Recent news reports have highlighted research around rape by sociobiologists Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer. Their claim about the cause of rape is controversial indeed.
Essentially, they state that rape is a behaviour evolved by unsuccessful men to gain sexual access to desirable mates. In other words, unattractive losers who can't find a girl-friend or wife rape women to make them pregnant. In doing so, rapists pass their genes on to the next generation. This very peculiar idea originates from observation of scorpion flies, the males of which, apparently, sometimes rape the females. Applying this observation to humans, the researchers claim proof for their hypothesis in the fact that most rape victims are women of 'high fertility', and that rapists are primarily poor, young men.
With so many inadequacies to this argument it is hard to know, given the limitations of space, where to begin pointing them out. Certainly many young men convicted of rape are poor. But their higher conviction rate is more the result of being unable to afford expensive lawyers specialising in defending rape accuseds, than a greater propensity for rape. And if passing on their genes is the aim of rape, why do rapists attack pre-pubescent children and elderly, menopausal women? And surely, unless they are feeble-minded, rapists must know that men can never give birth. Why rape men then?
The researchers are also ignorant about what happens during rape. Some men do not ejaculate and so do not deposit their semen inside the woman's body. Non-ejaculation is often the result of a man not having an erection, suggesting that whatever is driving him to rape, it is not sexual arousal. Others, if they ejaculate, deliberately do so outside of the woman's body, ensuring no trace of semen is left to connect them to the rape through DNA testing. Clearly, fertilisation will not occur under these circumstances so why are these men raping?
For answers to these questions we must turn to rapists themselves. Research conducted both locally and internationally finds that men rape because they believe they are entitled to sex on demand; because they believe they have the right to control and decide women's behaviour, and the right to punish women who do not obey those rules of behaviour.
When one group of people presume they have the right to make rules for others and to enforce those rules, it is clear they do not consider those others their equals. Rape then is an expression of unequal social relations between men and women. Unequal relations are not the result of nature or evolution but societies which, through legislation and social custom, have made women second-class citizens.
Because sociobiological thinking is incapable of addressing how societies and their structures create and uphold inequality, their best solution to preventing rape is the lame suggestion that women not dress attractively. However, an understanding of rape which does take society into account would emphasise the urgent need to change relationships between men and women to ensure greater equality between the two. Such an understanding would also acknowledge the importance of changing relationships between men so that those men who feel excluded from society, do not deal with their feelings of anger and marginalisation by raping women.
Ultimately, like the 'science' which uses IQ tests to prove that white people are smarter than black people (and therefore deserving of better jobs, better education and more money), sociobiological explanations of rape are nothing more than science in the service of oppression.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 13 February 2000.