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TalkBack Live

Is Rape About Violence or Sex?

Aired January 18, 2000 - 3:00 p.m. ET


BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: Is rape just part of biology? Meet two scientists who challenge the status quo, who suggest that sexual desire is indeed part of rape, and that sometimes women might encourage it.

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE. Is rape part of our genetic heritage? Is it a natural and biological product of human evolution?

If this sounds outrageous to you, imagine how it sounds to sociologists and psychologists who have spent years educating us that rape is an act of violence -- period.

Meet the two men challenging current thought on rape. Craig T. Palmer is an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, and on the phone with us is Randy Thornhill, a biologist at the University of New Mexico. Together they have written an upcoming book entitled "A Natural History of Rape."

Gentlemen, this is all very curios, so let me start first with you, Craig. If you could, give us the basis for your theory here.

CRAIG PALMER, AUTHOR, "A NATURAL HISTORY OF RAPE": Well, rape is an activity that's performed by living organisms. All living organisms are the result of a complex, inseparable interaction of genes and environmental factors. What accounts for why the specific genes exist today and interact with the environment in certain ways is that there is evolution by natural selection. So the activity of rape should have an evolutionary basis as much as any other aspect of living things. Therefore, based on the assumption that the more we know about the causes of something like rape, the better chances we have to prevent it, then we should look to this general theory of living things -- evolution by natural selection -- in order to gain that knowledge so that we can prevent rape.

BATTISTA: Randy, would you like to add to that?

RANDY THORNHILL, AUTHOR, "A NATURAL HISTORY OF RAPE": Yes. That -- yes. We just do the science on the subject, and that allows us to understand what causes the phenomenon: in this case, rape. And that gives us the power to undo it.

The science doesn't tell us that rape is right or wrong. Science doesn't give us moral guidance. But we are all in agreement that we would like to get rid of rape entirely, and thus, with that goal, science can help us get there. That's our position.

BATTISTA: Craig, let me reiterate once again. Because you are espousing that rape is a biological or natural thing does not mean it's a good thing, correct?

PALMER: Oh, absolutely. That's known as the naturalistic fallacy: the idea that if you say something is natural, therefore it's good. And that is a fallacy. And absolutely we're not saying in any way that rape is good, acceptable, excusable at all. And the first step in evaluating our book and our theory is to avoid making that naturalistic fallacy and to realize that we're not saying anything that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) because it's the product of evolution does not in any way make it acceptable.

BATTISTA: Let me get this straight here, delve a little bit more into it. What you all are saying is that this is a subconscious effort by men to pass on their genes basically, like it stems from a reproductive strategy?

PALMER: Well, I wouldn't say it that way. I wouldn't say that it's a subconscious effort there. All living things, including humans, are built up the way they are, have the brains that they have, the specific mechanisms in their brains, the brain chemistry that produces emotions in response to certain environmental stimuli, et cetera, and that's what in the immediate, proximate sense drives behavior.

What evolution says is that we have those psychological mechanisms that we have because they were favored by natural selection in the evolutionary past. That is, our ancestors who happened to respond to certain things in certain ways that increased reproductive success, not that they were striving for that, not that they had any idea about that, but just that those behaviors and those mechanisms that had the effect of increasing reproductive success are the ones that get favored by natural selection. And therefore, we, like all living things, end up with those mechanisms, those desires, those responses to the environment that increased reproductive success in the past, even though we typically have no idea, no conscious concern or subconscious concern or any concern about reproductive success now.

BATTISTA: Randy, is this a -- is it a theory? Is it a study? Where did you get your data on this? Did you talk to rapists or their victims?

THORNHILL: Well, the notion that evolution applies to rape is not a theory. That's just a biological fact. That is, there is no legitimate controversy surrounding the notion that you can apply rape -- apply evolution to rape. You can apply evolution to any feature of living things. So, that's not theoretical in the sense of the usual -- the way that word is usually used.

What biologists do is use evolutionary theory to come up with hypotheses about the specifics of the evolutionary process, and that's what Craig and I have done in the case of rape. That is, we have applied evolutionary theory in order to better understand rape. And when we do that, we're left with two fundamental hypotheses about the evolutionary history of rape.

