Theories of Rape

1. BIOLOGICAL THEORY: Randy Thornhill, The Biology of Human Rape, 39 Jurimetrics J. 137(1999) at 143:

Selection, or differential reproductive success among individuals due to trait differences, is the most reasonable ultimate explanation for rape in humans. Presumably, all evolution leading to adaptation [FN26] has been driven by inter-individual selection, and not by intergroup selection. Evidence for this is vast, and is seen in the functional designs of adaptations. Adaptations' benefactors are individuals who bear them and the genes that code for them. There is no example of adaptation that has evolved because it promotes group survival or reproductive success. If group success is promoted by adaptation, it is merely a by-product, and not the reason the adaptation evolved.

The inter-individual selection responsible for rape may have been direct or indirect. [FN27] In the case of direct selection for rape, selection may have favored raping because rape had a net positive effect on rapists' reproductive success. *144 Despite its costs, rape increased mate number and thereby reproductive success of males. If so, there is a psychological adaptation in men for rape that is specific to rape. Because women have mate choice adaptations leading them to prefer protective mates with status and resources, as well as to prefer mates with specific physical features such as body symmetry that mark inherited health, [FN28] we can infer that rape, by circumventing female mate choice, increased males' mate number in human evolutionary history.

Finding such a specific adaptation is strong evidence that direct selection pressure for the adaptation's function brought about the evolution of the adaptation. [FN29] This does not, however, imply that rape currently promotes the reproductive success of individuals. Indeed, whether rape is an adaptation--a product of past selection--is unrelated to whether rape is currently adaptive. The issues are distinct. [FN30]

In the case of indirect selection for rape, rape is an incidental effect of direct selection for male sexual traits other than rape. More precisely, rape is a byproduct of men's adaptation for pursuit of casual, non-committal, consensual sex. This pursuit was selected because it increased male mate number and because men's investment for offspring production is minimal. Put another way, rape evolved incidentally due to direct selection for obtaining a large number of consensual partners without romantic commitment.

At this point in time, we do not know which is true--whether rape reflects rape-specific adaptation or arises incidentally out of an adaptation for pursuit of consensual sexual variety. On theoretical grounds, however, the rape-specific adaptation hypothesis is more likely. This is because of the large costs of raping to the rapist and thus the expectation that rape exists because of rape's overcompensating benefits to male reproductive success in human evolutionary history. Furthermore, rape appears to have existed in human evolutionary history, as seen in women's adaptation to deal with rape. [FN31] Even today, rape is common. Selection has not eliminated this costly behavior.

----page 145: There are at least six hypothetical psychological rape adaptations: (1) a psychological mechanism linking the vulnerability of victims to the use of rape by men; (2) a psychological mechanism linking the lack of resources (or the associated variable of a lack of sexual access to females) to the use of rape by men; (3) a psychological mechanism causing males to have a different preference (in terms of sexual attractiveness as indicated by age) in rape victims than in consensual sexual partners; (4) a psychological-physiological mechanism producing changes in the sperm count of ejaculates during rape (or to depictions of rape) that show specific functional design for rape; (5) a psychological mechanism producing differences in the arousal of males to depictions of rapes than to consensual matings; (6) a psychological-physiological mechanism producing marital rape as a sperm competition tactic.

These putative mechanisms are not mutually exclusive. More than one of these mechanisms, or all six of them, could exist as part of men's sexual psychological adaptation to rape. In addition, the adaptations might appear only in certain men in what biologists refer to as a frequency-dependent mix of adaptations...

pg 146: The resource-deprivation hypothesis cannot, however, explain all rape. Indeed, there are many instances of rape by high-status or physically attractive men with consensual-sex access to many women. Presumably, rape by men with resources and status arises from a different rape-specific adaptation. For example, according to the first hypothesis many men will rape when the perceived benefits exceed the perceived costs.

Despite efforts by feminists to reject biological theory and portray rape as a crime of socially constructed domination, theorists continue to put forth accounts describing men as suffering from irresistible forces that compel them to rape:

Anthropologist Craig Palmer of the University of Colorado and biologist Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico plan to pulblish a book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, scheduled for
release in April by MIT Press. Refuting claims that rape is a crime of male domination, which has evoleved as a form of male reproductive behavior. They write that social scientists promote "erroneous solutions" to rape because they incorrectly view the crime as controlled by deviant urges to control and dominate, not by sexual desire. The scientists suggest that women should take steps to deter irrepressible male impulses by not dressing provocatively or participating in unsupervised dating. But they do not equate "natural" as good and agree that their public mission is to make rape extinct as a trait in human beings. The two contend that current thinking causes of rape fail in refusing to acknowledge that by definition rape requires sexual arousal of the rapist. For more on their work, read Scientists: Rape not about power, but sex, Scripps Howard News Service Found on the Web at: (optional reading)

