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Feminspire | April 16, 2014

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Debunking the “Caveman” Excuse: Why Rape is NOT Natural

Debunking the “Caveman” Excuse: Why Rape is NOT Natural

Trigger warnings for discussions of rape.

“For efficient subordination, what’s wanted is that the structure not only not appear to be a cultural artifact kept in place by human decision or custom, but that it appear natural – that it appear to be a quite direct consequence of the facts about the beast which are beyond the scope of human manipulation or revision. It must seem natural that individuals of the one category are dominated by individuals of the other and that as groups, the one dominates the other.”

—Marilyn Frye

Why did Sean Hannity incredulously stare at Zerlina Maxwell when she suggested that men be taught not to rape? Why is the Steubenville rape trial verdict considered a tragedy? Why do people think that the normal behavior of boys is aggression and rape?

Our society thinks that rape is not epidemic but rather endemic, meaning “natural to or characteristic of a specific people or place.” The general public believes that aggression and rape are “natural” behaviors of men. Our patriarchal and pop-Darwin culture believes the mythology that rape is an advantageous reproductive strategy selected because it is said to have increased the male’s individual fitness early in our evolutionary history. I will show this to be inconsistent with evolutionary theory. Western religion, with its belief in the inherent evilness of man and his inevitable acting out of horrific sins, hasn’t really helped dissipate contemporary society’s bloodthirsty sex-crazed caveman image of man either.

Rape is a nasty little self-fulfilling prophecy. Christians write the script of man as evil and sinful and irresponsible sociobiologists write man as sexually insatiable and “reproductively opportunistic.” Then we look outside and watch man commit all sorts of abominable acts and scream, “I told you so! We have fallen from grace, we are nothing but violent and selfish animals!” Overall, we misuse evolutionary theory as an origin story, a justification for the deplorable behaviors, popularly committed by men, such as rape, sexual harassment, and aggression. Contemporary human men who behave in these ways are simply labeled and classified as modern “Cavemen.”

“The ‘evolutionary theory’ is that our human male ancestors were in constant competition with one another for sexual access to fertile women, who were picky about their mate choices given the high level of parental investment required of the human female for reproduction—months of gestation, giving birth, and then years of lactation and care for a dependent child. The human male’s low level of parental investment required for reproduction, we are told, resulted in the unique boorishness of the hairier sex: He is sexually promiscuous, he places an enormous emphasis on women’s youth and beauty, which he ogles every chance he gets, he either cheats on his wife or wants to, and he can be sexually aggressive to the point of criminality.”

—Martha McCaughey from Caveman Masculinity: Finding Manhood in Evolutionary Science

Popular culture reproduces this caveman story through magazines, media, and pop psychology books, among many other mediums, all of which offer up a caveman ethos for masculine identities where “heterosexual male readers can experience their sexuality as acultural, primal.” There are caveman fitness programs and cavemen diets that assume that being a caveman is a healthy existence for men. Popular texts reproduce “scientific” discourses and claim it is natural for a man to stare at a strange woman whether committed or not, take her if she is unwilling, then go to consume large quantities of meat before heading to the gym to lift weights to the point of injury while watching football which is the contemporary equivalent of prehistoric sparing. Man exclaims, reinforced by cultural images, that either his DNA or the devil made him do it! “Ideas that count as scientific, regardless of their truth value, become lived ideologies” (McCaughey).

Evolutionary stories have an appeal to many men who feel as though they are like caveman. They feel as if their identity is a bodily reality that is “backed by the authority of science.” Instead, what is happening, arguably, is men are adopting the mannerisms, tastes, textures of body, and fantasies of a particular constructed social group. We all want to be part of a community. They are unconsciously internalizing and embodying “popular manifestations of scientific evolutionary narratives about men’s sexuality” (McCaughey). These are not fresh ideas about humanity’s predilection for scripted performance, the artificial character-roles we confuse for our natural selves. Pierre Bourdieu already explored how a person’s socioeconomic class becomes personified “at the level of the body, including class-based ways of speaking, postures, lifestyles, attitudes, and tastes” (McCaughey). The circulation of evolutionary narratives becomes a sort of negative feedback loop in which pop-Darwinist evolutionary theories give men the tools to pleasurably formulate the “male identity and the performance of accepted norms of heterosexual masculinity.” Men appear a certain way, and therefore adopt specific attire, consumption practices, and lifestyle practices and further shape their body to the idealized image. “[The] image of the caveman circulates through popular culture becoming part of natural perception, and consequently is reproduced by those embodying it” (McCaughey). Simply put, if you repeat a lie enough times, you and everyone else you tell it to will believe it.

Now that we can see that the caveman identity is not an accurate label for a primordial characteristic but is actually just a socially created identity, let’s get back to criticizing the supposed evolution of the rape gene that dwells in these fictitious cavemen.

