(This is part three of a four-part series)

According to Thornhill and Palmer’s book, A Natural History Of Rape, allegedly men rape because they aren’t getting enough sex. Rape is a male sexual strategy to get around a shortage; it is an inborn or innate behaviour. Dismissing the feminist argument, the authors declared rape isn’t about power at all but sex.

Criticising the book, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne says it is “the worst efflorescence of evolutionary psychology that I have ever seen”. Rape is pathological, not natural, he says. Are all rapists mentally ill? While there are many instances of sadistic rape when the rapist is turned on by his victim’s pain and suffering — such as the gruesome one that occurred in Delhi, the vast majority of rape cases are committed by seemingly normal men. For instance, studies in the U.S., for lack of any from India, show no pathological differences between rapists and non-rapists. Besides, rape is too commonplace to be committed by a lunatic fringe alone.

Studies conducted in Canada and the U.S. show rapists are more sexually experienced than other men. The assumption that the main culprits were men who stood little chance of getting sex proved to be incorrect. This blows a hole through Thornhill and Palmer’s hypothesis that it’s all about sexual access.

In the polarised atmosphere after Thornhill and Palmer’s book was published, biologists heaped scorn on evolutionary psychologists, and social scientists seemed allergic to the idea that rape had an evolutionary history. Each side was keen to promote one cause over the other. Was rape about sex or power? Was it learnt or innate behaviour?

If rape was innate behaviour, it should occur in all human societies. But anthropologist Peggy Sanday found rape is rare in 45 societies out of 95 about which she had information. Rape is common in only 17; it is reported in 33 other societies, but there were no further details. According to ethnologist Verrier Elwin, rape is non-existent among the Gond from central India. Anthropologist Jill Nash reports that the Nagovisi from the island of Bougainville, near Papua New Guinea, couldn’t even imagine how to rape.

What explains the lack of rape in cultures such as the Nagovisi and Gond? How do these men manage to curb their sexual appetites?

The common patterns among these cultures are: minimum violence in settling conflicts not only within the tribe but between tribes, not glorifying masculinity, and holding women in high esteem.

But there are examples of tribes that use violence but don’t rape. The Iroquois was a confederacy of warrior tribes that expanded its territory by conquering others. When Europeans first arrived in North America, they were puzzled by the Iroquois’ respectful attitude to women, even those taken as prisoners. The Europeans concluded since these Native Americans didn’t rape, they must have a low sex drive.

Was the severity of punishment that these societies impose on a rapist a deterrent?

Among the Minangkabau in Indonesia, Peggy Sanday says a rapist’s masculinity is ridiculed, and he may be exiled or even put to death.

The Mescalero Apache of southwestern U.S. view rape as a cowardly act, says anthropologist Claire Farrer. A man who commits rape suffers loss of face and does not even deserve to be called a human being.

It’s extremely difficult to compare rape statistics and law enforcement across countries because each nation defines rape differently. In many countries, rape is under-reported. But, there are numerous records of men raping when there is breakdown of law and order, during wars and riots, because they can get away with it. The question remains: why do they do it at all?

Evolutionary biology thinks along two time scales: the immediate and the long-term. It’s possible the ultimate motivation for rape is sex and reproduction, the biological imperative, while the immediate cause could be the domination of women, the sociological imperative. These two ideologies are not mutually exclusive as it has been made out to be.

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