Rape ain’t natural! Misogyny masquerading as science

Review: A Natural History of Rape — Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion By Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

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I have a confession to make. I haven’t read this book all the way through. After reading, on page 103, that a women’s waist size is related to her ability to detect the risk of rape, my scepticism began to distract me.

But it was the assertion that those who connect rape with patriarchy is a view which “would seem to suggest that boys would be better off without paternal presence” which made me toss the thing aside. Given that the authors have obviously read extensively feminist analyses of rape in particular and patriarchy in general, this is a deliberate deceitful conflation of the notions of paternity and patriarchy. But it is in keeping with the nature of the entire work — a vicious ideological attack on the feminist view that rape is about power, not sex, and that biology is no one’s destiny.

In this male supremacist diatribe you’ll find distortion aplenty, including the misuse of research data, special pleading, circular arguments and the begging of questions. What you will not find is so much as a paragraph of scientific evidence for Thornhill and Palmer’s assertion that rape is biologically programmed into male humans in order that the weaker of us can have a chance at passing on our genes.

The only rationalisation they can offer for their biological determinist assertion is that, apparently, scorpionflies—and a few other species, both mammalian and otherwise— use “force” when attempting to mate.  I won’t bore you with the details, because the use of the word “force” in relation to insect behaviour shows how nonsensical the argument is. In the context of rape, force means coercion — that is, the imposition of one person’s will upon another. Since when did insects develop free will?

If the consequences of their theory were not so serious, we could afford to laugh them off as just another pair of crackpot pseudo-scientists.

“Evolutionary psychology,” the field in which Thornhill and Palmer “work,” is the latest manifestation of a long line of rightwing theories aimed at providing simple answers to complex problems. Sociobiology, eugenics and phrenology are previous designations for the same phenomenon. All have presented themselves as sciences, which they certainly are not, and all turn out to be ideological justifications for the depredations of capitalism.

Phrenology was invented to justify slavery and colonialism by falsely claiming that Europeans were more intelligent than other races. It also justified the oppression of women because they allegedly also had smaller brains. Eugenics was invented to justify imperialist domination of colonised nations. It fed the policies of Hitler concerning Jews and Romani, and was used by successive Australian governments to justify assimilation, child stealing and genocide. Sociobiology was an attempt to alibi the Vietnam War by “proving” that humans, in particular men, were naturally aggressive.

The latest version is part of the general backlash by the Right against the gains of feminism and other mass movements like the Civil Rights movement and the Queer liberation struggle. It does this by claiming that every nuance of human behaviour is biologically determined. Feminists are familiar with this claim, because arguments about it formed one of the great debates of the movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, human beings are animals. But Thornhill and Palmer take the determinist position to its megalomaniac extreme, claiming that opposition to their theories is itself based on evolution. That is, our brains have been pre-programmed with a reluctance to believe explanations involving evolution: “Evolved psychological intuitions about behavioral causation can mislead individuals into believing that they know as much as experts do about proximate human motivation.” It is not hard to see where these guys get their male supremacist views about rape.

Years ago, I presented a talk on male aggression, and the argument remains the same:

“Scientists, and in the case of the topic at hand, pseudo-scientists, are influenced by the cultural prejudices of the individuals concerned…Science can serve the interests of the ruling class very well indeed…One problem with sweeping labels and generalisations [is this:] You might think you know what it is you are discussing, but on examination there are other factors which turn the whole problem on its head. [In situations of uncertainty] one must impose a prejudice…or one must say, ‘I can’t decide.’

“Unfortunately, as in many facets of bourgeois science and ideology, we are expected to make the first choice, to accept the innate aggressiveness theory, and to apply it unthinkingly. The usefulness of this to the ruling class in general terms should be obvious: unthinking, unquestioning responses are all that are required for the production of surplus value and the continued ‘quiet enjoyment’ by the bourgeoisie of its unearned wealth…If people are ‘naturally’ aggressive, or ‘evil’ or ‘selfish’ or whatever…revolution is impossible, capitalism is inevitable…Notice how this conclusion gels nicely with the conclusion of the Right. Accept your place…because you are unable to rise above it.”

Biological determinists attempt to use the obviously animal origin of the human organism to get away with a trick. If humans evolved directly and without interruption from “lower” species, then one can with some justification compare the behaviour of other animals with that of humans. But humans evolved from whatever was their biological predecessor by a quantum leap, and so the whole argument falls apart. The behaviour of any person can be reasonably and scientifically compared with that of other persons, given certain conditions. But it cannot be compared with that of animals.

Thornhill and Palmer’s assertion that rape is biologically determined is explicitly used by them to blame feminists for increases in rape and sexual violence. They claim that the feminist position that rape is about power, not sex, has misled authorities into sociological, rather than punitive, responses to rape. They even trot out the old garbage that women’s dress choices affect the chance of rape!

What other explanation could there be for rape than the holy writ purveyed by Thornhill and Palmer?

Here’s one: rape is not universal in current human societies, and there is evidence that it was less prevalent in the past. Why would that be? Because in some current societies, and in every ancient society, women are not the chattels of men, and property is held in common. The real reason for rape in places like Australia and the U.S.  lies in the power relationship between women and men in these societies. Rape is indeed about power, not sex (except in its most brutal mechanical form).

Can we stop rape in the entire society? Yes we can, if we deal with the power relationships between men and women; if we stamp out sexism, provide equal access to economic resources to both women and men. The pathological breakdown in social relations which is characterised by violent acts in general and rape in particular, arises from the brutalisation of the poor as a class under capitalism, which makes the husband a proprietor in the nuclear family, and turns women and children into his possessions.

Human society is no more related to that of scorpionflies than fire is to water. That certain “scientific” theories attempt to do so is a reflection either on the biases or the political leanings of their proponents.

This book is a fraudulent, reactionary and dangerous tirade against feminism. It has no scientific basis and reflects only the desire of middle class white men for a return to the halcyon days when women knew their “place.”  Avoid it. Spend your money and time on something useful!

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