Rape, Evolution, And Untenable Hypotheses

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image, and Julius Agrippa for taking the photo.

The hypothesis that rape is a hardwired human behavior is not a new one, and it remains controversial. One new take on the situation, though, is the hypothesis that women have evolved to protect themselves from rapists. At first glance, this is an interesting idea–but sadly, it relies on fragmentary evidence and misogynistic premises.

First, the author’s narrow definition of rape as “the use of force, or threat of force, to achieve penile-vaginal penetration of a woman without her consent” ignores the spectrum of sexual assault that does not involve intercourse, and which is no less damaging to a woman (whether we’re talking emotionally, psychologically, or in terms of her reproductive worth or ability to select a mate, as this author seems most interested in the Darwinian effects of rape). The author, to his credit, acknowledges that studying the history of rape in human evolution is not the same as condoning the behavior… but that’s about the only place I seem to agree with him.

According to the article, a handful of studies have yielded evidence that ovulating women, or women who are at the peak of fertility in their menstrual cycle, are stronger than usual, assume that strange males are rapists, avoid dangerous situations, and become more racist. These conclusions, though, are far from inevitable. For instance, one study showed that ovulating women who read a short narrative about sexual stalking demonstrated better handgrip strength than women who weren’t ovulating, women on birth control, or women who read a non-threatening control narrative. Reading about sexual assault, however, is not the same thing as being threatened by it, so I can’t see how the author concludes that ovulating women are stronger when faced with the possibility of sexual assault. Also, as a rock climber, I can tell you that handgrip strength is different from overall strength. I would be curious to talk to a self-defense instructor or a trained fight about how much of a factor handgrip strength is in determining how a fight between two individuals turns out.

There are also problems with sample size and demographics. Some of the studies rely solely on college-aged females; these studies can therefore give us some great information about college-aged females, but it’s difficult to determine how universally these results may be applied. And for all the scholars who want to talk about evolution and sexuality–in many early societies, people became sexually active as soon as  they were able to (shorter life expectancy and all that; people had to mate young and often in order to leave enough progeny behind). So if these evolutionary-minded scholars are really interested in how evolution and rape interacted in early humans, they ought to be studying younger populations.

Demographics is also a problem in the article’s fourth assertion, that women become more racist when they’re ovulating. Well, white women do. Well, when they see pictures of black men as opposed to white men. Well… and that’s all we know. What about the regional identity of the women in the study? I’d be willing to bet that other races are found to be more threatening in locations with more entrenched racism and stereotyping. I also take issue with the concession that “that people of different skin colors came into contact with one another only in recent times, evolutionarily speaking,” because, no, that’s simply not true. I have this on good authority from an archaeologist, and I suspect that many branches of the social sciences would tell you the same thing. Different groups of people have been coming into contact with one another, trading with one another, colonizing and enslaving each other, since long before the European powers figured out how to do this for profit.

Additionally, I see no reason we couldn’t interpret this evidence in an entirely different light. For instance, the author writes: “spousal rape is most likely to occur when the husband finds out (or suspects) his wife has been unfaithful, suggesting that he is attempting to supplant another man’s seed. (In fact, the distinctive, mushroom-capped shape of the human penis is designed to perform the specialized function of removing competitors’ sperm, which indicates an ancestral history of females having sex with multiple males within a 24-hr period.)” Does an ancestral history of women having sex with multiple males indicate that rape was a common occurrence… or that monogamy wasn’t? Perhaps non-monogamous ways of life were frequent among enough early humans that those behaviors became ingrained into our genetics. Perhaps the so-called “hardwired” search for multiple partners, sometimes aggressively, sometimes not, reflects a past where both men and women benefited from non-monogamous practices.

I’m not the first person to make this suggestion; I’ve been meaning to read Sex at Dawn in order to explore these ideas further. And I’m not saying that we should ignore the possibility that rape has been with the human species for a very long time, up to and including being encoded into our genetic history. But if you’re going to make these claims, be careful about how you interpret your evidence. You risk missing other ways to interpret things (as well as pissing off feminists who dislike biological determinism).

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.