The Science of Sex:

Glenn Wilson on Rape



It is frequently asserted that men do not understand the full horror of the experience of being raped and that judges are often lenient, even sympathetic, with rapists.

Paradoxically this state of affairs is exacerbated by the feminist argument that female sexuality is the same as that of males. Any man who truly believed that would be unsympathetic towards a woman who had been raped, because the chances are that he would regard the idea of being raped by women as a positive fantasy.

Some years ago, a young Mormon man was held captive by his attractive ex-girlfriend who had pursued him from the United States to Britain, where he was engaged in missionary work, and he was forced to engage in sexual activity with her. When he laid a complaint of rape against her, the media and courts reacted more with amusement than horror, most men in the street taking the attitude 'I should be so lucky.' Clearly there is widespread social consciousness of the fact that female-on-male rape is a rarity, not because men are stronger than women but because they are seldom unwilling to participate in sex, whether with partners known to them or complete strangers.

There is a popular feminist theory that rape has little to do with sex at all and is motivated by hatred of women and the desire to dominate and humiliate them (Brownmiller, 1975). This theory has difficulty in explaining why rapists choose poor, young women as victims rather than powerful, older women and why rapists themselves derive from particular age and social groups. It is also incorrect to assume that rape reflects personal or social pathology. Rape occurs in all societies, modern and primitive, as well as non-human primates such as orang-utans (see Chapter 3), and most rapists are not psychotic or otherwise mentally disordered (Petty and Dawson, 1989).

A theory of rape that fits the known facts much more comfortably is the evolutionary or socio-biological one. Thornhill and Thornhill (1987) introduce this theory by describing the sexual behaviour of scorpionflies, in which the male may gain sex from the female either by presenting a gift of food during courtship (in which case the female submits voluntarily) or without a nuptial offering, in which case force is necessary to restrain her. The forced copulation is not an abnormal kind of behaviour but is an alternative strategy for gaining sex used more often when there is a shortage of food in the environment to use for gifts.

Socio-biologists propose that human rape appears not as an aberration but as an alternative gene-promotion strategy that is most likely to be adopted by the 'losers' in the competitive, harem-building struggle. If the means of access to legitimate, consenting sex is not available, then a male may be faced with the choice between force or genetic extinction. If he can succeed in impregnating one or two 'stolen' women before being castrated or lynched by the 'owner' males, then his genes (and thus behavioural tendencies) will have been passed on to the next generation of males.

Of course, none of this 'genetic logic' is conscious, nor does it constitute moral justification for rape, but the evolutionary theory does provide a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Most obviously it explains why rape is an almost exclusively male crime – there is a gross imbalance regarding the commodity value of sexual services for men and women respectively. Secondly, it is consistent with the characteristics of typical rapists – young, virile, high in sex drive, lacking in impulse control, low on the social ladder and likely to have a history of burglary. Thirdly, this theory predicts the characteristics of the typical victim – young, sexually attractive, fertile and vulnerable.

The possibility that rapists are able successfully to evaluate fertility in potential victims is suggested by the finding that women who have been raped are unusually likely to get pregnant as a result (Parkes, 1976). It is also increasingly recognized that if a woman looks like she will put up considerable resistance, most rapists will move on to easier prey, rather in the same manner that a car thief steals cars that are easy to break into. This fact is predictable on the basis of evolutionary theory but rather hard to account for in terms of the 'hatred' theory.

An interesting idea about the evolution of human rape has been put forward by Alexander and Noonan (1979). These authors note that although some anthropologists like Desmond Morris talk about extended receptivity in the human female compared with other primates, it is really more true to describe women as continuously 'non-receptive.' In order to support their strategy of selective mate choice and long-term intimate bonding with particular men, they have evolved a concealed time of ovulation in a form that is like a permanent non-heat. The effect of this is not only to distribute copulations across the cycle, thus promoting bonding and marriage, but also, unfortunately, to encourage pirate copulations – or rape. Since a woman's receptiveness is not highly correlated with ovulation (fertility), there is less reason for the human male to restrict mating to receptive, consenting females. Non-receptive women can still get pregnant, so their protests are, genetically speaking, irrelevant.

Alexander and Noonan note that in many societies rape occurs quite frequently. The women usually submit in order to avoid being hurt and they seldom complain later, perhaps for fear of disrupting the bond with their cuckolded mate. Such rapes appear 'normal,' in that they are not especially associated with psychopathology or murder, and the authors suggest that connections of this kind may arise in our society because of the severe penalties attached to rape. Rapists in modern Western society are more likely to be outlaws; moreover they may murder their victim to avoid identification and punishment.



Glenn Wilson, The Great Sex Divide, pp. 128-131. Peter Owen (London) 1989; Scott-Townsend (Washington D.C.) 1992.




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