But Darwinian biological theorists remind readers that the discovery of biological bases for destructive human behaviors (such as rape) does not imply social acceptance of such behaviors:

First, to say something is a product of natural selection is not say that it is unchangeable; just about any manifestation of human nature can be changed, given an apt alteration of the environment -- though the required alteration will in some cases be prohibitively drastic. Second, to say that something is "natural" is not to say that it is good. There is no reason to adopt natural selection's "values" as our own. But presumably if we want to pursue values that are a t odds with natural selection's, we need to know what we're up against. If we want to change some disconcertingly stubborn parts of our moral code, it would help to know where they come from. And where they ultimately come from is human nature, however complexly that nature is refracted by the many layers of circumstance and cultural inheritance through which it passes. Robert Wright, THE MORAL ANIMAL, New York: Vintage Books, 1994 at 31.

2. COMMODIFICATION THEORY: Some theorists have posited rape as a crime of property, in which sex is a commodity which is stolen from a woman by a rapist. Baker clearly describes such a theory in:

Katharine K. Baker, Once a Rapist? Motivational Evidence and Relevancy in Rape Law, 110 Harv. L. Rev. 563 (1997).

2. *603 For some, sex is a commodity, [FN223] and if sex is a commodity, then taking it is theft. The definitions of lovemaking discussed above may attempt to resist the classification of sex as a commodity, but most people rarely, if ever, discuss the personal, intimate, and shared experiences of sex. We live in a culture that rarely discusses sex as anything other than a commodity. Indeed, the more objectified and commodified the conversation, the easier it is for most people --especially young people--to talk about sex. [FN224] Some people are never able to talk about the int imate aspects of sex, even if they do understand them. It is hardly surprising that most young people neither talk about nor understand sexual intimacy.

Instead, youths, particularly young men, are bombarded by a culture that sexualizes commodities and commodifies women's sexuality. Companies sell products by selling the sexuality of the women endorsing the product. [FN225] The product and the sex are purposefully conflated. Sex is also purposefully commodified. Men can easily buy sex, even though all but one state prohibit prostitution. [FN226] Men can also buy pornography and purchase tickets to peep shows. What motivates many rapists may not be substantively different from that which motivates men who go to prostitutes or purchase tickets to peep shows. None of these acts requires mutual enjoyment or emotional intimacy, and they are all called sex. Thus, men are able to satisfy a desire for sex without having to incorporate the complexities of sexually intimate communication.

*604 This cultural endorsement and marketing of sex as a commodified good leads to an increased desire for, and sense of entitlement to, sex. [FN227] Most men are taught that sexual desire is like hunger: when it is there, you satisfy it. Women are candybars. Of course, food is not free and neither is sex, but precisely because men can and do pay for sex, [FN228] taking it without consent becomes much less morally reprehensible than other violent crimes. Thus, itis not surprising that one study found that thirty-nine percent of convicted rapists were caught in the course of a robbery. [FN229] As many of these men conceded, they raped because she was there. [FN230] They were already breaking the laws of trespass and ownership--why not take one more thing?

Men know that taking sex without consent is wrong, but many men do not perceive it as really bad. The relationship between alcohol and rape demonstrates this point. In one study of college men who had committed sexual assault, seventy-five percent said that they had used alcohol or drugs prior to the assault. [FN231] Another study of convicted rapists found a comparable seventy-five percent who admitted to using drugs 20 or alcohol prior to the attack. [FN232] All of the college gang rapes that were analyzed in a 1985 study involved alcohol. [FN233] This direct relationship between alcohol use and rape exists, despite clear scientific evidence showing that "[a]lcohol disinhibits psychological sexual arousal and suppresses physiological responding." [FN234] What may explain the correspondence between alcohol use and rape therefore is not alcohol's affect on sex drive, but rather alcohol's tendency to decrease inhibitions against taking that to which one has no right. Teenagers get drunk and go get sex in the same way that they get high and go to the 7-11 to shoplift candybars. They know it is wrong, but it is not that bad. Most adolescents do not get drunk and go rob banks. They do not get drunk and commit murder. They do get *605 drunk and break little rules. They shoplift and joyride and vandalize. The rule against raping, particularly date raping, is like the rule against shoplifting--it is a little rule. [FN235]

Besides the commodification theme, Baker also discusses the connection between sex and lovemaking, and the related finding that some men rape because they want sex. She also reviews the theme of dividing-- that men rape women in order to establish power over, or distinction from, other men. Finally she reviwes men who rape as a form of expressing control, anger or sadism.

