Researchers have found that some women become physically aroused by accounts of rape, as well as of consensual sex. Their explanation: maybe arousal is the female body's way of protecting itself from injury during sexual assault.
According to Research Digest, scientists Kelly Suschinsky and Martin Lalumiere asked fifteen men and fifteen women, all straight, to listen to a variety of taped stories, some of which included consensual sex, and some of which included rape (some were "neutral" and described neither). Both men and women said they felt aroused by the consensual sex stories, and disturbed by the rape ones. The men's physical arousal matched this — the women, however, experienced some "genital arousal" in response to both rape and consensual sex stories. The researchers say this result bolsters the "preparation hypothesis" that "women's nonspecific pattern of genital arousal prepares the body for sexual activity, thus functioning to protect the genital organs against injury." That is, it might be adaptive for women to become physically (though not mentally) aroused if they're about to be assaulted.
Over at Slate, Jesse Bering (with whom we've tangled in the past) offers more evidence that women's bodies naturally protect them against rape. He mentions research showing that ovulating women display increased strength in response to the threat of rape, "overestimate strange males' probability of being rapists," "play it safe by avoiding situations that place them at increased risk of being raped." The second and third study have somewhat problematic implications (to say nothing of another Bering cites, showing that women are "more racist" when ovulating) — it would be easy for a rape apologist to jump from "ovulating women avoid walking at night" to "women should avoid walking at night because it's science." Bering does point out this risk, noting that the debate over scientific research into sexual assault often suffers from "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)."
The authors of the first study caution that their research has limitations, and they recommend that their work be repeated "with a larger and more diverse sample." But we shouldn't necessarily dismiss their ideas out of hand. Knowing that women's bodies might take steps to reduce the harm done by rape doesn't mean it's women's responsibility to resist rape, or that rape is somehow okay just because there could be evolutionary structures in place to make it less physically damaging. Nor does knowing that women might be more cautious when they're ovulating mean that women's caution is the solution to rape, or that it always works (sadly, it doesn't). Research into sexuality and sexual assault can be used for good — to remind people, for instance, that a woman's physical arousal does not imply consent. We just have to be sure to discuss this research in a way that acknowledges that no biological fact we learn about rape can ever justify it.
A Biological Mechanism That Protects Against Rape? [Research Digest]
Darwin's Rape Whistle [Slate]
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