Most men don’t rape. This is what the studies tell us.
Why, then, does male culture romanticize rape? Why are images of violence against women in the media intriguing to so many men? Why are woman-bashing radio hosts, such as Tom Leykis and Howard Stern, so extraordinarily popular among young to middle-aged men? Why do men enjoy seeing the romanticization of force and domination of women in the movies? Why do men support and participate in rape culture if they don’t themselves rape?
Such questions came to mind when a new book called A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion hit the media circuit, receiving so much fanfare that its publishers, MIT Press, moved up the date of publication by several months. The Sciences, an academic journal put out by The New York Academy of Sciences, featured an excerpt of the book. The authors, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, were given the spotlight on Dateline, The Today Show, CNN, as well as National Public Radio. The book received major, often uncritical, coverage in newspapers around the world and, of course, was extensively promoted by hate-radio personalities like Tom Leykis.
The media’s excitement is based on the book’s argument that “rape is, in its very essence, a sexual act” that developed through evolution. Evolution created men’s desire to rape, the argument goes, by favoring unattractive men who raped over unattractive ones who didn’t. The unattractive men who raped passed on their sexuality through their genes, and therefore all modern men are biologically wired to rape women.
Because the authors and their publishers cannot admit to having a pro-rape agenda, they claim to be motivated by the desire to prevent men’s sexual attacks on women. Rape is best prevented, the authors argue, by requiring “educational” classes for those trying to obtain a driver’s license. At these classes, the instructors would explain to young men how natural rape is, and then tell them that they shouldn’t rape. Instructors would advise young women to cover their bodies so they don’t provoke sexual attacks. In their scholarly concern for women’s safety, The Sciences illustrated Thornhill and Palmer’s argument with pictures of naked women and women’s body parts.
In her critical response to the book, Mary Koss, professor of Public Health, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, points out that Thornhill and Palmer never subjected their deductions to peer review, and did not respond in their book to the peer criticism they have received over the years — a very unorthodox practice, given the cloak of “science” they wrap their argument in. Furthermore, the authors relied on documentation about insects and birds to support their theory about the nature of man, but they made virtually no reference to empirical findings on sexual assault.
The “evidence” that Thornhill and Palmer present to support their rape theory ranges from the misleading to the patently absurd. To support their misleading argument that men have a rapist sexuality aimed at increasing their chances at reproduction, they claim that most rape victims are women of childbearing age. At first glance, the claim that such a large group of women is the most frequent target of rape seems quite plausible. However, as Koss points out, studies have shown that rape victims are disproportionately prepubescent. The Rape in America national survey reported that one third of victims were under eleven years old when first raped, and that a total of two thirds were under seventeen. Many other victims are post-menopausal women. Still others are men.
The authors also make the absurd assertion that the more violence that victims are subjected to the less trauma they suffer — because of evolution’s preference for females who want, above all, evidence to prove to their mate they were raped and did not have an affair (the more violence, the more evidence). Of course, studies show the exact opposite — the level of trauma increases with the severity of violence.
The book’s sweeping success with the media and the publishing establishment clearly does not reside in its scholarly achievement, or even layperson’s logic, but in its ideology. Without a doubt, if the book made the very same argument — that men inherently desire to rape women as a result of evolution — but presented a different conclusion — that women should therefore stay away from and organize against men — the book would not have received any mainstream publicity, and certainly would not have found such notable publishers as MIT Press and The Sciences.
Yet if the argument that men are rapists by nature is taken seriously, the only reasonable conclusion is that women should immediately get away from, and indeed, organize against those who pose an extreme and irresolvable danger to their lives and sexual integrity.
Certainly one of the most scientifically indisputable results of evolution is the powerful instinct for self-defense and self-preservation. The authors conveniently leave out a very basic question: if men are programmed by nature to rape, why don’t women protect themselves by treating men as rapists?
Let’s consider some possibilities for women’s direct resistance: Women could castrate men who rape them, as Lorena Bobbitt did. Women could castrate their sons. Women could organize themselves in gangs and attack men who rape. Women could preemptively attack men because they are men and therefore likely to rape. Women could poison men, or run them down with cars. Women could carry guns and shoot men. At the very least, women could stay away from men, sleep in separate beds, live in separate houses, reside in separate countries.
