Review: Rape on the Brain
In Our Time
Against Our Will
Waverly Place
Seeing Vietnam
Shirley Chisholm
Surf with Susan
Guest Book
Sept 11

a review of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, Boston: MIT Press, 2000

One unfortunate byproduct of the media flurry greeting this book was some people's insistence that scientists, not "emotional feminists," were best qualified make a rebuttal, implying that the study of rape is a "science" that only objective (read: male) scientists can understand. This is baloney. Anyone with a logical mind who understands a false syllogism will have no trouble seeing the holes, discrepancies, fanciful leaps and wild suppositions masquerading as fact in the Thornhill thesis. Anyone familiar with the current sociological literature will see that Thornhill ignores the recent studies and has fallen woefully behind the times. And anyone conversant with the lower-species studies and the feminist literature will see that Thornhill is absolutely willful in his misrepresentation of other people's work and ideas.

The study of rape is a social science, not a "hard" science. It is rooted in the literature of sociology and criminology, and influenced for the last 25 years, as Thornhill rightly concedes (or rather, charges) by feminist insights that are expounded in my book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975). Thornhill is an evolutionary biologist who studies the mating habits of scorpionflies. He has not conducted any original research on human rapists and victims. He has merely compiled a record of observed forced copulations in some lower species (his scorpionflies; waterstriders; some orangutans and ducks) and run an old, flawed study of human rape victims conducted in 1974 through his computer several times-- misreading the evidence-- to come up with "results" that he claims prove his point.

Thornhill says that rape in humans is an evolved adaptation, through sexual selection, to help males pass on their genes to succeeding generations. Since forced copulation is apparently a successful mating tactic in scorpionflies and a few other lower species, ipso facto, it must be a guiding evolutionary factor in humans, too.

Thornhill says that women of reproductive age should dress with caution and consider bringing a chaperone along on a date or when appearing in public. Young men should take a short course in the evolution of rape when they apply for a driver's license, so as to better understand their impulses. This is social policy? This is garbage. (At no point in Thornhill's book does he offer any evidence to show that rape is correlated to women's attire.) Compare his bankrupt suggestions to the social-policy accomplishments of feminists whose theories he wants to dethrone: rape crisis centers and hotlines; reform of rape laws in every state to eliminate eyewitness corroboration and shield victims in court from evidence regarding prior sexual history.

Rape, like assault, burglary, mugging, and armed robbery, is a young man's game. Call it an evolutionary byproduct of hunting, hormones, size and strength, or whatever, if you like. To be successful, assaultive offenders must possess athletic prowess for leaping, choking, punching, and running away afterward to evade apprehension. Guns, knives, or the combined power of multiple assailants can compensate for the lack of athletic prowess. This is the typology of human rape. Most strangely, Thornhill lavishes many paragraphs in his book on vivid descriptions of scorpionfly rape, but he includes only two brief accounts involving humans. One, a friend's rape in an automobile, is used as a literary device. Thornhill says he is writing his book to answer his friend's question, "Why?" The second account is a bizzare report by Birute Galdikas, a primate observer, of an orangutan's assault on a female cook at her Indonesian base camp. Given the salacious fantasies in men's adventure magazines of Great Apes carrying off human females, it is difficult to know what instructive purpose this harrowing, atypical tale is supposed to serve, other than to mock the dignity of women, who appear in Thornhill's book only as statistics in academic studies.

Asyllogism is a concept in logic that presents a hypothesis from which a conclusion can be deduced. A false syllogism presents or repeats unproven facts or presents a supposedly airtight hypothesis that is not airtight when examined.  Thornhill uses both of these rhetorical devices. He repeats unproven "facts" from chapter to chapter, and he employs a rhetorical hypothesis in this manner: "If A is true, then B must be true. Ah, we find that A is true, so B is true." (I think he picked up this rhetorical style from Donald Symons, a sex theorist he admires.) The problem with this kind of deductive reasoning is that A may not be true to begin with, and even if A is true, there may be eight different reasons why A is true, so B turns out not to be a logical deduction from A at all. Get it? Thornhill doesn't.

