Origin of the Specious

A CU instructor suggests that men can't help themselves: They're just born rapists.

Feminists say men rape to assert dominance over women.

But a new book co-authored by a University of Colorado instructor suggests that while the immediate motivation for rape may be anything from the need to impress other males to rage over a breakup, the deep-seated and essential spur is man's Darwinian desire to sow his seed.

In other words, rape is a natural part of a man's biological baggage.

The apes of wrath: Michelle Sauther wonders why the authors of A Natural History of Rape ignored primate studies.
The apes of wrath: Michelle Sauther wonders why the authors of A Natural History of Rape ignored primate studies.
The apes of wrath: Michelle Sauther wonders why the authors of A Natural History of Rape ignored primate studies.
David Rehor
The apes of wrath: Michelle Sauther wonders why the authors of A Natural History of Rape ignored primate studies.

Given this premise, it's no surprise that response to A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion has been immediate -- and as heated as a bachelor party waiting for the stripper. Although the book, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is only now showing up in bookstores, a recent piece in The Sciences by co-authors Randy Thornhill, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico, and anthropologist Craig Palmer, an instructor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was dissected in numerous TV and radio interviews. Last month the New York Times ran a lengthy piece on A Natural History of Rape that aired contrasting scientific views; in Time, Barbara Ehrenreich mocked what she called (inaccurately) the authors' "insistence that the rapist isn't a psychopath, just an ordinary fellow who's in touch with his inner caveman." Reader reviews on Amazon.com have veered between contemptuous dismissal and ecstatic agreement, according the book either one star or five, with nothing in between.

Although Palmer expected the book to be controversial, the timing -- and intensity -- caught him by surprise. The criticisms were "nearly 100 percent uninformed," he says, his voice pleasant and even. "All the response occurred before the book was read, and that opened the door for misunderstandings."

There's a lot to misunderstand.

Start with the authors' basic premise that women have a greater biological investment in their children than do men. Because of this, the book suggests, women tend to be intensely choosy about mates, looking for partners who not only will provide good genes, but will stick around to help with child care. Men, on the other hand, are biologically motivated to impregnate as many females as possible. So rape is one way of hijacking the female's ability to choose.

"That is such an old idea," counters Michelle Sauther, a primatologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We've become so much more sophisticated in looking at that. We know now that non-human female primates love sex. When they first become remotely interested, they go up to males. They will mate with many males unless they live in a monogamous society, and those are extremely rare among animals in general. Now we're finding out that female gibbons, for example -- who are supposedly the most monogamous -- they're looking for guys on the side as well," she laughs.

Thornhill's research focuses on scorpionflies rather than primates, however, and he discovered an organ in the male scorpionfly that appears to be designed solely and specifically for forced copulation. Since human males have no analogous physical feature (their larger size and greater strength may aid in rape but are not specifically designed for the act), the authors looked to the male psyche for proof of their theory, asking such questions as whether men tend to rape fertile women, whether rapists evaluate a potential victim's vulnerability, whether men are turned on by a woman's struggles or by depictions of rape.

The narrow Darwinian lens these authors turned on human behavior led to a series of startling assertions. In a chapter titled "The Pain and Anguish of Rape," they say that fertile women suffer most after being raped -- more, that is to say, than boys, girls or old women do. If the fertile woman is married or mated, her suffering is greater still.

But the more violent the rape, they say, the less a woman's suffering afterward. Why? Because her injuries prove to her jealous partner that the sex was not consensual.

Suffering is part of a woman's natural defense against rape, the authors argue, along with an inbred caution about going into dark, dangerous, young-male-infested places. Fertile women are more alert to these dangers than non-fertile -- including women on the Pill. The authors even theorize that small-waisted women -- shaped to breed, so to speak -- will be the most cautious of all.

The purpose of human grief, the authors contend, is to concentrate the mind so it can deal with impediments to childbearing. And the death of a fertile relative inspires more grief than that of a non-fertile one.

Men may ejaculate faster during rapes. The authors note that some research suggests that premature ejaculation is the by-product of an evolutionary strategy that allows young, unpartnered males -- who must copulate rapidly and furtively -- to breed. (The authors offer no explanation for wet dreams.)

Many of the book's observations seem misogynistic, and some of them are downright dangerous. For example:

Women are biologically inclined to prefer rich men to poor (the choosiness thing again).

Male jealousy is about sex; female jealousy is about the "risk of losing economic and material resources to a female competitor."

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