The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Is rape about control or sex?

What is rape really about?

In the early days of American feminism, Susan Brownmiller (in Against Our Will) proposed that rape is a crime through which men everywhere control and terrorize women.

Evolutionary psychologists have been at pains to show that rape is actually a sexual crime through which men seek sexual gratification from women who would otherwise refuse them.

The classic rejoinder to Brownmiller was by Don Symons in The Evolution of Human
Sexuality
. Symons reviewed forensic evidence showing that victims, as a class, were most likely to be young physically attractive women (as opposed to older, more successful career women). On the other hand, convicted rapists were disproportionately young disadvantaged men whose low social status made them undesirable as dating partners, or husbands.

Since Symons's resounding defeat of Brownmiller, the waters have grown much muddier. One reason is that date rape, or rape by an acquaintance, has emerged as the most common type of sexual assault. It is now recognized as a real problem on college campuses.

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College men do not fit the profile of rapists drawn by Symons because they have high social status rather than being underprivileged. Moreover, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, a date rapist is often one who first succeeds in getting a date.

In the light of the recent discoveries about date rape, it seems that laying the blame for rapes largely on poor men might simply reflect biased treatment by the criminal justice system.

Date rapists are notoriously difficult to prosecute for a variety of legal and practical reasons. There may be no witnesses. Some level of consent by the victim may be implied by the situation, such as going home alone with the perpetrator. Both parties may have been intoxicated at the time of the assault. There may be disagreement about what actually happened and whether it was consensual.

Most of these issues are highlighted by the Julian Assange case in which the notorious publisher of WikiLeaks was recently extradited from England to Sweden in order to stand trial for sexual assaults of two women with whom he evidently had consensual sex. The charges stem in part from a technicality in Swedish law whereby the failure to use a condom can constitute rape.

Another oddity of the case is that both women, who are friends, appear to have been pleased by the encounter. After they put their heads together, they had second thoughts. Fearing exposure to sexually transmitted disease, they demanded that Assange be tested but he refused.

The Assange case may well hinge on communication problems between men and women about when consent is given, or withheld, and to what.

Such communication problems inspired the preposterous code adopted by Vassar college where each party obtained explicit approval for each successive level of intimacy like a pair of mating cyborgs. A simpler, if more old-fashioned, solution would be if couples got to know each other a little better before jumping into bed together, contrary to the hooking up in vogue on college campuses.

Sexual gratification or control over women?
Stranger rape takes different forms, including a political version and a sadistic version but the majority of sexual assaults are more about sexual gratification than control over women per se. But what can one say about date rape? Is this extremely common form of rape consistent with the feminist pattern of men controlling women, or does it fit more neatly within the evolutionary psychological perspective where rape is primarily a sexual crime?

The inherent conflict in date rape is not really about consent to some level of sexual intimacy because some degree of consent is implied by a woman agreeing to go out with the man. The real issue is not a difference over whether to engage in physical intimacy but rather as to the degree of intimacy and its timing.

In other words, it is not an either/or situation. Date rape is a sexual crime but it is also about who controls the interaction, an issue of great concern for feminists, and for women in general. In other words, date rape mixes up the feminist perspective on rape with the evolutionary one.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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