In a recent interview with Today.com, Miss Pennsylvania, Valerie Gatto, spoke candidly of her conception from rape. According to Gatto’s biography, her then ninteen-year-old mother was raped at knife-point walking home from work. Gatto’s mother intended to place her for adoption, feeling as though a “traditional family” could better care for her. Her family intervened and helped Gatto’s mother raise her. The beauty contestant desires to use her campaign as Miss Pennsylvania and as a Miss USA hopeful to spread awareness about sexual assault.
Gatto’s campaign has come under fire for its methodology. She is quoted encouraging women to avoid rape by being “present, to be aware of your surroundings.” Through a feminist and social work lens, this is immediately concerning. I won’t lie; I am a brown belt in karate and cross-trained in ground fighting–in part because being a woman makes me a target for violence. Regardless, national anti-violence campaigns should avoid at all costs implying women can and should prevent their own rapes when it is rapists who need to stop raping.
Embedded in Gatto’s public narrative and perhaps less apparent but incredibly important are implications for serving individuals conceived from rape. As a person conceived from rape who is connected to a broader community affected by this issue, I can attest to the prevalent societal gaps in a respectful and understanding approach to these individuals and their mothers. Social workers are in an advantageous position to be allies and close these gaps.
Social work’s strive to see those in the margins and validate their humanity is vital here. Individuals conceived from rape are commonly spoken of as though we do not exist. Perhaps this is what most compellingly draws me to Gattos’ narrative–she expects people to respectfully listen to her when respectful dialogue on this issue is not the media’s norm. Headlines broadcasting the abortion debate refer to us as “rape babies,” “children of rape,” or “children of rapists.” I was mortified when “rape babies” became the source of a joke on The Daily Show. I cringe when those claiming to be “pro-choice” quickly abandon their resolve for unquestioned choice for women based on rape conception because it’s simply too easy to instead argue that being a mother to “rape baby” must be awful.
I once sat in a small diner on my lunch break when such a news feature flickered across the TV adorning a bright orange stucco wall. A lively abortion debate between patrons ensued as I stared at the ice floating in my diet soda. “I don’t think women should get to have abortions” one man finally bellowed. “Unless it’s rape,” he clarified. “I mean, can you imagine what it is like to be one of those rape babies?” All at once I felt vulnerable–yet invisible.
Gatto’s mother “decided to raise Valerie with the help of God and her family” (source). It is difficult for people to imagine that individuals conceived from rape are loved or wanted by their families. When I reunited with my family of origin as an adult adoptee, friends and family were shocked that I was embraced and welcomed. One friend said, “I am so glad she wanted to know you, considering the circumstances.”
As a social worker, valuing human relationships and approaching my work from a strengths perspective means I apply these principles to everyone and check my biases when I find myself coming to knee-jerk conclusions about someone’s family. I often remind people, I am a person; I am not what my biological father did. Gatto’s narrative, my own, and those of many others I am privileged to know are an abrupt push-back to the deficit focused approach that we are nothing more “painful reminders” to families who cannot possibly love us. Leaving our families unsupported, these assumptions pervade an unimaginable shame.
I regularly receive messages from biological and adoptive parents and from individuals conceived from rape, their children, and their spouses. How can I tell my child the truth about her story without her feeling shame?…….My husband just found out about his conception; how can I help him deal with the shame he feels?……..Where are the support sources for victims and their children?–I can’t find any. Shame is so isolating.
Gatto claims her mother would have placed her for adoption had her family not intervened and offered her support. Here’s another bias that needs to be checked: adoption is not inevitable. Whether in Pro-Life or Pro-Choice circles, or debates between, rape conception is persistently spoken of as though there are only two choices: adoption or abortion. The bias that individuals conceived from rape can’t be loved by their families–that adoption is a way of getting rid of presumably unwanted children–narrows choices women have to make about pregnancy and parenting. Whether abortion, adoption, or parenting, survivors of rape are entitled to self-determination and support for their decision.
“Rape babies,” “painful reminders,” “rapist’s baby,” “unwanted”–what Gatto’s narrative reminds me of most is that we tell our stories best. A few years ago, I discovered my own public narrative featured in a column of an Irish newspaper as a part of the contentious abortion debate in a country with a history of incredibly restrictive abortion policies. I was criticized for my stance on choice as someone who argues for women’s self-determination in health care and who maintains that my mother’s pregnancy choices, whatever they might have been, are none of my business.
When Gatto says she doesn’t share her story for self-promotion but to be an advocate for chance, I believe her. Regardless of how I feel about her approach to anti-violence advocacy, I have experienced and witnessed the shame disclosing conception from rape brings. This is not an easy story to tell.
When another columnist re-framed my story through a stereotypical lens, I was no longer the empowered woman I believed myself to be. The columnist claimed I came to erroneous conclusions about my own story–that I failed to realize how lucky I was not to be aborted in order to be in the position of advocating for women. I ask you, which would you rather be: free to come to your own conclusions or treated as though your existence is shameful? When we do not honor individuals conceived from rape as the rightful narrators of their own life story, we miss out on everything we could know about supporting them.