3. DEVELOPMENTAL THEORY: From N.M. Malamuth & M.F. Heilmann, Evolutionary Psychology and Sexual Aggression, in HANDBOOK OF EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 515-42 (C. Crawford & D. L. Krebs eds., 1998):

Malamuth and colleagues propose that rape proneness among men is proximately caused not by genetic variation, but by developmental events involving learning. Their analyses indicate that rape-prone men come from harsh developmental backgrounds involving impersonal and short-term social relationships, and backgrounds in which manipulation, coercion, and violence are valid ways of conducting social relationships.

Malamuth began his research program in sexual aggression from a feminist perspective but decided that issues of rape, power, and control could not be sufficiently explained without evolutionary concepts. Based on his extensive empirical research, 20 two interacting pathways resulting in sexual aggression have been identified. The impersonal sex pathway is characterized by association with delinquent peers, introduction to sexual activity at a young age, and having many sexual partners. The hostile masculinity pathway is related to an insecure sense of masculinity, hostility, distrust, and a desire to dominate women. From Stephen Gold's review of: Sex, Power, Conflict: Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives, Edited by David M. Buss and Neil M. Malamuth. Oxford University, Press, New York, 1996


Please read this excerpt from Goldscheid, Julie, Gender-Motivated Violence: Developing a Meaningful Paradigm for Civil Rights Enforcement, 2 Harv. Women's L.J. 123 (footnotes ommited), 146:

"[F]orced sexual contact in the name of passion or personality may support rather than refute
a claim of gender-motivation because it shows a disrespect for women. [FN130] ... [There is] research
indicating that acquaintance rapes frequently are premeditated and are predicated on discriminatory biases
about male entitlement to coerce sexual relations with women against their will. [FN131]

In addition to the workplace sexual assaults and the gang rapes analyzed in the first VAWA Civil Rights
Remedy cases, sexual assault and domestic violence situations may contain other evidence that reflects *147
gender-motivation. A perpetrator may have uttered gender-derogatory epithets such as "bitch,"
"slut," or "whore" in the course of committing a violent act. He may have made comments that reflect
anti-female bias such as those cited in the Brzonkala case. [FN132] A defendant may have made derogatory
comments about a woman's physiology or may have mutilated her genitals during an assault. In acquaintance
rape cases, a defendant may have disregarded a woman's protests, reflecting the stereotypical view that "no"
means "yes" that underlies much violence against women. [FN133] Or a defendant may have committed serial
rapes or participated in gang rapes. [FN134]"

5. CONTROL THEORY: Examining rape not as an matter of sexuality, but rather as an expression of control, feminist scholars have challenged current understandings of rape law to change the focus to acknowledge the control issues involved.

From Stephen R. Gold's review of: Sex, Power, Conflict: Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives, Edited by David M. Buss and Neil M. Malamuth. Oxford University, Press, New York, 1996:

The issue of whether rape should be conceptualized as sexual or violent behavior is carefully examined by Muehlenhard et al. The authors discuss the question from the perspective of the victim and perpetrator, and further break down the issue into whether the motivation, consequence, or experience of the assault is being discussed. The authors recommend moving the issue beyond sex versus violence to a focus on control. They suggest defining sexual coercion on the basis not of whether the woman was a victim of violence but of whether she freely consented to the activity. The issue of consent is intertwined with the role of alcohol in sexual aggression.Abbey et al. discuss the link between alcohol use and sexual aggression. The evidence suggests that in almost 50% of the incidents of sexual aggression, alcohol has been used by one person and, most often, by both individuals. Drinking alcohol on a date establishes expectancies in men and women that can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. According to Abbey et al., alcohol makes general role stereotypes more salient and available as excuses for inappropriate behavior. Using alcohol complicates the issue of consent. At what point in the process of moving toward inebriation is a woman no longer able to provide consent? Is drinking with a man who has expressed an interest in sexual activity a form of implicit sexual consent?

The final chapter presenting a feminist perspective deals with the impact of the threat of rape on women's self-esteem, trust in others, and perception of personal control. Bohner and Schwarz note that a greater belief in gender inequality is associated with a higher frequency of rape, at both the individual and the societal level. To examine the causal pathways in this association, they have studied the impact of thinking about rape prior to a task and the subsequent effect on dependent variables such as self-esteem. Bohner and Schwarz conclude that their findings support the feminist claim that rape and rape myths contribute to gender inequality. By having to worry about and guard against being raped, coupled with culturally supported myths about rape, women are restricted in their behavior and intimidated into feeling less good about themselves and less trusting of others.


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