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The Boy Can’t Help It 

Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer’s reductionist theory of rape

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000

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For a start, although Thornhill and Palmer never say so explicitly, their text is suffused with the assumption that U.S. patterns of rape are universal. A 1992 national study they cite reported that 13 percent of American women over the age of 18 say they have been raped. The same study reports that fully 29 percent of adult women surveyed were under the age of 11 at the time they were raped. Even at 13 percent, it is still far higher than those of many other societies, says Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is an expert on rape and the author of A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial and Fraternity Gang Rape.

As the author of a cross-cultural study on rape in 95 different tribal societies, Sanday stresses that its incidence varies wildly from culture to culture, and there are many societies in which rape is rare. Far from being the norm, she says, America is one of the most rape-prone of all contemporary cultures. If the biological imperative to rape is as powerful, and as universal, as Thornhill and Palmer insist, why does its frequency vary so much from culture to culture?

Mary Cameron, an anthropologist at Auburn University, points to another flaw in Thornhill and Palmer’s thesis: “It doesn’t begin to account for male-male rape, or incest,” neither of which confers any evolutionary advantage. If, according to the previously cited statistic, almost one-third of rapes are inflicted on children under 11, it is hard to see how reproductive imperatives could be responsible.

Anne Fausto-Sterling, a research biologist at Brown University, questions the very foundation of Thornhill and Palmer’s thesis: “If rape is about reproduction,” she says, “then how many rapes end in pregnancy?” According to the authors’ estimate, the figure is only about 2 percent, a very unimpressive statistic, especially given that not all pregnancies result in live births. And there could well be other explanations for the fact that the majority of rape victims are young women of peak child-bearing age. After all, most rapists are themselves young men, and they may simply be raping within their peer group.

Particularly woolly is the authors’ claim that women of child-bearing age suffer from more psychological trauma than children or elderly rape victims. Thornhill and Palmer try to convince us that this is a proven fact, but I must say I find their “evidence” entirely underwhelming. (In fact, the only study they cite as support was one done by Thornhill and his wife.) Children who have been raped can suffer a lifetime of psychological scarring (in addition to serious physical harm), and an informal poll of my female friends suggests that for many women there are few more traumatic prospects than being raped in the heightened physical vulnerability of our old age.


Trying to quantify a human being’s anguish and measure it against the suffering of another is the sort of notion that ought to make any sensible scientist run screaming from the room. It’s not just that it’s repugnant to say that a raped 7-year-old feels less pain than a raped 21-year-old — it’s also simply daft to insist that any such “objective” comparison can be made. The whole exercise is reminiscent of medieval attempts to quantify sin. Furthermore, while Thornhill and Palmer are right in saying that married rape victims may indeed fear reprisal from their husbands or relatives, the very fact that the consequences of rape are so much worse in some societies than they are in others indicates that we’re talking about cultural forces here. For example, religious women in Muslim communities probably fear this more than secular women in America; it’s the difference between a fundamentalist and a liberal value system — not biology. Do Thornhill and Palmer have any clear understanding of the distinction? They might just as well assert that black men in the Bronx feel nervous around the NYPD because they’re hard-wired to dread authority figures.

All of which raises the question of scientific standards. To quote Fausto-Sterling: “When you make a hypothesis you really need to be able to back that up with data.” Yet data is just what is missing from this book. As with so many other neo-Darwinian accounts of human behavior now being offered by proponents of the new “evolutionary psychology” movement, Thornhill and Palmer’s analysis of rape relies not on hard evidence, as they would have us believe, but on speculative flights of fancy. Stephen Jay Gould has dubbed such theories “just-so stories,” after Kipling’s fanciful tales of how the leopard got its spots and the tiger its stripes.

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