I'm quoted in this book in a reductive manner, but when Thornhill wants to catch a feminist in an error, he combs the literature to quote some other feminist to get in his digs. In a germinal 1971 article in Ramparts, the feminist Susan Griffin said that "rape cannot be rooted out from patriarchy without ending patriarchy itself." Thornhill seizes on this quote on page 177 to say Griffin thinks that "boys would be better off without paternal presence." He willfully conflates "patriarchal" with "paternal" to mock feminist thinking. Or is he just stupid?


By ellipsing sentences he misinterprets evolutionary biologist Patricia Gowaty's study of forced copulation in ducks. By ellipsing whole paragraphs elsewhere, a 1997 paper, he creates a fabrication to misinterpret the meaning of evolutionary biologist Sarah Hrdy's thinking. (See note 16 to Preface, 1999 in the new Harvard Press edition of Hrdy's The Woman That Never Evolved.)

 You have to be a footnote sleuth when you read Chapter Four, "The Pain and Anguish of Rape," to see that Thornhill has done no original research on rape victims. His cites from the 1990s are deceptive. These papers (Thornhill & Thornhill, 1990 a,b,c; Thornhill & Thornhill, 1991, and Thornhill, 1997 b) are mere run-throughs on a computer of the raw results of a 1974 inner-city Philadelphia study on the emotional pain of rape victims. (See McCahill, Meyer & Fishman, The Aftermath of Rape, 1979) Please note that 1974 was the year before Against Our Will was published; the well-intentioned Philadelphia interviewers had not yet learned to ask the right questions. They also relied on caretakers' observations to quantify the emotional pain of raped children. HOLD ON. I want to say right here that I don't believe that "emotional pain" with all its variations in expression can ever be quantified. Furthermore, children often do not manifest immediate signs of trauma because they do not fully comprehend what happened to them. TO CONTINUE: It is from this flawed 1974 study that Thornhill makes all his claims regarding the relative emotional pain of child rape victims, reproductive-age rape victims, and post-reproductive-age rape victims. He wants to show that reproductive-age victims suffer the most emotional pain because that would buttress his evolutionary argument. (p. 90) BUT HE GETS HIS STATISTICS WRONG. In the original 1974 Philadelphia study, reproductive-age victims did not report more emotional pain than post-reproductive-age victims.

MORE ON CHAPTER FOUR AND EMOTIONAL PAIN: Thornhill argues that psychological trauma in rape is related to the victim's knowledge that her "mating choice" has been circumvented. He further proposes that a married woman may make a great show of demonstrating her emotional pain after rape to "convince her husband that she was really raped." (p. 92) OH COME ON, THORNHILL. Psychological trauma in rape victims stems primarily from their loss of physical autonomy, their feelings of physical invasion, and the harsh brutality of a forced, nonconsensual act in a private, intimate zone. Of course fear of pregnancy resulting from rape is a factor in psychological trauma. Who wants to carry a rapist's baby? This is itself does not buttress the evolutionary argument.

Thornhill predicts that "reproductive-age rape victims should be most likely to fight back and even to escalate their resistance because of the greater evolutionary historical cost to their reproductive success." (pp. 91-2) WRONG AGAIN, THORNHILL. Reproductive-age victims should be most likely to fight back because they are stronger and fitter, in muscle development and bone density, than children and older women.

Here I must quote an extremely cumbersome sentence, in a book of cumbersome sentences, to demonstrate how Thornhill throws his extra-special loony ideas into the hopper without a
cite, a source, or an explanation: "And we can derive others that are highly specific--for example, that among women of the same age peer-related physical attractiveness will correlate positively with ability to detect rape risks, and even that a woman's waist size will be related to her detection of rape risks." WAIST SIZE? This is so nuts! The rational reader, not to mention the "emotional feminist," might want to hurl this book across the room at this point. An uncertain or cautious reader might stop to wonder if she or he missed a prior reference to waist size on an earlier page. Rest assured, there is no prior reference to waist size on an earlier page.

-- Susan Brownmiller, Feb. 23, 2000