Evolutionary psychologists: Women are less likely to get themselves raped when they’re ovulating

As the daughter of two cultural anthropologists, I’ve always viewed evolutionary psychology with skepticism if not outright disdain. Sure, I love a sweeping generalization as much as the next wannabe pundit. But generally my thoughts can be summed up by this handy bingo card.

So I’m glad that many other folks have taken the time to challenge the shoddy scientific evidence cited in this Slate article arguing that women evolved to protect themselves from rape—especially when they’re ovulating. (Cause clearly we don’t mind that much during the rest of the month.) The obvious corollary, of course, is that men evolved to rape women whenever they can.

Look, if you want to argue—by cherry-picking “scientific” studies—that men evolved to rape—that it’s natural even if it’s not acceptable—be my guest. I’d think a lot of folks—including the vast majority of men who have not raped anyone, never would, and might be sick and tired of having their sexuality constantly vilified—might object to that claim. But hey—have at it.

But if your evidence is a few flimsy studies that may or may not show that during the couple days a month that I’m ovulating, I can squeeze hands harder and am less likely to do slutty things, such as talk to black men, that might get me raped, then it should be clear that you are adding exactly nothing to any meaningful discourse around rape.

And I think the most annoying thing about evolutionary psychologists is that they–and the media that just loves to write about their theories–just don’t seem to get that.

The author of this article, Jesse Bering, preempts—and laments—the criticism evolutionary psychologists often get when they start talking about rape as an evolutionary adaptation:

Thornhill and Palmer, Malamuth, and the many other investigators studying rape through an evolutionary lens, take great pains to point out that “adaptive” does not mean “justifiable,” but rather only mechanistically viable. Yet dilettante followers may still be inclined to detect a misogyny in these investigations that simply is not there. As University of Michigan psychologist William McKibbin and his colleagues write in a 2008 piece for the Review of General Psychology, “No sensible person would argue that a scientist researching the causes of cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer. Yet some people argue that investigating rape from an evolutionary perspective justifies or legitimizes rape.”

The unfortunate demonization of this brand of inquiry is rooted in the fallacy of biological determinism (according to which men are programmed by their genes to rape and have no free will to do otherwise) and the naturalistic fallacy (that because rape is natural it must be acceptable). These are resoundingly false assumptions that reveal a profound ignorance of evolutionary biology.

I think that really misrepresents the feminist objections to evolutionary psychology. I don’t believe that studying rape—from any perspective—automatically legitimizes it. And if I thought that evolutionary psychologists had a chance in hell of uncovering the “causes” of rape, I’d be all for it.

But, as Bering himself goes on to note, we are not ruled solely by our biology, what’s “natural” isn’t necessarily acceptable, and we have a little thing called free will. And to me that sounds a little bit like an admission that we humans are not, in fact, cavemen anymore, that we’ve actually got quite a few millennia of culture under our belts, that we’ve evolved into pretty sophisticated creatures who live in complex societies. And call me crazy—but maybe all that matters.

Bering seems to believe that my feminist objection to evolutionary psychologists’ explanations for rape is simply that it lets rapists off the hook. And, of course, that’s part of it. There’s no question that the myth that rape is inevitable—that male sexuality is naturally predatory—is used by rape apologists to justify men’s aggression and put all the responsibility for preventing rape on women. But, even more than that, my criticism is that it lets our culture off the hook for its role in fostering the misogyny and rape apologism that breeds and enables rapists.

Of course, Bering can’t even address that critique, because, in order to do so, he would have to acknowledge that culture exists. He might even be forced to entertain the possibility that other societal factors might be at play—and could actually have more explanatory power when it comes to rape. And then he might not be able to ignore the large body of evidence that rape is primarily about violence, not sex; domination, not reproduction. And then it would all start unraveling.

That’s the real reason I question whether evolutionary psychologists are actually interested in investigating the causes of rape, instead of simply reinforcing the myths that underpin rape culture. It’s not that they argue that men evolved to rape; it’s that when faced with the obvious reality that, even if that’s true, the majority of men actually do not rape, they just stop the investigation.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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