Jan 14, 2011

Anti-Rape Mechanisms, or Over-Wrought Interpretations?

In an article today from Jesse Bering at Slate, "Darwin's Rape Whistle," findings from recent research about "phase dependent female rape-avoidance mechanisms" are discussed in detail. The new research is based on the idea that, controversial as the topic may be, human males may have evolved certain behavioral and anatomical traits in order to more effectively rape women. Nobody wants to think this is true, and many people are damn well convinced that it's not, but if we're looking at the topic from a purely evolutionary, "must pass on DNA at all costs" kind of animalistic perspective, there are plenty of arguments scientists can make suggesting that men have evolved to get their spermies inside vajayjays at all costs, and sometimes those costs include coercing or forcing a woman into copulation. Not pretty, but science tells us it's very likely true at our most basic, pre-human levels. So, goes the thinking, what about the women? If millions of years of evolution prepared men to take a woman by force when there seemed to be no other choice (dear god I hate writing about this, but that's not the point here), then doesn't it seemlikely that women evolved to be able to fend off attacks? From Kinsey on, all scientific inquiry into human female reproductive strategy has left researchers even more impressed by the intricacy and efficacy of female's ability to pick and choose their mates: every detail, from the type of cervical mucus being produced at different times in the woman's menstrual cycle to the temperature of her body and her changes in preference from masculine to feminine males, is part of an incredibly complex, subtle, and effective strategy that females use without even knowing it to choose, copulate with, and either keep or ditch the father of their children. Rape constitutes a violation of millions of years of sexual evolution that women have worked very hard to get through. It causes psychological and physical damage, of course, and it's reprehensible in every way, but more than that, it takes away a woman's power to use her armory of strategies for getting the DNA samples she wants from the man she wants. Rape is effectively a big fuck-you to nature's plan. It seems unavoidable that along the route from pre-hominid to thinking human female, nature would have built in a few mechanisms to keep us ladies safe from being impregnated by some dude we don't want to be knocked up by.

And, according to Bering, scientists are finding "convincing" evidence that women at their most vulnerable--ovulating women who are most likely to be fertilized by any copulation--tend to be primed for evading forced sex. A 2002 study from the University of Albany, he says, found that ovulating women, when presented with a story in which the female protagonist was about to be raped, suddenly saw a dramatic rise in physical strength, as tested by hand-grip pressure. This makes sense: a woman whose egg is ready to be fertilized might just find a well-spring of raw power within her that she never knew she had if some schmo has his eye on the prize.

Ditto the 2007 study by Christine Garver-Apgar that found ovulating women tend to be a lot more suspicious of strange men, and the evidence from two other studies that ovulating women tend to stay home, or in safe places, more than non-ovulating women. While I've read the results of studies that say the exact opposite (that women tend to show more skin and take more sexual risks with strangers while ovulating, ostensibly because their bodies are telling them "it's now or never, lady, get yourself spermified!"), I suppose situation may have a huge effect on the way women tend to see men. If a woman is ovulating and feeling horny, she may be more willing to out LOOKING for a mate and be more willing to find evidence of good genes in someone she might not usually be attracted to, but if a woman is ovulating and finds herself on the street surrounded by men who she doesn't find attractive or interesting, her body would do well to point out their flaws to her in no uncertain terms so she doesn't end up waking up the mother of an inferior-gened child by a stranger. And while she might be more likely to take a stranger home because her body is telling her to look for someone, the very fact that her subconscious is focused on passing on her DNA in the best way possible might make her much less likely to seek unwanted attention from inferior males, and to see more men as inferior than she normally would. I guess it's a two-way street.

