Brownmiller Dissects Pop Biology Book

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"A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion," Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, Boston: MIT Press, 2000, reviewed by Susan Brownmiller, the author of "Against Our Will, Men Women and Rape," the 1975 book that cause a paradigm shift in the belief systems surrounding rape.

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 tautology* will have no trouble seeing the holes, discrepancies, fanciful leaps and wild suppositions masquerading as fact in the Thornhill thesisÉ.Thornhill is an evolutionary biologist who studies the mating habits of scorpionflies. He has not conducted any original research on human rapists and victims. . . .

*A tautology is a concept in logic that explains how people arrive at false conclusions, either by repetition of unproven "facts" or by presenting a supposedly airtight hypothesis that is not airtight when examined. Thornhill uses both.

WHAT IS 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.

WHAT ARE HIS CONCLUSIONS? 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 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.). . .

A BOOK ABOUT RAPE WITHOUT DESCRIPTIONS OF RAPE AND ITS VIOLENCE: A 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.. .

WILLFUL MISINTERPRETATION: 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 seized on this quote on page 177 to say Griffin things that “boys would be better off without paternal presence.” He willfully conflates “patriarchal” with “paternal” to mock feminist thinking. Or is he just stupid? . . .

REHASHING AND OLD STUDY AND GETTING IT WRONG: 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. He cites from the 1990s are deceptive. These papers. . . 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. . . . It is from this flawed 1974 study (a year before Against Our Will was published) 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.. . .

WAS HE HALLUCINATING ON PAGE 103? Here I must quote an extremely cumbersome sentence, in the book of cumbersome sentences, to demonstrate how Thornhill throws is extra-special loony ideas into the hopper without a source or an explanation: “And we can derive others that were highly specificÑfor 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 in an earlier page. Rest assured, there is not a prior reference to waist size on an earlier page.

For the full text of this book review, go to Susan Brownmiller’s Website:

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