Evolution, Rape, and Power: Why Understanding Human Nature Matters

“As scientists who would like to see rape eradicated from human life, we hold that the ability to accomplish such a change is directly correlated with how much is known about the causes of human behavior. In contrast, mistaken notions about what causes rape are almost guaranteed to hinder its prevention.”

— Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion


In 2014, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, appointed by the Obama administration, studied the problem of sexual violence on campus. The 16 page recommendation attracted a significant amount of ire for discrediting the prevailing academic theory of sexual assault and noted that blaming “rape culture” was an “unfortunate trend.” Despite the ill feelings aroused for calling the “campus rape culture” narrative into question, a variety of thinkers were extremely vocal with their outrage for one suggestion in particular from the Obama appointed task force: While stressing bystander intervention education as well as education to promote an understanding of consent laws were not objectionable, the idea of empowering individuals in risk-reduction was (#2 below).

  1. Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence.
  2. Risk-reduction messaging: empowering members of the community to take steps to increase their personal safety.
  3. General education to promote understanding of the law, particularly as it relates to the ability to consent.

The message RAINN was sending was loud and clear: women who solely rely on the faith and goodwill of the human populace were simply not doing enough to deter sexual assault.

Needless to say, this did not go over well and accusations were quickly levied against RAINN for “blaming the victim.” Since the time of its publication, the results of this multi-million dollar study have long since been cast aside and seem to only rarely appear in heated discussions at MGTOW.com and jezebel.com. This is possibly because suggestion #2 (above) strongly implies that an otherwise-would-be victim could, in fact, do things to decrease their chances of being sexually assaulted.

There are reasons why nobody would tell a child “look only to the left when crossing the street because people are nice and swerve out the way for you” or “don’t wear your seatbelt because nothing will happen to you.” The unfortunate reality is that simply changing our ideas about the world doesn’t actually change the world. Artificially changing our conception of human behavior and our ideas about society will not entirely change human behavior. And in the case of sexual assault, coercion, and rape, omitting crucial pieces of the puzzle (like biological constraints) in understanding these heinous acts could prove to be detrimental.

If we risk the presupposition that RAINN is correct, namely, that it is not “rape culture” per se that is the problem, then what is? As it is known, the most commonly touted explanation for sexual assault by many thinkers is based on the idea that rape is an environmental construct ultimately caused by male dominance and power. To these progressives, all we would have to do to create more egalitarianism is change some environmental contingencies (like parenting styles and video games, for example), and we would then somehow ameliorate social ills, hate crimes, and even sexual assault.

The premise to this idea extends into other contexts as well. Get rid of thin actresses and replace them with plus sized models to get rid of sexism. Get rid of guns to get rid of suicide. Get rid of statues to get rid of racism. Get rid of “he” and “she” pronouns to get rid of transphobia. Get rid of good parents to get rid of white privilege. Etc. etc. etc.

But this blank slate version of human nature is riddled with holes. The fact that sexual assault allegations are being made against people from both ends of the political spectrum alone has shone a spotlight on the issue that it isn’t just a person we dislike or who has the “wrong” political orientation who can be a sexual predator. As it were, both left and right leaning celebrities have been accused. Our ancestral mechanisms and biases are being exposed: what we’ve seen is a tacit acceptance of the crime when it is committed by “one of our own” and harsh condemnation when it is someone from “the other side” doing it.

Clearly, as we have recently seen, having the so-called “correct” political orientation does not inoculate a person from committing sexual assault. This should hardly be surprising, social role theorists want us to believe that there is a utopian world just beyond our grasp that somehow males and capitalism prevent us from achieving. And perhaps there is some truth to that, but that explanation does not describe the majority of the evidence… just the evidence that progressives feel comfortable looking at.

As uncomfortable as this may be, I’m going to discuss how evolutionary biology contradicts the blank slate and social role theory idea of sexual assault. Some foregrounding may help us see why understanding biology is important in helping us deter sexual violence and why ignoring it could prove to be dangerous. Knowledge of our evolved mechanisms allows the possibility for change when it comes to sexual assault and sexually coercive behavior.

Fact: females ovulate many years before Western laws permit them to be sexually active. This fact is not caused by patriarchal oppression. This is a fact of biology. Modern culture and technology have clashed with our ancestral physiologies and the result has given rise to several disquieting moral and ethical problems that need to be honestly addressed in order to reduce sexual assault.

Although the age of consent varies greatly around the world (18 in California9 in Afghanistan), some countries technically do not even have one. While reactions could vary from interpreting this in the West as “patriarchal oppression,” to offering praise for “egalitarian gender roles” in the Middle East, evolutionary theorists would likely rather wonder how the idea of consent emerged in the first place. It didn’t pop out of a vacuum.

The reason why the record holder for the youngest female to bear a child goes to a 5-year-old is not because of discrimination. If ancestral humans did not evolve to be able to bear children at a very young age, they would not have become our ancestors. (Contrary to what certain religious conservatives might posit, the fact that something worked in the past does not mean that it is morally right or that it should work in the future — known as the Naturalistic Fallacy). It should be no surprise that the age at which girls experience menarche is inversely correlated to environmental stress levels. That is, when the environment is a stressful one, young girls are more likely to ovulate earlier in their development. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because for our ancestors to have survived in a stressful environment where death was imminent, a group of hominids who could reproduce sooner in life would have a greater advantage over a group who could not. The implications of this in a modern context are poignant, to say the least, and enormously complex. It appears as if we have a tremendous amount of evolutionary baggage.