Yet women don’t resist in such basic ways because society regulates its violence, and within this regulation, most women don’t view men as rapists. For a rape system to continue, men’s violence against women must remain hidden and disguised. A rape system must also protect men from women’s retaliation, while ensuring that most women remain trusting and intimate with men.
For a society to sustain the systematic rape of women by men, while preserving women’s trust of men requires coordinated behavior among men — men who rape and men who don’t rape. This coordinated behavior results in a society that ferociously protects men, including rapists, from any violence carried out by individual women targetted with violence, and puts virtually all women at risk of men’s “unpredictable” violence, encouraging them to look to men for protection through circumstances of intimacy.
It was men, not nature or evolution, that created social systems to keep women intimate with men, even while being targetted by men. Men, not nature, created systems to keep women economically subordinate, culturally disempowered, and politically marginalized. Men, not nature, have cultivated a rape culture by teaching boys that females are “other,” inferior, and made to be dominated through sex.
Most men don’t rape, but most men do perpetuate, defend, and participate in these machinations of male supremacy, without which rape would be rare, if it existed at all.
Most men don’t rape, yet they see to it that the multi-billion dollar a year pornography industry flourishes; that the sexual objectification of women remains ubiquitous; that rape is trivialized, romanticized, promoted through movies, TV, music, hate-radio, news media, academia, and publishing houses. They see to it that men who rape have little to fear, while women who harm or kill rapists are sent to prison or insane asylums.
Most men don’t rape, yet historically they have denied women basic civil rights, excluded them from power, erased them through language, passed laws requiring them to wear movement-restrictive clothing, institutionalized female servitude, theorized female inferiority — all of which amounts to men’s metaphorical rape of women, and all of which creates the circumstances that make physical rape possible.
Most men don’t physically rape. If they did, the social machinery behind rape might collapse. If most men raped, women might no longer trust men. Women might find little reason to collaborate with men’s sexism. They might identify men as their enemy. They might fight back against men, effectively and with purpose.
Most men do not want to rape. But most men want to keep the rape-system in place, regulated and functional. Natural selection, which is based on competition among males, does not cause men to cooperate with one another to oppress women as a class. Natural selection does not cause men to regulate violence against women and institutionalize male supremacy. Rather, men built and participate in the rape-system because of what it gives them: class power over women, including sexual access to women, constant assurance that they are superior to women, and a violence-based social context that allows for the sexual domination and possession of women they love.
Dire as this conclusion is, there is much more hope in it than the male supremacist argument that rape has no real cause beyond biological, reproduction-motivated impulses.
We already know that mankind is capable of incomprehensible inhumanity and tyranny. History, in almost any given place, at almost any point in time, reveals this to be true. History also reveals that mankind is capable of compassion, courage, and effective resistance to cruelty and oppression.
Men have, throughout known history, constructed systems of slavery, organized wars, designed life-threatening technology. Men have also struggled to end slavery, to stop imperialism, to dismantle nuclear weapons. Large numbers of men carry on the fight against racism. They fight against global warming. They fight for the rights of oppressed peoples even when they are not among the oppressed. They commit vandalism for animal rights, and civil disobedience to save the redwoods. They fight for the homeless. They expose corporate greed. They organize against the misuse of genetic engineering. They put themselves on the line to shut down the WTO.
But then there’s rape. Few men actively fight against the system of rape. As much as men love women, care about women, interact with women, depend on women, rape is the one institution of oppression that has escaped any sizable opposition on the part of men. Instead, some men offer enthusiastic ears to the promotion of pro-rape books. Many defend the “free speech” of pornographers and woman-bashers. Many sabotage the efforts of women in their lives to succeed and gain positions of power. Many men pressure their wives and girlfriends not to demand gender equality. Some men argue in one breath, “Not all men rape — what are you, a man-hater?” and in the next, “Rape is natural to all men.”
Of course, nature makes many things possible. But rape — like war, like slavery — is a man-made system of terror and oppression. Men have carefully constructed it, and they are able to dismantle it. The question that won’t be heard on the media circuit anytime soon is: When will men stop perpetuating and defending their rape-system? When will they start organizing in significant numbers — and significant numbers are all we need — to bring their rape-system to an end?