Is Rape Natural?

The argument that rape is an extension of male sexual desire isn't new, but it's been thrown around a lot of late. We decided to take a closer look.

Scott Adams recently claimed that "society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal" and implied that these instincts included "tweeting, raping, [and] cheating." Adams's discussion with Jezebel writer Irin Carmon focused mainly on society's role in his argument, but he took up the instinct issue more directly with Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams. He said,

I think sex is a natural instinct, and it manifests differently in different people. A person who is simultaneously horny, prone to violence, and has sociopath tendencies might act in the worst possible way. That person would be abnormal, and I favor the death penalty for rape.

When Williams brought up rape during wartime, Adams responded,

I will grant you that when rape is used as a weapon of war, horniness is not the inspiration for the act. And I will grant you that if an erect penis is not used in the crime, horniness is probably not involved. And I will grant you that if someone who is seriously insane commits rape, it might not involve any horniness. And I will grant you that there are probably dozens of other twisted motivations that don't start with horniness. [...] Chemical castration drugs already exist, and have proven extraordinarily effective in reducing recidivism rates among sex offenders. The science is on my side.

Is it? Interestingly, primatologist Frans de Waal addressed a similar question in a Times blog post last year, though he took religion and not law as his jumping-off point. He wrote,

I have heard people echo Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that "If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!"

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us?

He continues,

Instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology ("we're acting like animals!"), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution? Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there's nothing in it for themselves.

De Waal doesn't address rape directly, but a quick review of the literature does reveal some differences between the "instincts" of rapists and those of other people. At least two studies have compared rapists' and non-rapists' arousal patterns. In one, rapists showed more physical arousal in response to descriptions of rape than non-rapists did. In another, larger study, non-rapists (or more accurately, their dicks) showed a greater preference for consensual scenarios than rapists did — both seemed to prefer scenes of consensual sex to some extent, but non-rapists preferred them way more. These studies suggest that the differences between rapists and non-rapists may not be those of degree — i.e. some men are just so horny they have to rape — but of kind.

As de Waal says, couldn't the full range of human nature encompass both those who want to rape and those who are powerfully averse to it? Put another way, just because some men commit rape doesn't mean all other men are only restrained from it by the artificial strictures of society. In fact, the fantasy of a hyper-willing female partner, one who is both exceedingly desirous of sex and exceedingly satisfied by a man's skills, is common in both porn and pop culture. A few current videos on XTube, for instance, include Climax2000, Cuming [sic] For You, Debbs Dark Desires, and Wanting Some Big Dick, all of which appear to depict women in various states of hunger-for-your-cock. Of course, Debbs Dark Desires may depict more what dudes want Debb to want than what she actually craves, but the point is that even quite male-centric depictions of female sexuality often include not just consent but enthusiastic desire and orgasm. The idea that men's natural instincts are rape-centric isn't supported even by media that serve their most private predilections.

Adams seems to have backed off his initial position that tweeting, raping, and cheating are caused by a mismatch between men's desires and society's limits, to a far more circumspect claim that rape in some cases — like that of DSK — "starts with horniness." But regardless of where sex crimes "start," it's important to remember that unbridled male sexuality might not look like All Rape, All the Time. And we should also keep in mind that our limitations on our own behavior might be as natural as our transgressions. In the first study I cited above, the authors noted that "it is not necessarily true that forced or violent sex evoked rapists' arousal but perhaps that force or violence failed to inhibit their arousal." But violence did inhibit non-rapists' arousal. That is, they were physically less turned on by sex when it involved hurting another person. Whether that's a natural instinct or not I'll leave to psychologists and philosophers. But it's certainly encouraging.

Scott Adams takes On Salon [Salon]

Earlier: Scott Adams vs. Jezebel

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