One of those -- one of the hypotheses is that rape is -- is a rape-specific adaptation. The other is that rape is an incidental effect of other sexual adaptations of men.

BATTISTA: OK. I think you're kind of losing us just a little bit here.

THORNHILL: Well, then you take those hypotheses and look at the reality of the matter. That is, you go to the data and see -- see which hypothesis survives. And as we emphasize in our book, much more is needed -- much more science is needed to untangle these two hypotheses. But we're not -- we're not saying that it's a hypothetical construct that rape is -- has evolved, because every feature of every living thing has an evolutionary history.

BATTISTA: But where did the data come in your study? What exactly were you studying?

THORNHILL: The data comes from all kinds of sources. The data on humans comes from surveys, national surveys of victimology and victimization, and national surveys of who the perpetrators of rape are and so forth, the human data. But much of our book is about the evolution of rape in animals in general, and it's not just that rape occurs in human beings. Rape occurs in all the major animal groups and biologists have done a lot of research on trying to understand rape outside of humans. And we pull all that together.

BATTISTA: Let me -- let me go to your paper here quickly, because this might help us to unravel some of it. In the section that you have in "Challenging Old Ideas," you state that you want to "challenge the dearly held idea that rape is not about sex and that rape has evolved over millennia of human history -- along with courtship, sexual attraction and other behaviors -- related to the production of offspring." And you say, "Consider the following facts." The first one is "Most rape victims are women of child- bearing age."

Now, I guess what comes to a lot of people's minds is what about, you know, older women who are rape victims or prepubescent girls or men who rape men or married men who rape. Or -- you know what I mean? What about all of those instances?

THORNHILL: Well, do you want us to address those instances?

BATTISTA: How does that fit into your theory? Yes.

THORNHILL: Yes. Well, let me just start -- and Craig jump in as he sees fit. But men have an evolved sexual repertoire, and they have evolved mechanisms of sexual psychology. And included in those mechanisms are mechanisms of sexual preference. So men prefer young women, they prefer fertile women, and so forth, as a result of evolution by selection in the past.

So this is the preference men have. However, men's sexuality also evolved to be relatively indiscriminate, relatively indiscriminate compared to women's sexuality. Women are much more choosy about sex partners than are men. And this indiscriminate sexuality of men, relatively indiscriminate sexuality of men, is what leads to the patterns that you mentioned. That is men not only mate sometimes with children and older women -- nonreproductive-aged women and females. They mate with farm animals. They mate with blowup dolls and so forth and so on.

That's the nature of male sexuality. And that is very much a part of our argument as to why -- why much more information needs to be available to people, especially women, about the nature of male sexuality.

BATTISTA: Let me get a little bit of reaction here from the audience. We have a couple of women we invited down who are rape counselors here in Atlanta. And I'd just like to get their thoughts on hearing this for the first time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I have a question for Mr. Thornhill. Is he implying that men that do not rape are genetically inferior?

THORNHILL: No, that is not the implication. What we envision with one of these -- actually, with both of these hypotheses is a sex- specific, species-typical sexual psychology. That is, wherever there is a man, there exists this psychology in his brain.

BATTISTA: But wait. Is that any...

THORNHILL: It does not follow that every man will rape. That's conditioned...

BATTISTA: But are you saying than, though, that every man is a potential rapist?

THORNHILL: That's the -- that's right. Potential in the sense of...

BATTISTA: And what keeps them from going from point A to point B?

THORNHILL: Well, our argument is that the use of rape by men is condition dependent, and those -- the conditions that tip the behavior or trip the behavior to the behavior are things like the man finding a woman in a vulnerable situation, vulnerable in terms of not having protectors around, situation of anonymity. Those kinds of things, which are very common of course in Western society, for men and women to associate that way, and including in the dating context. So condition dependence is a very important component of the ideas that we're putting forth, whether we're talking about the rape-specific adaptation or men's rape coming out of other kinds of psychological adaptation of men.

