New York Times
January 15, 2000
What Provokes a Rapist to Rape?
Scientists Debate Notion of an
By ERICA GOODE
Rape is primarily a crime of violence and power, not
sex. Or so a generation of social scientists and
feminist scholars have argued.
But in a forthcoming book, two
evolutionary scientists say this
view is born of ideology, not
science, and is "based on
empirically erroneous, even
mythological, ideas about human
development, behavior and
In fact, they assert in "A Natural
History of Rape: Biological Bases
of Sexual Coercion," that rape "is
in its very essence a sexual act"
and that the practice may have
evolved because it confers an
All of which, given the current passion for pulling
Darwin into the domain of human sexual affairs, is not
particularly new. But the scientists go further: If rape
prevention programs are to be successful, they
contend, evolution must be taken into account. They
recommend, among other things, advising women that
"the way they dress can put them at risk." They also
recommend instructing young men, before they are
granted drivers' licenses, that "Darwinian selection" is
the reason a man "may be tempted to demand sex
even if he knows that his date truly doesn't want it" or
"may mistake a woman's friendly comment or tight
blouse as an invitation to sex."
Although the book is not scheduled for publication by
the M.I.T. Press until April, manuscript galleys are
circulating. And an excerpt by the authors, Dr. Randy
Thornhill, Regent's professor at the University of New
Mexico, and Dr. Craig T. Palmer, an anthropology
instructor at the University of Colorado, appears in the
current issue of the journal The Sciences. As a result,
the book's thesis is already provoking discussion -- and
Dr. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary
biologist at the University of
Chicago who has read the
excerpt in the journal The
Sciences, called it "the worst
efflorescence of evolutionary
psychology that I've ever seen."
"It's irresponsible, it's
tendentious, it's an advocacy
article and the science is sloppy,"
he said. "There are some
aspects of human behavior that
are fairly clearly evolutionary. But
that's a long way from saying that
rape is adaptive in males."
Dr. Mary P. Koss, an authority on rape and a professor
of public health at the University of Arizona, says that
evolution is a factor in rape.
She cautioned, however, that "it is not proper to set up
evolutionary and social causation as opposites,"
adding, "You have to think about how they work
Dr. Koss dismissed the notion that young men should
be educated about the evolutionary origins of rape. Dr.
Thornhill and Dr. Palmer, she said, "have obviously
never stood up before a group and given a rape
"If you even imply to a male audience that all men are
potential rapists, they go berserk," she said.
And she called the recommendation that women
consider the risks of dressing attractively "absolutely,
On the other hand, Dr. Donald Symons, a professor of
anthropology at the University of California at Santa
Barbara who studies human sexuality from an
evolutionary perspective, said it was important for
researchers to challenge the view that rape had little to
do with sexuality. Though he quibbled with some points
in the book, he said, "This is an argument for a
particular view of male sexuality and it's a view that I
think is correct."
The intensity of the debate may have been inevitable,
given that rape is a volatile political issue. But
evolutionary psychology, once called "sociobiology," is
itself a field that as a whole has been subject to
criticism. Darwinian theory is based on the observation
that evolution selects for success: animals with traits
that promote survival or reproduction pass on their
genes; others die out. Scientists have found an
evolutionary view of animal behavior to be a powerful
tool. But evolutionary psychologists are now seeking to
apply similar principles to all aspects of human
behavior. In some cases, scientists say, these efforts
have proven fruitful.
But critics have argued that in wading into the
complexities of modern human sexual relationships,
scientists are on much shakier ground, often ignoring
the powerful influences of culture. And some critics
assert that the work of some evolutionary psychologists
is tinged with a misogynistic bias.
Susan Brownmiller, whose influential 1975 treatise,
"Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape," set the
tone of the feminist argument and serves as a frequent
punching bag for Dr. Thornhill and Dr. Palmer, said
that the new book "gives sociobiology a bad name."
"Feminists never said that rape had nothing to do with
sex," Ms. Brownmiller said. "Obviously rape involves
the sex organs, and I'm sure many men who do it think
it's a supreme macho act of sex. But they're wrong."
