A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion
by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000, $28.95 (251 pages).
A Natural History of Rape by Thornhill and Palmer is grounded in Darwinian theory. The authors argue that rape is a sexually motivated behavior, not an act of power and control. Rape is viewed as adaptation to historical environmental changes, although the two authors do not agree as to whether rape is an adaptation designed to increase males' reproductive success or whether it is an adaptational by-product that facilitates males' access to consenting females. Both authors do agree, however, that the rape adaptation in human males is psychological. As support, they use the example of male scorpionflies who have a notal organ (clamp) located on the top of their abdomen that, as far as the authors can tell, was designed specifically for rape. This organ is only used to gain sexual access to unwilling female scorpionflies when males have no nuptial gift (hardened salvia or a dead insect). Human males do not have a similar rape organ, but the authors argue that the rape adaptation is found in the male psyche.
However, it is not only the male psyche that leads to rape. Thornhill and Palmer spend Chapter 2 discussing the evolution of sex differences that create an environment conducive to male rape. In short, in this environment females control access to what males want—sex—for whatever purpose—copulation or reproduction. It was this situation that set the conditions for male competition for voluntary sexual access to females or involuntary sexual access in the form of rape. While the two authors do not agree which of two competing evolutionary hypotheses is correct—that rape is a byproduct of men's adaptation for the pursuit of casual sex with many partners, or that rape is an adaptation in and of itself—they do view rape as being centered in men's evolved sexuality. Their argument seems to be that under the right set of environmental conditions, all men will rape. As a social scientist I do not believe that all men will rape, and if I were a man I would find this book highly offensive. Thornhill and Palmer argue that if females were less discriminating and agreeable to more sexual activity with males, there would be no need for the rape adaptation. Likewise, if males were more discriminating and desired only sexual intercourse with consenting females, rape would not be needed. The only reasons human males rape—and they argue that rape is a male-only phenomena—is that the evolutionary selection process favored one adaptation over another.
As Darwinists, these authors see themselves as having the only valid explanation of rape. Throughout the book they dismiss social science and feminist theories and research as being nonscientific. Because of this assertion, the authors propose that rape prevention programs should direct attention to the sexual dimensions of rape rather than to the theory of power and control proposed by feminists and many social scientists. The authors propose in Chapter 8 that schools develop rape prevention programs that teach males about their sexuality and how they must learn to control their natural sexual impulses to prevent themselves from raping. They offer some possible incentives such as "take the course or you don't get a driver's license."
However, if males rape because women deny them access to sex whenever and with whomever they desire it, then females must be educated about the differences between male and female sexuality. The authors propose that females, separately from males, also be required to take a rape prevention course. The course would focus on learning about males' natural sexual impulses, which under certain conditions lead to rape, and the females' responsibility for preventing this. What are their suggestions for females? Avoid dress, behavior and situations that increase the risk of rape. In Chapter 10, the authors propose some age-old and modern-day practices. These include separate bathrooms, chaperoned activities, self-defense for women and programs that teach both males and females the dangers of the two sexes being alone in isolated and private areas. The authors quote an evolutionary anthropologist from New Guinea: "Men and women both assume that if a young woman is encountered in an isolated area by a man who is not closely related, that man will rape her" (p. 186). This type of thinking reinforces the belief that if women are raped it is their fault.
For those in the criminal justice system, Thornhill and Palmer note that rape may be entirely based on biology, but men can consciously choose not to rape. They argue that rape could be prevented if laws and punishments treated it as having only a sexual origin. The authors suggest that incarceration is a good deterrent because it removes young males from the competition at a critical period in their development. Monetary penalties that reduce their social status and thus their attractiveness to females would also be good deterrents. Acknowledging that modern societies, for ethical reasons, would oppose literal castration, the authors advocate for the use of chemical castration and hormonal treatments that reduce sexual drive. They view current treatments and penalties that do not consider rape a sexual act as doomed to failure. I, however, do not see the treatment model for sex offenders proposed by Thornhill and Palmer as a viable alternative to current programs that emphasize the importance of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional components as well as the sexual aspect.
As a social scientist, feminist and woman I found this book offensive, as I believe will most men and women who do not agree that all men, given the opportunity, will rape and that women play a role in their rape victimization. The tone of the book is also extremely condescending with respect to the social sciences. For example, the authors state that "not only is the bulk of the social science literature of rape clearly indifferent to scientific standards; many of the studies exhibit overt hostility toward biological approaches. The message of these studies is clearly political rather than scientific" (p. 148). This is only one of numerous "put downs" of social science and feminist studies of rape.
Further, from this reviewer's perspective, Thornhill's and Palmer's book is seriously flawed. First, the book does not provide convincing answers to such questions as why men rape, how rape can be prevented, and what the penalties and treatments should be. There are too many equally or more plausible explanations for rape than those derived from Darwinian theory. Throughout the book the authors criticize and dismiss feminist and social science explanations of rape and related research. Their view of culture and learning is that an individual's cultural behavior is merely a product of environmentally-related genetic adaptations. It was in opposition to this narrow view of human behavior that social science and feminist theories and corresponding research emerged. Thornhill and Palmer would have us return to the days of Darwinism, yet provide less than convincing data to support their position. Most examples used to support their view come from the insect world, with very few references to primates, such as apes and monkeys, to which humans are more closely related in the evolutionary chain. The few cited studies that make use of human populations are flawed and based on nonrepresentative samples.
In addition, the book presents an image of all males as little more than sexual predators who must be controlled by environments that prevent them from raping. This means that females must be continuously on their guard so as not to excite males sexually and, likewise, not place themselves in situations where they can be raped. This line of reasoning returns us to the "blame the victim" attitude that feminists have so long fought to eradicate and replace with an attitude of "perpetrator responsibility."
The Darwinian theory used by these authors has as a premise the idea that only males can rape. The definition of rape used by the authors is: "an event that occurred without the woman's consent, involved use of force or threat of force, and involved sexual penetration of the victim's vagina, mouth or rectum"—but both males and females can rape and be raped, and more than a penis can be used to accomplish rape. A weakness of the book is that the authors do not pursue or present their theory with any in-depth consideration of these points.
As a social scientist concerned with sound scientific research as well as finding ethical and sensible strategies for rape prevention, intervention and deterrence, I would not recommend this book to those who share these concerns. Thornhill and Palmer's book is extremely egocentric, touting Darwinism as offering the sine qua non explanation for rape. They dismiss as inconsequential all feminist and social science theory and research because it highlights power and control factors rather than the sexual dimension of rape. While not all rapists may be motivated by a desire for power and control, certainly not all rapists are sexually motivated. The thinking advocated in A Natural History of Rape would return us to the days when social policies and the justice system were based primarily on the belief that biology is destiny. If you share this perspective, this book is for you.
Sharon K. Araji is Professor of Sociology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.