BATTISTA: We have to take a quick break here. And when we come back, we'll keep talking about this, and the audience is starting to perk up a little bit on this. We'll be back in just a second.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BATTISTA: Joining us now is Rebecca Reviere, associate professor and coordinator of the certificate program in women's studies at Howard University. Thank you for joining us. Curious what your initial reaction is to this theory?

REBECCA REVIERE, HOWARD UNIVERSITY: Well, first of all, I have missed a lot of what has gone on here, but my initial reaction is disbelief that in the 21st century we are still talking about biological determinism as a valid theory of behavior.

BATTISTA: Is that -- I think a lot of people are associating that with taking away the responsibility, Craig. In other words, if we read you right, what you are saying is that all men are potential -- are capable of rape potentially if we didn't have the evolutionary process and the social mores that we've put in place over the millennium, correct?

PALMER: Well, seem to be a couple of different questions there. First of all, we're not in any way taking responsibility for the crime of rape away from the rapist. We are completely in favor of punishing rapists in order to deter others from raping, and we think that there's no question that rapists are the ones responsible for the act -- completely responsible for the act and the ones that should be published. Now, the question of biological determinism -- we are not arguing for genetic determinism.

As I mentioned earlier, all behavior, all aspects of living things are the product of genes interacting with the environment. Therefore, anything, including rape behavior, can be changed by changing either the genes, which we're not suggesting at all. But they can also be changed by changing in the -- by changing the environment. In fact, we think this approach will help identify the types of changes we could make in the environment to help prevent rape.

So the idea that we're arguing that it's determinist in the sense it can't be changed is not accurate and it's a common misunderstanding of the evolutionary approach. To say that something is evolutionary biological does not mean it can't be changed and in no way does it remove responsibility.

BATTISTA: I want to talk a little bit later about some of the changes that you suggest. But, Dr. Reviere, does it -- does the whole why of men rape have to be all about sex or all about violence, it seems like it could very well be a combination of the two?

REVIERE: Well, certainly, rape as a sexual crime is involved with sexuality, but it is borne in violence and it's borne in subordination of women. It is no mistake of evolution that men rape women. It is a mistake of culture that women are subordinate and allowed to be raped.

BATTISTA: So why don't -- let me ask Randy, why is there so much anger and violence associated with rape?

THORNHILL: We document in our book that rapists do not generally exceed the level of violence needed to accomplish sexual access. The idea that rapists are primarily motivated to be violent is totally inconsistent with the evolution of the human mind. It's totally inconsistent with everything we know about men's sexuality, and so...

REVIERE: Are you saying, then, that violence and rape are not associated?

THORNHILL: No, of course, violence is the means by which the man obtains sexual access. Rape, by definition, is physical force, so it includes violence. The biological perspective, that is the modern scientific perspective on this matter we're talking about, says that men will be designed to use normal violence that is needed to obtain sexual access.

BATTISTA: Let me take a phone call from Eduardo in California. Eduardo, are you there?

EDUARDO: Yes, I am. I studied anthropology at UCLA. I also worked with violence-prevention agencies here, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) project and a child-abuse prevention agency.

And I'd like to make two major points. One is that their science is lacking in nature, whether you observe a pack of wild dogs or a pride of lions, rape is abhorrent behavior. Even in a pride of lions, it is a female who usually determines who she will or will not mate with. And the condition of anonymity being a factor, at best, number of rapes are date rapes or incest rapes with family members; women know who is raping them.

So the premise that they're putting out are simply false. This is really bad science.

The other thing I'd like to say is that people who are working in prevention of violence to women realize how much men have to take responsibility, and there are forces throughout society working against that.

The Mike Tyson rape case, well, we heard people say, well, she went up into his hotel room, you know, as if it was her fault. And you don't understand, that it doesn't matter if a women is walking in the street naked, goes into your hotel room, if a woman says no, it means no, and it's men's responsibility to respect the privacy of women's bodies. And I'm afraid that it's difficult enough to get that message across to our fellow men, their responsibility.

BATTISTA: Eduardo, thanks very much. I got to move on. I appreciate your phone call.

Let me go back to Randy and Craig, because part of your study also suggests that women should take steps to put them less at risk of rape, and that includes not dressing provocatively or not going out on dates unsupervised, correct?

