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Memphis Flyer Asking for It

The unnatural 'Natural History of Rape.'

By Ashley Fantz

APRIL 17, 2000: 

A Natural History of Rape by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer (MIT Press), 243 pp, $28.95

Darwinian scientists and now best-selling authors Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer waste no time. They get right to the point of their social manifesto, A Natural History of Rape -- patronizing women.

"Rape is horrific for women," they write. "The authors are familiar with various expressions of ambivalence; they understand why women are so anxious. As scientists, they value knowledge and assume that trying to understand everything about why rape occurs is far more beneficial for women in the long term "

So for the "benefit" of women, the scientists -- while they anticipate the backlash -- put forward this thesis: Men are driven by evolutionary tendencies beyond their control; they rape because they want children. Rape is predictable, even excusable, because it helps strengthen the species.

There's not one correct assumption in this glorified 197-page term paper. It doesn't read as a Women Are From Venus Oprah favorite or have a touch of David Mamet's misogynist style. It's sandpaper, totally dry. Theories about why women don't enjoy rape abound. And they are mystifying, a cause to wonder why two men with Ph.D.s would so boldly (or stupidly) hang themselves with unfounded and salacious proposals.

My favorite is that during rape -- the "innate act used primarily by the male to fertilize" -- women are less likely to achieve orgasm and thus cannot become pregnant. Is rape violent? A crime of physical and emotional dominance? No, say Thornhill and Palmer. Rape is unpopular among women because they are prone to monogamy and find multiple partners, invited or forced, threatening.

Thornhill and Palmer suggest that natural selection -- the basis of evolutionary psychology -- gives rapists excuses or encouragement to force sex. Without any solid scientific testing, they revive the old, "she asked for it" argument, alleging that a miniskirt is an open invitation for assault. The authors are open-minded enough to point out that not all rapists are men, but that men commit the act more frequently.

If this all does not seem frightening, know that A Natural History of Rape, published in late January, has sold half-a-million copies. MIT Press can barely keep it in stock. And one of the authors appeared on the Today show plugging the book.

For decades, evolutionary psychology has been the butt of most high-brow scientific jokes. In general terms, it proposes to explain human behavior through geneticism and adaptation -- as in how well we learn to cope or change the natural environment when it doesn't seem convenient enough, i.e. the invention of the wheel and NutraSweet. People scoff because its explanations are too elementary, as if a culture's mating practices are predictable. Thornhill and Parker assert that where sexuality and reproduction are concerned, men are the aggressors for the rewards of prestige. Women just have to lie back and take it. It is a woman's job to populate the world, not her choice.

Read as comedy, A Natural History of Rape is somewhat bearable. Skip to the section on female sexual arousal. The authors claim "a woman's sexual interest and arousal are importantly tied to a man's capability and willingness to invest in the relationship and by indications of his genetic quality." Any man who's been left sleeping alone in the morning while the woman hightails it out of his apartment disproves that. They go on to state that the reason women do not become aroused during rape is because they are not given a choice of the "resource environment." So if she's raped in a candlelit room after a long walk on the beach, she'll scream her brains out with pleasure?

The chapter finishes with a revealing passage about sexual competition among men. The topic is fascinating. What a great opportunity to address the Spur Posse, gang rapes, or porn queen Anabel Chong who shagged over 500 men in one day. Instead, the section states the obvious. A man who earns high-fives among his guy friends are the ones who have "looks, status, or resource holdings" and are "more likely to acquire multiple wives of reproductive potential or to have access to other females."

Imagine the conversation at a bar when two men eye a woman they think is of "high reproductive quality."

"Wow, Jim, look at those," Bob says, while raising his hands in front of his chest.

"Those are some excellent mammary glands to nourish my offspring," answers Jim.

"I'm really an ovary man, though," says Bob.

"If this woman doesn't put out a child in nine months, I'm going to regret this," Jim says, following his mating radar across the room.

Writing about their "Me Tarzan, You Jane" evolutionary psychology, the writers make an arrogant and angry conclusion. Men may be living and acting as 21st-century rationalists, but inside they are all still helpless Cro-magnons holding their crotches and dragging women into their love caves.

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