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Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2000/ 19 Shevat, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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What sets off Those Who Speak for Women --
FOR THE PAST COUPLE OF DECADES, we've been taught that rape is an act of violence, the ultimate expression of male power (usually) over female fragility.

Now, new controversial research posits another view -- that rape is a biological, evolved sexual behavior, perhaps expressed and supported through violence, but not only a violent act.

The distinction, though volatile, could be critical to ending rape, say researchers and authors of a soon-to-be-published book, "A Natural History of Rape." Even before the book's publication, its authors, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, are being treated as intellectual liars and gender thugs by Those Who Speak for Women.

On the "Today" show" Monday morning, Thornhill -- Regents' Professor and professor of biology at the University of New Mexico - may as well have been selling Klan robes at an NAACP meeting. Positioned opposite a New York rape prosecutor, Thornhill was visually, if not verbally, booed.

The prosecutor's split-screen eye-rolling foretold the book's likely reception, even if it has something worthwhile to offer.

I don't know whether it does or not; the book isn't available yet. But I do know this: Peremptorily discarding a theory because it nips at the heels of conventional wisdom is childish.

Shouldn't we at least consider the possibility that we've failed to solve a problem because we've failed to accurately identify its causes?

Treating rape only as an act of violence has done little to reduce its incidence. In fact, in the 25 years since the violence theory was universally embraced, rape in the United States has increased dramatically, even by traditional definitions - as opposed to the current norm of, "Oh, my G-d, I had sex last night. He must have raped me!"'

What sets off Those Who Speak for Women is Thornhill's suggestion that women take some precautionary measures against rape, as in: Don't dress provocatively, don't walk down dark streets alone. The unacceptable inference is, of course, that women somehow bear some responsibility for rape.

Note the word inference, not implication. Thornhill doesn't say that women ask or "deserve" to be raped. Far from it. He recognizes that rape is a male problem, though possibly rooted in biological urges that deserve scrutiny.

Rape is violent, yes. Rape is coercive, yes. But these facts do not negate the possibility that rape is also, at least sometimes, sexually motivated.

The authors peg their theory on an evolutionary tenet, the same one, ironically, that we've accepted as an explanation for male promiscuity - the biological imperative to impregnate as many females as possible.

Rape, say the authors, allows males to circumvent women's principal reproductive strategy -- mate selection.

If true, that theory hardly contradicts the rape-as-power theory. Rape as violence, meanwhile, is a given inasmuch as anything physically coercive is violent.

Why, then, the controversy? Because Those Who Speak for Women too often refuse to entertain any deviation from the party line. If you accept that rape is a sexual act, then you must also accept that certain social behaviors may trigger the rapist. A sexist notion, or a simple rule of the jungle?

Regardless of our druthers, the world is full of animals, including some men we might consider less evolved. To ignore the possibility that we might by our actions or dress invite their attention is what we used to call "stupid."

Also stupid is a knee-jerk rejection of any theory that threatens our comfort zone. Thornhill and Palmer aren't excusing rapists or justifying their behavior but looking for explanations useful to rape's cure.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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