Sociobiologists aim to explain all human behaviors through evolutionary theory, including rape. Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer posit rape as a product of Darwinian selection in their book A NATURAL HISTORY OF RAPE: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. “But for natural selection to favor rape, rapists would have to differ genetically from nonrapists and need to sow their seed more successfully, so to speak, causing more pregnancies than nonrapists, or at least more than they would without raping. Not a shred of data for these two requirements is presented” (Frans B. M. De Waal from The New York Times on the Web). Instead of providing sound evidence, Thornhill and Palmer write tidy little stories that satisfy the status quo based on odd parallels they draw between forced copulation witnessed in scorpion flies and mallards with rape in humans.

They construct reproduction as an evolutionary conflict between men and women where men are selfishly trying to maximize their genetic fitness by increasing their reproductive success while women improve their reproductive success by locating the mate with the most “resources.” Men would rather not take the risk of obtaining food to entice the female and would rather instead rape, as he would perpetuate his genes and minimalize the probability of his own death in attempting to gather food, or so the story goes. However, there are a number of issues with this line of thinking, primarily in this notion of an evolutionary basis for male-female conflict of which Darwinian theory does not support:

“We may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection or the Survival of the Fittest.”

—Charles Darwin

In other words, there is no such thing as a “low-cost” rape in the human world, only injurious rape. Whether you are a prehistoric or modern woman, if a man tries to have sex with you against your will, you will violently resist, unless unable to do so or you reason it is in your best interest not to. And in the case of a violent struggle, it is possible for either the rapist and/or victim to receive fatal and/or debilitating injuries during the process of the attempted rape. In the case that the victim is murdered there is no child to reproduce “rapist genes,” and the claim that these genes survive in contemporary society becomes very weak indeed. In the case that the rapist is killed in defense, we at least know he will not be fathering any further children and therefore the probability of his genes flowing into posterity decreases. His chances of “successful rape” decrease even further when we contemplate whether a disgusted and intelligent being would decide to clean herself of all signs of the rapist, thereby destroying his chance at successfully perpetuating his genes. On top of all of this, I wonder if the rapist’s buddies acted as onlookers and learned very quickly that the risk of injury while trying to execute a “successful rape” was entirely too large in comparison to the risk incurred by gathering some berries and building a home. Did these sociobiologists even stop to think that maybe early humans were social and affectionate and that both sexes happened to evolve pleasure apparatuses (i.e. clitoris and penis) to perhaps encourage cooperative and extended sexual encounters? If many biologists believe that various courtship displays were selected for to synchronize the physiological state of the sexes, why do these scientists propose a theory of antagonism? Evolution does not work to maximize conflict across and within species for this would certainly lead to multiple extinctions. Rather evolution works to maximize cooperation.  

 “Lots of questions remain. Wouldn’t one assume that among our ancestors, who lived in small communities, rape was punished and so may have reduced rather than enhanced a male’s future reproduction? If rape is about reproduction, why are about one-third of its victims young children and the elderly, too young or old to reproduce? Why do men rape lovers and wives, with whom they also have consensual sex?”

—Frans B. M. De Waal.

Furthermore, a bit of investigating reveals that in Thornhill’s study there were “low frequencies of forced copulations in field enclosure experiments, while in open field experiments he observed no successfully completed forced copulation” (Fausto-Sterling). The female scorpion flies consented to mate with males that gave food offerings. The males without food sometimes and barely resorted to forced copulation of which not all were “successful” in fertilization. This behavior hardly seems that of an advantageous adaptive strategy nor does it seem heritable (which is key). And finally, rape in mallards is not an evolved adaptation with a genetic basis, it in in fact a pathological response to overcrowding in urban environments. The documented “rapes” that occur in healthy conditions are always at the end of the breeding season meaning the female would have already bred with her chosen mate and the “rapist genes” would not survive. Stress in animal populations can cause aggressive and destructive behaviors, “none of which result from natural selection for some alternative reproductive strategy” (Fausto-Sterling). Why didn’t the sociobiologists apply this knowledge and make a correlation between human overpopulation and instances of rape rather than positing as natural?

This critique could go on indefinitely but lets close with some thoughts on the applicability of applying the human form of rape to the so-called “rape” witnessed in scorpion flies and mallards. As far as I can reasonably discern, the animal behavior of forced copulation is vastly different from the rape of a human female. Do women ruffle their feathers, shake it off and continue paddling around the pond? No. Rape is defined as “the offence of forcing a person, esp. a woman, to submit to sexual intercourse against that person’s will.” I am uncertain as to whether the female mallard has any conscious will, but know for a fact that female humans have conscious will. These scientists are confusing two separate and different behaviors and then using the animal behavior as a natural justification for criminal human behavior.

