In 2001, a biologist and anthropologist teamed up to publish A Natural History of Rape, a book that used evolutionary biology to explain the causes of rape and to recommend new preventive approaches. Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer said they wanted to challenge the dearly held idea that rape is not about sex.
They were contending with the feminist writer Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 assertion that rape was motivated not by lust, but by the urge to control and dominate. “Rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear,” Brownmiller had written.
But Thornhill and Palmer disagreed. “Rape is, in its very essence, a sexual act,” they said. In other words the scientists were categorising rape as a natural, even if undesirable, phenomenon in nature. Rape, to them, is a consequence of evolution. “We fervently believe that, just as the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck are the result of aeons of past Darwinian selection, so also is rape.”
One should stop at this point and carefully critique this position, which rests on the curious premise that men are biologically hardwired to procreate and will do anything possible to achieve that goal, even rape. The science is clear: men, generally, have a higher sex drive than women. But, of what use is this knowledge when discussing rape prevention? Thornhill and Palmer say this ‘male desperation’ realisation should put an end to the idea that the way women dress does not provoke the rapist into action. In other words, if you want to reduce your chances of being raped, watch the way you dress.
The duo also argue that unsupervised dating in cars and private homes accompanied by alcohol be curtailed. If we want to live in a rape-free society, men and women should only interact in public spaces. Also, if we want to live in a murder-free society, no one should leave their houses; we should all live alone, in separate huts; to procreate, we can send semen and eggs through postmen who deliver the packages to standalone doctors in isolated laboratories.
It is a waste of time to delve into the negative response to Thornhill and Palmer’s ‘groundbreaking’ book (one evolotuionary biologist described it as “the worst efflorescence of evolutionary psychology that I’ve ever seen”), but their ideas of the “naturalness” of rape lives on. Rape isn’t natural, shouldn’t be. To impose the jungle theory of evolutionary biology into the human construct of society should be unacceptable. Just because murder is an evolutionary trait doesn’t mean we have to make room – adjust – for it. We are not going to keep cities safe by asking people to lock themselves indoors after sundown. That’s capitulation.
Is it possible to end rape? Probably not, but the crime should be properly accounted for. The rapist, not the defiled individual, should be the headline. That’s the way we treat most other crimes, by focusing wrath on the perpetrator.
For all of Thornhill and Palmer’s apparent academic exhaustion to use animal kingdom behaviour as a foundation for constructing human values, it is essential to note that their conservatism is steeped in history which facilitated the perpetuation of rape. Brownmiller, of course, was right; rape, essentially is about power. And until those dynamics – Female Status, especially – are radically altered, we will continue to grope in the dark, finding a switch that isn’t there. ✚