass along from generation to generation — STILL — is appalling. And so, so sad… not even so much “wishful thinking” as “wishful ignorance.”

    1. Yes, the misinformation is terrifying. We hear the same tone in the Creationist camp, a lively denial of observable data.

  3. The comments on the internet and in real life (and I suppose I should just refuse to read/hear any more) that turn this into an abortion debate are making me insane. I am so angry I can hardly express it. Thank you for doing it so well.

  4. Thank you for articulating a profound and meaningful response to that which has been enraging my spirit and disturbing my heart ~ I can only add a grateful AMEN

    1. As I said to karla, it’s a challenge to find the strong place that doesn’t mean adopting the tactics and tone of the opposition.

  5. Beautifully and articulately stated, as are all your thoughtful and resounding communications. I am proud of you!

  6. thank you Martha. A courageous and wise response. I’m sharing this.

  7. One thing that makes me as sad as any other is that I am the first man to respond to this sensitive, powerful piece. We all are created in God’s image and that image is female and male. When we devalue persons of differing ethnicity, citizenship, gender, economic status or other characteristics we ultimately devalue ourselves. That a small number of men seek to be the arbiters of proper conduct for women is frightening enough. The ignorance demonstrated in these efforts is chilling. Thanks Martha for such a gentle, insightful and moving essay.

    1. Dear John,
      Thank you so much for commenting. I know one male colleague has shared the post on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m grateful you’ve joined the conversation.

  8. You said it, Martha. You named the anger. I’m having a very hard time with how to name what this is all about. You did. Beautifully and powerfully. Thank you!

    1. Sharon, it had me weary and silent for two days before it found its way out. I know your words will come, too

  9. Thank you very much for this thoughtful response. Many in our congregation are furious but yet the vitriolic response equates with the same level of unkind discourse. Thank you. May your voice carry over the waves this week.

  10. I loved what I just read, and thank you for your wise views, Martha. I would like to report that I came to your blog through one of your male colleagues’ FB posts. And I’m very glad I took the time to do so.

  11. “The issue is half the human race. The issue is the value of living women. We are being called liars and fools, told we are weak and need everything clarified for us.”

    This is what to me is key to this whole ongoing dismantling of women’s health care rights in the US – and the ongoing mistreatment of women around the world: Half of the Human Race. There need be no other argument than, you cannot treat half of the entire world as second class citizens. Women are not a special interest group – they are half the world.

    Every time I think this “war on women” cannot get any more insane, someone like Todd Akin open’s his mouth. I’d like the believe that this stupidity, this Old Husbands’ Tale, will shed a light on the ignorance that surrounds the defunding of Planned Parenthood or makes transvaginal ultrasounds mandatory for women seeking an abortion. I’d like to believe that, but I’m not so sure.

    Half the world. How can anyone treat half the world so badly?

    1. It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it? I suppose it’s because it’s been the habit of mankind (and I choose the word deliberately) for so many centuries. We’re moving beyond it, but we clearly won’t come sweetly into the new reality.

  12. Nice job and am glad to hear your soft voice. But it isn’t so soft, you know. you are speaking loud words. Keep it up–Preach it!

  13. Thank you for writing such an excellently articulated piece, M. I’m still at the stage where rage and words fail me. x

  14. I am grateful for your carefully written words that encourage each of us to speak truth to power. My heartfelt thanks.

  15. Hi Martha — A friend shared your post and I love it! You may also be interested in this, another kind of “old husband’s tale” — “In colonial America, a woman’s orgasm was presumed to be needed for conception. Samuel Farr’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1785) argued that “without excitation or lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” If a woman claimed rape but became pregnant, she lost almost all credibility since, physicians and lawyers claimed, she certainly had to consent or enjoy the sexual act.” http://nursingclio.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/yes-virginia-you-can-get-pregnant-from-being-raped/

  16. Beautifully and powerfully put, Martha. Thank you for eloquence, context and sounding the call!

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