So now that the scientists have explained to us where rape comes from and that it is a perfectly natural reproductive strategy, women must do everything in their power not to stimulate the desire in men to rape. This is why Sean Hannity and many Americans believe that women should arm themselves against the man-as-animal or avoid drinking too much, dressing too revealingly, going out alone. “Basically the solution is to walk on tiptoes around men, and to take back the night by staying inside and watching a good movie” (Alyn Peason from Rape Culture: It’s all Around Us). The Steubenville rape verdict is a tragedy in many people’s eyes because the young woman was “selfishly careless” and triggered the inner foaming-at-the-mouth-caveman that bursts forth at the slightest whiff of an opportunity to urinate, humiliate, and penetrate unconscious victims.

We need go along with what Zerlina Maxwell was purporting and teach men not to rape. We need to destroy the myth that rape and the caveman identity are natural or healthy.

Written by Sarah Sydney Lane

  • När Jag Kysser Havet

    Nice article. I have nothing to add except, as a (very) amateur evolutionary biologist, that the concept of “caveman” is just a popular-culturual concept and not a term applicable for the pre-human primates or homo sapiens during any period of their evolutionary history.

  • Sara Luckey

    I agree that rape is not a natural state of being and that we need to work to eliminate that myth. I do, however, take issue with this sentiment ‘ if a man tries to have sex with you against your will, you will violently resist, unless unable to do so or you reason it is in your best interest not to,’

    I think this ignores coercive sex or times when women don’t say no because they don’t know how or feel like they can’t, but aren’t reacting with a violent struggle. The lack of a violent struggle also sometimes happens when things are moving really quickly and the victim doesn’t have time to process.

    I think that if we keep forth with the illusion that all rape is an act of brawling violence unless a woman is unconscious or trying not to be killed, we perpetuate the notion that rapes are mostly performed by violent strangers and not people we know and are comfortable with.

  • Litost

    Rape is not natural to humans anymore than stabbing someone who steals your food in the eye is, but it is based on an instinct that once existed in our pre-homo sapien primate ancestors. To say that rape is a pure human thing is counter-productive to understanding why rape happens.

    Simply, rapists are terribly people obsessed with control and domination, but this control and domination stems from our past ancestors. Rape occurs in MALE mammals, ALL the time. There is no reproductive purpose for raping another male, there is however a purpose of domination. I said this in another article but my argument as lost in a willful refusal to read anything into it besides a justification for rape that was never there or intended to be there.

    The fact that rape is a trait seen in animals is no more of a justification for it than murder existing in mammals is a justification for murdering other human beings. Saying other mammals rape each other isn’t damaging to the battle of trying to end rape culture, it’s in fact beneficial to it; just like teaching people murder is wrong, we must teach our boys not to rape.

  • Anthony Zarat

    “Simply put, if you repeat a lie enough times, you and everyone else you tell it to will believe it.”

    You are right. For example, compare your article to the data:

    FACT: Women are as likely to rape men, as men are to rape women.

    • Kate Kaiser

      How do you know which gender they were forced to penetrate?

  • Maria Adelaide Borromeo

    There is NO SUCH MYTH in either Italy or the United Kingdom. Nobody in their (sane) minds here thinks that men are “natural rapists” – that is so indulting for men, by the way! Certain aspects of American culture seriously scares me.

    • Jamie

      We have feminists that have serious male hang ups.

      • Kristen Leonard

        Feminists are not the ones who invented the myth of natural rape, if you read the article more carefully you would have seen that it cites many feminists scholars who try to dismantle this myth

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  • Mark

    Sorry to intrude on a serious topic like this with a rather silly observation, but, here it is. I was brought to this page by the caveman photo (via a google search for ‘cultural artifact’), and was very quickly skimming the article, when my eye was caught by the link to the Beauty article called “How to get the bloodiest blood red lips”. It’s a jarring juxtaposition here, but I can’t help wonder if it adds a valid contribution to the dialog. Not trying to be cute here; it really caught me by surprise.

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  • Egalitarian

    “The majority of male rape victims (93.3%) reported only male perpetrators”

    The 93.3% number is misleading because the study defines “rape” as the attacker penetrating the victim, which excludes women who use their vagina to rape a man (rape by envelopment) which is counted as “made to penetrate”. The study also says, “For three of the other forms of sexual violence, a majority of male victims reported only female perpetrators: being made to penetrate (79.2%). . .”

    Additionally, if you look at the report’s stats for the past 12 months, just as many number of men have been “forced to penetrate” as women were raped, meaning that if you properly include being “made to penetrate” in the definition of rape, men were raped as often as women. Since 79.2% of “made to penetrate” victims were victims of a female perpetrator, if you properly include being “made to penetrate” in the definition of rape, which you should, since it is forced sex, women are a significant percentage of rapists, and the majority of male victims were raped by women.

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