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Who’s uncomfortable with the truth?



This weekend, there was a minor kerfuffle over yet another poorly sourced assertion that people evolved in just such a way as to uphold the meanest, ugliest, most essentialist gender roles the patriarchy ever produced. This time, it was over the shoddy theory that men and women evolved to constantly be in a violent struggle over the vagina, with men trying to force sex on women and women trying mostly to avoid getting pregnant by rapists (though, bafflingly, being more cool with rape when they’re not ovulating). The article reinforced tired, disproven ideas about rape, the most disturbing being that it’s an act of horniness instead of violence, when the more established research shows the opposite. Emile Yoffe and I addressed the flaws in this article, so I’m not going to rehash the science issues here.


What I do want to talk about is the emotional reasoning for why something “feels” true. Often, the evidence for the truth of a reactionary claim like, “Men are programmed to rape,” is that the very discomfort it provokes makes it true, or at least makes the objections to it false. Jesse Bering, the writer of the original piece, plays this card:

Thornhill and Palmer, Malamuth, and the many other investigators studying rape through an evolutionary lens, take great pains to point out that “adaptive” does not mean “justifiable,” but rather only mechanistically viable. Yet dilettante followers may still be inclined to detect a misogyny in these investigations that simply is not there. As University of Michigan psychologist William McKibbin and his colleagues write in a 2008 piece for the Review of General Psychology, “No sensible person would argue that a scientist researching the causes of cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer. Yet some people argue that investigating rape from an evolutionary perspective justifies or legitimizes rape.”

This is a facetious analogy, because it doesn’t acknowledge the truth, which is that not everyone is as anti-rape as they are anti-cancer. Or, should I say, as anti-rape culture. A lot of rape apologists aren’t so much pro-rape as they are supportive of a culture that makes rape common, which is an important distinction. (See: Wolf, Naomi.) The fact that the topic makes some people uncomfortable isn’t proof that the objections to it are somehow more emotional or ideological than the support of it. On the contrary, I would say that the supporters are the ones whose emotional investment in this being true is clouding their judgment.

Think about the perceived benefits to many if rape is programmed into men, and a function of horniness and biology and not of violence and misogyny. Just right off the bat, it means that they can throw up their hands in the air, treating rape like it’s an inevitable problem and there’s nothing they can do about it. But more importantly, they get an excuse to support the main benefit they perceive in rape culture, which is that it puts all responsibility for rape in the hands of the victims, and therefore used to shame and control female sexuality. After all, the argument here is that men are naturally disposed to rape and women are naturally disposed to protect themselves. Therefore, the responsibility is shifted towards women, the only gender who has been given any control. This, in turn, can be used as an excuse to restrict women’s movements and choices, and to, a la Naomi Wolf, say they had it coming if they engage in casual sex. It also gives men cover to do a lot of abusive things that fall short of rape, saying they can’t help themselves, a freedom a lot of men would like to reserve for themselves. (Such as, say, cheating while reserving the right not to be cheated on.) Of course, a lot of men aren’t willing to be portrayed as out-of-control beasts, but clearly some figure that’s a reasonable price to pay to get these benefits.

And so I have to ask, who are the ones telling uncomfortable truths, that we must accept even if they make us uncomfortable? I say it’s the feminists. The fact that our truth, that rape is not inevitable, makes a lot of people uncomfortable doesn’t make it more true. But it doesn’t make it less true, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that we’re the only ones with an emotional investment in the outcome. Our rape apologist opponents are invested as well, often more so.

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