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Julie Waterson

They Asked For It

(April 2000)

From Socialist Review 240, (April 2000).
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Natural History of Rape
Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer
MIT Press £17.95

I would like to shake the hand of the woman who spat in Thornhill’s face after a lecture he gave in the 1980s. I hope he and his partner in crime, Palmer, encounter more women like her in the future.

Their book is a vile piece of pseudo-scientific right wing nonsense. It serves only one purpose: to excuse rapists and to justify the continuation of women’s oppression. It is an attack on the women’s liberation movement and social scientists. It is derogatory to men, insulting to women and homophobic into the bargain.

Thornhill and Palmer present us with a theoretical justification for rape based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yet Darwin would never have offered us anything as crude and as ill-researched as our foes. They may use his language and studies but Darwin was not a biological determinist – Thornhill and Palmer are. They say that ‘science has nothing to say about what is right and what is wrong in the ethical sense. Biology provides understanding, not justification, of human behaviour.’ They want us to believe that theirs is a science book, using objective rules and laws. In fact it is a political book – similar to those used to justify capitalist greed (Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene) and to condone racism (Murray’s The Bell Curve). Now we have one on rape!

They have written off society as a factor in our behaviour, believing that our sexuality and sexual behaviour are predetermined by our genes and mirroring the behaviour of animals. Everything is offered up, from scorpionfly rape to monogamous harbour seals.

‘We would not be surprised to hear social scientists suggest, next, that insects, other anthropods, other invertebrates, and most vertebrates are somehow being influenced during development by music videos, television and movies.’

They use the available studies and data on rape, particularly ‘date’ rape, to justify their view of men as animals with one mission: to reproduce. In doing so, they offer us no explanation for the small number of rapes committed by strangers and tie themselves in knots about ‘evolved behavioural psychology’. If you can’t explain it – make up a theory! For example, ‘We call a behaviour learned when we have identified a specific experiential factor as necessary for its occurrence.’ Or try this one: ‘Women’s sexual jealousy toward their mates could more accurately be called resource and commitment jealousy.’ So, if rape is biologically determined, it is justifiable on the grounds that men just can’t help themselves.

As they say: ‘The large size of the human penis and testicles relative to those of other primates also appears to be an adaptation for sperm competition.’

Coupled with their homophobia, the book makes horrific reading:

‘The sexual behaviour of homosexual men also illustrates men’s evolved motivation for sexual variety without commitment. Although heterosexual and homosexual men desire new sexual partners in equal number, homosexual men have far more new partners because their sex partners are men, who share their desire for new partners.’

It gets worse: ‘Rapes and other sexual assaults of males by males constitute only about 1 to 3 percent of sexual assaults, but data show that these sexual assualters also prefer youthful features in their victims. This pattern is likely to be a byproduct of men’s evolved preference for young sex partners.’ This could be the editorial line of the Sun – gay men are promiscuous and prone to paedophilia!

Thornhill and Palmer are at least consistent – their views on women are as progressive as their opinion of homosexuals. Women are, in the tradition of the right wing, blamed for rape and sexual violence. Of course, they wouldn’t court disaster by saying that we ‘asked for it’, but that is what they are in fact saying. Women are offered ‘advice’ on how to avoid rape: don’t wear low necklines, etc. Sound familiar? We’re reading the Sun again.

There are many problems with this book, one being that the straw doll being knocked is a right wing caricature of feminism. Therefore, rape is about sex for Thornhill and Palmer, about violence for the feminists. What about the relationship between the two put into a social and economic context? Even Susan Brownmiller had to end up contradicting herself in her pathbreaking book on rape. She wanted to write a book to prove that ‘every man is a potential rapist’, and after careful research discovered this wasn’t the case.

Every right wing bigot will applaud their ‘scientific’ justification for rape and its conclusions. We need to see it for what it is – filth. And the only two animals worth mentioning are the pigs who wrote it.

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Last updated: 20.11.2012