OPINION: Men just need to shut up on women’s issues


Sometimes men just need to shut up.

Todd Akin, a GOP representative from Missouri and U.S. Senate hopeful, caused a firestorm recently for his remarks in an interview in which he clarified his stance on abortion in cases of rape.  

“If it’s a legitimate rape,” Akin said, “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

In light of these remarks, which Mitt Romney called “inexcusable” and President Obama condemned as “offensive,” Akin has since recanted his comments.  Yet despite calls from those in his own party to withdraw from the race, Akin announced Friday afternoon his determination to continue his campaign for U.S. Senate.

In a video apology, Akin begs for the American public’s forgiveness and said that he had “used the wrong words,” later vowing that despite it all, “I am not a quitter” and “by the grace of God, we’re going to win this race.”  

In fact, it seems that everywhere you tune into this scandal you can find Rep. Akin willing to give a sound bite, video clip, or interview, obstinate in his determination to press forward at all costs.

Akin’s comments and his refusal to shut up about them show a complete lack of empathy and understanding toward women.  His general attitude also underscores why, as President Obama has said, “we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.”  

Moreover, Akin exposes a nasty trend in our country’s discussions on women’s health: the parameters, content, and participants in these discussions are largely determined by men.

Men just need to shut up about women’s issues.  This doesn’t mean that men are not allowed to have opinions on things like abortion and healthcare.  Neither does it mean that men should just avoid talking about women’s issues at all costs. By “shut up,” I mean men should employ a critical silence.  This doesn’t mean closing your eyes but rather opening your ears—listening.  By effectively stepping out of the way, listening can open up a space where women can speak for themselves.

By doing more listening than talking, perhaps men could learn a few things themselves in this discussion, or at the very least give women a platform from which to speak on their own terms.  Rhetoric and Composition scholar Krista Ratcliffe has called this “Rhetorical Listening,” or rather, a productive silence that engages public debate more by letting others speak.

As a teacher of writing, we are often told to “cultivate our own silence” in classroom discussions, allowing our students to generate ideas without too much directive prodding.  Similarly, the national dialogue in this country could benefit from a cultivation of silence on behalf of a huge chunk of the noisiest students: men.  

Men in general and Rep. Akin in particular, need to find more rhetorically productive ways to engage the conversation on women’s health. In a world where almost 90 percent of violent crime and 99 percent of rape is committed by men, perhaps we need to cultivate a more critical silence on issues that pertain to women. 

In other words, men just need to shut up.

Tyler Branson is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition from Norman, Okla.