In an interview, Dr. Thornhill, an eminent evolutionary
biologist who moved from work on insects to studies of
human sexual behavior, said he and his co-author
expected that their book would provoke debate. "The
problem is basically a very limited understanding of
how evolutionary biology applies to people," he said. "It
takes people a long time to pull back from what is
politically correct and do an analysis on it."
The subject of rape and evolution has been so touchy,
Dr. Thornhill and Dr. Palmer write in "A Natural History
of Rape," that lectures on the topic have been
picketed, scientific articles have been rejected by
scholarly journals, and researchers who view rape
through an evolutionary lens have been denied jobs at
At the core of the debate are assertions that are
touchstones for evolutionary psychologists: that
evolution favored promiscuity in men but choosiness in
women and that the male of the species evolved to
prefer young women because they are more likely to
Sexual coercion, Dr. Thornhill and Dr. Palmer argue,
may have evolved as an alternative reproductive
strategy for males who, for whatever reason, were not
lucky enough to persuade a female to copulate
voluntarily. Or it may have developed as simply a
byproduct of other adaptive traits, for example, a
greater desire to engage multiple sex partners.
Rape is inexcusable, they argue, but it must be viewed
as a "natural biological phenomenon," as much a part
of nature as other undesirable happenings like
thunderstorms, epidemics and tornadoes. Dr. Thornhill
and Dr. Palmer marshall an assortment of evidence.
They note that young women at the peak of their
childbearing years are greatly overrepresented among
rape victims and that rape leads to murder in only
one-hundredth of 1 percent of the cases, a figure
confirmed by other rape researchers.
They also note that sexual
coercion of females by
males occurs in many other
animals, including the
scorpion fly, an insect Dr.
Thornhill has studied
extensively. It is equipped with an appendage called a
notal organ that appears specifically intended for rape.
Sexual coercion has also been observed among fish,
birds and nonhuman primates, notably the orangutan.
Critics, however, some of whom have followed the
researchers' writings on rape over the years and others
who read the excerpt in The Sciences, said they do not
find these arguments convincing.
"The possibilities of bias in such work is enormous,"
said Dr. Patricia Adair Gowaty, an evolutionary
biologist at the University of Georgia. "And as
sociobiologists we have become enamored of some
ideas in the absence of credible and critical data."
"These theories are intuitively attractive, and they fit
many of the experiences we have," she said. "But it is
when something is intuitive that you need to be most
careful to have adequate scientific controls."
Dr. Koss pointed out that although it is true that most
rape victims are young women, most rapists are 18 to
25, and it is more than likely that they will find victims in
their own age group. She and other experts noted that
a surprisingly large number of rape victims are young
She said that other work by evolutionary scientists
supported the notion that male violence toward women
may have evolved partly as a strategy for controlling
access to reproductive partners, an interpretation
consistent with Ms. Brownmiller's observations. "But
there are also roles for many other influences at the
societal level, the institutional level, the family level, the
peer level and within the two individual people," Dr.
And some critics objected to the authors' use of
nonhuman examples to buttress their case. "We can't
ask a female fish whether she appears to resist
because she doesn't want to copulate or because she
is testing males for their fitness," Dr. Coyne said. "But
we can ask a human female who has been raped if she
Equally contentious are the authors' ideas about how
women react to rape. On the basis of a study in the
1970's by Dr. Thornhill and his wife, Dr. Nancy W.
Thornhill, they contend that young women suffer more
distress after being raped than do children or older
women past their reproductive years. This "makes
evolutionary sense," they say, because it is young
women who risk being impregnated by an undesirable
But Dr. Koss said that other studies indicated that the
impact of rape was far worse for elderly women than
for younger women. "They develop a much more
pervasive fear of going out of their home," she said.
Still, some scientists applaud the efforts of Dr. Thornhill
and Dr. Palmer to refocus attention on rape as a sexual
crime and to link it to other evolutionary work on male
and female sexual behavior.
Understood within the context of evolutionary theory,
said Dr. Neil Malamuth, professor of psychology at the
University of California at Los Angeles, the scientists'
thesis "is not as preposterous as it might seem."
While feminists like Ms. Brownmiller perform an
important service by focusing on the violence and
power components of rape, he said, "there are aspects
of rape that really do have to do with sex."
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