How "Natural" Is Rape?

Despite a daffy new theory, it's not just a guy in touch with his inner caveman

By Barbara Ehrenreich, Time Magazine - January 31, 2000

It was cute the first time around: when the president lost his head over Monica's thong undies, that is, and the evolutionary psychologists declared that he was just following the innate biological urge to, tee-hee, spread his seed. Natural selection favors the reproductively gifted, right? But the latest daffy Darwinist attempt to explain male bad behavior is not quite so amusing. Rape, according to evolutionary theorists Randy Thornhill and Craig T Palmer, represents just another seed-spreading technique favored by natural selection. Sure, it's nasty, brutish, and short on foreplay. But it gets the job done.

Thornhill and Palmer aren't endorsing rape, of course. In their article in the latest issue of the Sciences -- which is already generating a high volume of buzz although their book, A Natural History of Rape, won't be out until April -- they say they just want to correct the feminist fallacy that "rape is not about sex" it's about violence and domination. The authors argue, among other things, that since the majority of victims are women of childbearing age, the motive must be lust and the intent, however unconscious, must be to impregnate. Hence rape is not an act of pathology but a venerable old strategy for procreation. What's "natural" isn't always nice. 

Now, there are people who reject any attempt to apply evolutionary theory to human behavior, and as far as I'm concerned, they can go back to composing their annual letters to Santa Claus. Obviously, humans have been shaped by natural selection (though it's not always known how). We are not the descendants of the kindest or wisest of hominids -- only of those who managed, by cunning or luck, to produce a few living offspring. But is rape really an effective strategy for guys who, deep down in their genes, just want to be fruitful and multiply? 

There are plenty of evolutionary psychologists who would answer with are sounding no. They emphasize the evolutionary value of the human male's" parental investment" -- his tendency to stick around after the act of impregnation and help out with the kids. Prehistoric dads may not have read many bedtime stories, but, in this account, they very likely brought home the occasional antelope haunch, and they almost certainly played a major role in defending the family from four-legged predators. In contrast, the rapist generally operates on a hit-and-run basis which may be alright for stocking sperm banks, but is not quite so effective if the goal is to produce offspring who will survive in a challenging environment. The children of guys who raped-and-ran must have been a scrawny lot and doomed to end up on some leopard's lunch menu. 

There's another problem with rape -- again, from a strictly Darwinian perspective. Even if it isn't "about violence" as feminists have claimed, it almost always involved violence or at least the threat thereof; otherwise, it isn't rape. Thornhill and Palmer downplay the amount of physical violence accompanying rape, claiming that no more than 22% of victims suffer any "gratuitous" violence beyond that necessary to subdue them. But we are still talking about appalling levels of damage to the mother of the rapist's prospective offspring. Most rape victims suffer long-term emotional consequences -- like depression and memory loss - that are hardly conducive to successful motherhood. It's a pretty dumb Darwinian specimen who can't plant his seed without breaking the "vessel" in the process.

Thornhill and Palmer's insistence that the rapist isn't a psychopath, just an ordinary fellow who's in touch with his inner caveman, leads some dubious prescriptions. They want to institute formal training for boys in how to resist their "natural" sexual impulses to rape. Well, sure, kids should learn that rape is wrong, along with all other forms of assault.  But the emphasis on rape as a natural male sexual impulse is bound to baffle those boys -- and I would like to think there are more than a few of them out there -- whose sexual fantasies have never drifted in a rape-ward direction. 

As for the girls, Thornhill and Palmer want them to realize that since rape is really "about sex," it very much matters how they dress. But, where is the evidence that women in miniskirts are more likely to be raped than women in dirndls? Women were raped by thousands in Bosnia, for example, and few of them were wearing bikinis or bustiers. 

Yes, rape is "about sex," in which one person's pain, and possibly permanent injury, is the occasion for the other one's pleasure. What most of us mean by sex is something mutual and participatory, loving and uplifting or at least flirty and fun. In fact, making the world safe for plunging necklines and thong undies is a goal that enlightened members of both sexes ought to be able to get behind. As for those guys who can't distinguish between sex and rape, I don't care whether they're as "natural" as granola, they don't deserve to live in the company of women.

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