Now, if the idea that sexual assault is about power ought to be taken as a scientifically accurate one, it would mean that it would have to be a falsifiable one. In other words, it would have to not be seen in environments where this supposed power differential does not exist. It would not be seen as cross-culturally, in different political systems, in different socio economic statuses, nor in other animals. However, none of this is the case.

In fact, the biggest wrench thrown in the gearbox of the “power explanation” of rape is the fact that most victims of sexual assault are not the weakest members of society (i.e. those who would be the easiest prey: middle-aged women and the elderly). Despite the fact that recently, in India, a chicken, an infant, and a 100-year-old woman were raped, the overwhelming majority of victims are females between the ages of 12 and 34. It cannot be ignored that these are the years of the greatest reproductive viability. If the power explanation of sexual assault were true, one would predict that perpetrators would preferentially select the weakest members of society. However, this is not the case. As it turns out, those aged 65 and older (arguably those who would have the greatest difficulty defending themselves) are 92% less likely than 12–34 year old women to be raped or sexually assaulted and 83% less likely than 24–49 year old women.

On top of all of that, if the claim that sexual assault was just about power was to be taken as a scientifically valid claim, there would have to be no rape whatsoever in the animal kingdom. Not only is this not the case, the act of sex in the animal kingdom can be rather gruesome. But, I think the award for “evidence in phylogenetic continuity” goes to the scorpionfly for its evolved appendages that are only used for coerced copulation — and at literally no other time. That’s right. When copulation is invited by the female scorpionfly, the male does not use these appendages — which are separate from its six legs. If copulation is not invited, the male coerces copulation.

scorpion fly.jpg
Scorpionflies mating

As we descended from the trees and onto the savannah there was a fair amount of butchery, cannibalism, and incest. As time went on, our brains evolved and at some point something extraordinary happened. The rate at which culture was evolving started to dramatically increase.

Our brains evolved to only “be able to” navigate through complex social interactions in groups of no more than about 150 hominids. Relative to the time it took for placental animals to evolve into primates, human culture suddenly gave us the ability to be able to live in villages, large cities, and ultimately in metropolises with internet connectivity. While the numbers of people increased and while culture became vastly more complicated, the psychological mechanisms, as well as their underlying brain structures, did not change much at all from the time we formed our first tribes. We are basically a “lizard brain” walking around in a cultural landscape that in no way resembles the ancestral one that it involved in. Essentially, there is a mismatch between our evolved mechanisms and the current socio-cultural climate.

Why does all of this matter? Because understanding human nature is imperative when it comes to sexual assault. And because rape and sexually coercive behavior used to “pay off” evolutionarily in the past. They are not the zeitgeist of a deranged society we can cure easily. We are, to a degree, hardwired to seek mates and sex and sometimes eschew social norms when doing so. This doesn’t condone rape or sexual assault by any means — rather, it gives us the best starting point to preventing and mitigating it.

Additionally, contrary to the mistaken notion that evolutionary theory implies that human behavior is resistant to change, knowledge that male and female sexual preferences differ and that this difference is based on innate traits helps us change behavior. For example, as the sexual overselection bias states, a male is more likely to incorrectly infer sexual intent from a woman’s smile than another woman is. A male educated with this knowledge may then be able to decrease the number of times he acts on a faulty inference and reduce the number of unwanted sexual advances.

It is easy to make the error that males are unique in their desire to want sex. But both males and females want sex — they just go about it differently. And these differences are largely biologically programmed. Understanding and accepting these differences may help reduce sexual violence, while ignoring them and relying on feminist and social role theories will not. It seems to me that if we really cared about reducing sexual assault, this is what we would be focusing on.

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  1. Maverick isn’t wrong. And with the exception of the term “rape culture” I doubt the author would disagree. I mean intellectually we all (with the exception of sociopaths) want the same thing. Right? Less rape. Zero if possible. The question is can we do that without denying the primal urges that cause it in every society. Secular, religious, conservative, liberal.

    My issue with the social justice movement is mostly tactics & language. Terms like “rape culture” and “toxic masculinity” do nothing but make people feel ashamed of the urges that lead to bad actions instead of dealing with ways to prevent the action while acknowledging what causes them. As with racism, this sexual assault movement relies only on this shaming as it’s blunt instrument of choice. Not nuance, science & education.

    THAT’S the real conversation we need to have.

  2. I am fascinated by the idea that we are essentially operating from “lizard brains.” While this idea and entire article is clearly controversial, I too, believe that while we possess a uniquely complex higher brain/ frontal cortex, we cannot seem to control our lower, primitive, “lizardine” selves, especially in regard to our primal urges. It is as though regardless of whatever evolution takes place within us and whatever brilliantly sophisticated systems, societies and technologies we create , we are doomed to be perpetually enslaved by our “lower selves” …possibly to the point of our own destruction, as a culture and species. Surely, for where we are, rape cannot be beneficial. Can it???

  3. My, look at Maverick projecting! Circular? The vacant foot-stomping that demands we accept their conclusions without argument — what is this besides circular reasoning? *How* did men get to be in this position?

  4. It is BECAUSE of the “innate” and seemingly “uncontrollable” nature of the male sex drive that WOMEN have been tempered, covered, exiled, disenfranchised, controlled — leading to a power structure and freedoms that favors men and places arbitrary barriers to entry on women. And when those methods have failed – when women break the mold – we are left with “rape culture” and the fallacy of consent. Both of these concepts continue to embrace male entitlement (and power), allowing a man to get what he would otherwise/”naturally” just take. So it’s circular.
    Until men learn that they are NOT entitled to “get some” despite their biology, when our culture and the law reach mutual understanding, we will never be rid of rape.

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