THORNHILL: Craig, do you want to start that? Or...

PALMER: Oh, sure. Well, first of all, what you said at first, that women should consider what activities they do that might increase the chances of being raped, that, yes, we would suggest that, that seems fairly obvious. What's crucial is you have to separate that question of what can someone do to avoid, to decrease the chances of becoming a rape victim. Keep that separate from the very different question of who should be punished if a rape is committed. Again, we feel the rapist and only the rapist should be punished. But that's a separate question.

We look at it that using the evolutionary approach to increase knowledge about what increases the chances of being raped actually empowers women to avoid it, and that in no way blames them or holds that they're responsible if a rape happens. One question is, how do you avoid becoming a victim of rape? Different question: Who should be punished when a rape occurs?

BATTISTA: Craig, I'll come to you in just a second. I've got to take a commercial break first, and we'll have reaction to that in just a moment.


BATTISTA: According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which interviews a representative sample of adults each year, in 1996, more than 2/3 of those who were raped or sexually assaulted had not reported it to the police. More than 52 percent of rape/sexual victims were females younger than 25.

We're back.

This fax from Ray in Florida says, "I can believe that every man is a potential rapist, just as every man, woman and child is a potential killer. When Cain killed his brother Abel, he was not influenced by violence on TV or immorality in the White House or inattentive parents. It is the nature of man to kill and rape."

Jeff in the audience is getting a little bit agitated here, so let me let you have your say.

JEFF: I'm just thoroughly disgusted with this gentleman. I thoroughly do not believe in his results, and I don't believe that all men can be considered rapists. We -- maybe hundreds of years ago, maybe, but we have evolved into a better race of people. There are people out there, men out there, who have that mentality, but we don't all have that. And he's grouping us all into one group as men that have the potential to rape, and I thoroughly disagree with it. I just wanted to say that.

BATTISTA: Randy, could you see that's how people, men, in particular, are interpreting this study?

THORNHILL: No, they're not. I've been teaching thousands of men and women about human sexuality and evolutionary perspective my whole career, and they find it just absolutely thrilling that finally they're getting some real information about the nature of sexuality in people. And the gentleman's take that you just aired is not the only take. Many people really, really appreciate knowing how male sexuality is built, and I find that very encouraging.

BATTISTA: Claire in the audience.

CLAIRE: Well, I'm wondering how you would explain the rapes that don't result in ejaculation. If the whole process of rape is about sewing your seed, how do you explain those cases?

THORNHILL: A couple of points. Is that question directed to me?

CLAIRE: Yes, either one of you?

THORNHILL: OK, let me just hit a couple of points and Craig can pitch in as he sees fit. A couple of points are relevant here. One is it's important not to focus in an evolutionary analysis on what we call current adaptiveness, that is current offspring production. Rape had its reproductive advantages in evolutionary history, according to our view, and not necessarily currently, in the current environment.

The second thing is to realize that rape is a very costly thing for a man to engage in, and the costs include things like the victim injuring him, or the victim calling her protectors, for example, her male protectors. And we anticipate in our approach that many men will even be dearoused in the context of behaviors leading up to rape; in fact, that's part of our expectation about the nature of the sexual psychology in men's heads that gives rise to rape. We expect the arousal, we expect inability to ejaculate in some case. But no study has shown that these inabilities that are inferred by that question are more common in rapists than they are in consensual sex. In consensual sex, men sometimes can't get it up, so to speak, and also ejaculate prematurely and all that kind of stuff.

BATTISTA: Let me get reaction from Rebecca, our doctor here, at this point.

REVIERE: Well, my reaction is basically very negative again. I would like to ask, though, how they account for differences of rape across cultures? The fact that some cultures, some societies have very high rape rates, others have very low. If it's an evolutionary push, you would predict equal rates across cultures.

THORNHILL: That is a misunderstanding of the evolutionary model. There is nothing in the evolutionary model that says that rape rates must be the same across cultures. We're expecting men's sexual psychology to be basically the same across cultures. However, conditions, you will recall, affect the adoption of rape by men.