But the last bit of evidence Bering cites, from Michigan State's Carlos Navarette, which states that ovulating women tend to be more racist than non-ovulating women... I... I just don't know about that. Part of me wants to deny that this might be true, in the same way that my knee-jerk reaction to "men have evolved to be capable of raping women" shows that I want to think better of human beings. But I'm no scientist, and I won't argue what trained professionals say they've found to be true, necessarily. It may very well be true that paranoid, safety-seeking ovulating women DO find men of other races more intimidating at that particular time of the month, much as I wish it weren't so. But my lack of scientific prowess aside, I'm having a hard time swallowing Navarette's justification for his findings: "The women who happened to be ovulating scored especially high when it came to fear of black (as opposed to white) men, a fact that the authors interpret as reflecting an evolved disposition to avoid so-called 'out-group males,' who 'may not have been subject to the same social controls as in-group members and would have constituted a threat in antagonistic situations.' In this case, skin color serves as a convenient marker of group identity." ...Yeah, could be. After all, we evolved in small groups of people who shared a whole lot of physical traits and dangerously close DNA to ourselves, and that at its very base could arguably the root of racism even today: people who look different from us don't belong in our "group" and are therefore suspect. Ok, I can buy it as a very general concept, int he same way that I can buy that men evolved to rape women sometimes--it may be true but it's no excuse for practicing these vestigial evolutionary byproducts today. But. I mean... Navarette, it seems like you just MIGHT be stretching the science a bit thin here to avoid saying what seems like a MUCH more likely culprit than 'suspicion of out-of-group males' during ovulation: out and out racism.

I hate to be the one to bring this up, because I DO think that Navarette has a decent point and because I do NOT like to point out social iniquity any more than the next guy, but, dude, seriously? You don't think it's more likely that women who are ovulating and therefore more protective of their naughty bits might be more likely to see black men as a threat because they've been trained to see black men as exotic, big-dicked, aggressively sexual monsters? You don't think that Hollywood's treatment of African Americans as somewhat less-intelligent, hyper-violent, sex machines has something to do with this? You don't think that the segregation that continues to affect the lives of blacks and whites all over America even in the 21st century and the still-prevalent exotification of black skin might have the teensiest bit of influence over the fact that white women, who have heard implicit and explicit statements their entire lives about how black men are DANGEROUS, are suspicious of them? Or that the faces we see in mug shots and police sketches and blurry video footage from crime scenes on the news every night are almost invariably dark? Or that we still vilify black people in almost every way? Pretending that science backs up racism by PC-ing it up and saying it's an evolutionary tactic is a cop-out and one that requires a lot of fancy footwork, at that. It's not that I think Navarette is WRONG in his findings, it's just that he's searching under the tiniest rocks for a deeply evolutionary explanation for something that has a much more glaring cause at a much more easily-attached level. It's not enough to say that racist reactions might be part of our evolutionary heritage, because doing that basically tells everyone that it's not the best thing, but that it's ok because it's in our genes to suspect "out of group" people--it's irresponsible to pretend that our deeply rooted ancestral responses can't be overcome by the brains we've evolved and the highly social and civil lives we lead, which have a whole lot more of a place in this world than our crocodile brains.

I'm. Gr. I'm kinda pissed off. I'm gonna go.


  1. ok, i've been thinking about the apparent difference btwn chimps & bonobos as illustrative of sex-pos & sex-neg lifestyles among us humans, the chimps being in this description warlike male chauvinist pigs & bonobos matriarchal promiscuous hippies. its pretty hard to figure out with humans what's innate & what's cultural in the more complex behaviors. even most basic processes like breathing, drinking, etc. have a layer of culture on them.
    subject of rape always raises for me questions of self defense. perhaps it is reasonable for every female in, say, america or somewhere to learn self defense with and without weapons, to not give in, not cooperate. how might things be different in such a society? is there a way from here to there were we to decide to do that?

  2. There are so many things wrong with how we approach rape as a subject in our culture, at every level. But I think the most important way to go about changing the prevailing attitudes is not to encourage women to be paranoid and defensive (although obviously this isn't a bad idea), but to teach men NOT TO DO THESE THINGS, ever. The victim-blaming's gotta go first. Then we can look at more, I think.
    PS - Male chimps are more aggressive, but female chimps have just as high status and can have sex with whoever they want. And often do, even by sneaking off to find guys from other tribes.

  3. agree: http://pornedge.blogspot.com/2011/01/riff-on-pheromonal-enhancement-in.html
    but the martial arts thing is not about defense and offense but about looking at interactions differently (than for instance i did before). recall the admiring surprise that both males & females went against the tucson shooter. if males in general figured they could expect not just a fight but a likely loss any time they tried to mess with a female there might be some different outcomes. i go to my class, there are females 1/2 my size and more advanced and they can put me on the floor every time no matter what i do, with or without pain. i am like all admiration. but yes, it is never the girls' problem or fault that the guys act like jerks, just structure of society makes it so they have to deal with it. right?