What the cross-cultural stuff indicates, that we discuss in detail in our book, is that men are encouraged to rape out-group members in the context of warfare. So tribal warfare, village against village, and so forth, there are tremendous amounts of rape going on in that setting in preindustrial societies, and the ethnographic record indicates that has always been the case. However, men are discouraged within group, because that kind of difference, if men rape in-group members, then that is socially inappropriate. It damages...

REVIERE: Such as incest?

THORNHILL: Pardon me?

REVIERE: Such as incest?

THORNHILL: Such as incest, yes.

BATTISTA: Let me take a break again at this time while we have a pause here, and we'll add more voices to this discussion when we come back.


BATTISTA: You know what, let me take a couple of questions here from the audience, quickly. James has one, go ahead.

JAMES: I would like to get either gentlemen's views on where castration was used to reduce the need or the desire for the rape.

BATTISTA: Craig or Randy?

THORNHILL: Why don't you start that one?


PALMER: If the question was, how do we feel about castration...

BATTISTA: Or the use of that -- how does that affect or play into this theory at all, or is it effective, or...

PALMER: I would say potentially that anything that decrease male sexual drive, sexual arousal, might help be a deterrent to rape. My own opinion is that right now so-called "chemical castration" -- which I assume is what we are actually talking about here...


PALMER: ... which is the use of drugs and hormones -- I don't think there's evidence that so far it's been shown to be absolutely effective, or that -- I think potentially we might discover ways of treating with drugs or hormones that might be effective in it.

I think it is important, though, to explore the possibility instead of -- typically that whole question hasn't even been asked because of the notion that, well, sex has nothing to do with rape, rapist aren't sexually motivated, therefore it can't possibly have any effect. As of now, I don't think we are at the stage where we can have an effective treatment with that, but let's use all the possible knowledge that we can to fight against rape and explore the possibility in the future.

BATTISTA: Let me bring in Kim Gandy, who is with the National Organization for Women, to get her reaction to all of this.

You've been listening to most of this, Kim. What do you think?

KIM GANDY, NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN: Well, by -- my co- guests and I both agreed that one thing these guys know is how to get press coverage. They know how to get themselves on television.

BATTISTA: Well, it is provocative.

GANDY: Certainly is. One thing it is not, it's been referred to several times as a study. It's not a study. It's a theory, and it is a theory that has no basis in research. In fact, the research that's been done -- and there's been a lot of research done on this issue -- all of that research demonstrates -- and we are talking about research with thousands of convicted rapists, thousands of victims of rape -- that demonstrates very clearly, from a sociological point of view that rape is a crime of violence. It is a crime of control, it is a crime of power, not a crime of passion. That is something that has been uncontroverted in actual studies.

Now these guys come along, they have a theory that says men can't really help themselves, they are just trying to reproduce. I think that's insulting to men.

BATTISTA: Gentlemen, either one of you react to that?

THORNHILL: Well, yes. She totally misunderstands the nature of the data in the literature, from her comment. And certainly we're not -- you know, as it's been said half a dozen times at least, we are not -- we are saying nothing that excuses men. It is really unfortunate that a spokesperson...

GANDY: Let me suggest that you offer what it is you think is being misunderstood. I'm a former prosecutor. I prosecuted rape cases. I did enormous amount of research in connection with those prosecutions. And I believe that I understand very well the studies about the nature of rape and what causes it.

What does not make sense is the suggestion that men rape only out of some need to procreate. In fact, nearly half of all rape victims are either under the age of 12 or post-menopausal. That in and of itself should put the lie to this rather crazy and insulting theory.

THORNHILL: Well, that's -- it's really unfortunate to hear that kind of comment from someone who is purportedly speaking for women. Our book is for women, in that it gives women knowledge of what's going on in the sexual lives of human beings, and thereby empowers them. And that kind of statement is really against informing women and that's very discouraging.

BATTISTA: Let me ask, how does it empower them, though? I'm curious, Craig.

THORNHILL: Well, knowledge is power, right? Go ahead, Craig.

BATTISTA: But what sort of knowledge would empower me to prevent a rape out of this theory?

THORNHILL: Go ahead, Craig.

BATTISTA: That if I don't wear provocative clothing that I won't get raped or I cut my risk of rape?

PALMER: Well, in general, the more knowledge you have about the cause of something, the greater your ability, your power to prevent it, change it, avoid it. A lot of the focus seems to be on a suggestion that people should consider where they go, when, yes, how they dress, how they appear, who they are with, who they are in an isolated situation with. And I think that's almost common sense for anything, to avoid any type of crime or undesired activity. But there's other sources of knowledge that can come from this.

To go back to a comment from a gentleman in the audience earlier who objected to the idea of rapists -- all men being potential rapists, to clarify that point because I think I understand where he's coming from, maybe put it this way: All men are born with genes which if they interact with certain things from the environment in certain ways might produce rape, but if they interact with different things in the environment in different ways they won't. And fortunately, he's right. Most men don't rape.

The -- maybe the most important way that this evolutionary approach can increase knowledge in a positive way is to identify what environmental features growing up -- adolescence, adulthood -- decrease the chances of men committing rape. Once we identify those environmental factors we can provide them to young men growing up to decrease the chance that they ever rape. So, that's a whole other way that this knowledge can empower all people, men and women, to make rape less frequent in the future.

BATTISTA: I've got to take another break. And John in Virginia on the phone, we'll go to you when we come back.


BATTISTA: John on the phone in Virginia has been hanging on. John, you have a question. Go ahead.

JOHN: Yes. I work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bosnia and I dealt with a large number of the women who were raped there.

And the question I have is, I understand the point of view that this is a primal instinct, but the fact is, did you draw any -- I haven't read your study yet, so I have to say that. But did you draw any parallel between the -- where this turns from a primal action to a violent action such as the cause in Bosnia and other nations that we work in? Because there is a definite string of violence attached to these crimes in these countries. Could you answer that question?

THORNHILL: Yes. Rape in the context of warfare is very common, as you imply, and always has been. Wherever there is war there's rape. And only recently has there been much attention paid to this, unfortunately. But now more is and that's good.

The context of war, what it does is create this vulnerability condition that we discussed earlier in the show. And so, in warfare men are there with limited retribution for sexually coercing females. They are also there with a lot of vulnerable females, because the female's men have either been killed or run off, and this is a context in which we anticipate there to be a lot of rape and always will be, and certainly there always has been, and it's still going on commonly wherever there's warfare today.

BATTISTA: Now, you know, these environmental conditions then that you are talking about that trigger a man to go from point A to point B, from sex to rape or whatever, you are talking about things like war, right, you're talking about psychological effects of things like that?

THORNHILL: Yes. Conditions in the environment that are processed by the sexual psychology of men.

BATTISTA: So it seems like we're back to square one, though, Kim, then because we are talking about whatever these environmental changes are that create these psychological effects, that create this need to act out this particular way.

THORNHILL: No. We emphasize that the evolutionary approach says there will be specific environmental variables. We're not talking about war per se; we're talking about what we call, in biology, the design features of the psychology, what the information is that the psychology processes, and the information fuse pertain to vulnerability and can be identified from the theory.

BATTISTA: I've got to take another break. I'll get Kim's reaction to that when we come back.


BATTISTA: All right. Kim, did you want to react to that before we hit the break?

GANDY: I think that it's important for us to recognize that there are a lot of legitimate scientific studies that have been done about the causes and the motivations of rape. And those motivations are power and control, not sex and passion. And it's insulting to both women and men to say that women ought to have chaperons and wear high necklines in order to prevent rape. It's outrageous, and it's a theory that should not get this much airtime.

BATTISTA: So you see nothing at all in this study that might help you in dealing with rape or in preventing it?

GANDY: It's not a study, best I can tell; it is a theory, and it's a theory without any scientific basis.

BATTISTA: We are out of time. So that will have to be our last word today. We appreciate all of our guests joining us. Kim Gandy, thanks very much. Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, we appreciate your time, both of you, and Dr. Rebecca Reverie as well.

We'll see you again tomorrow for more TALKBACK LIVE.


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