Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
ARTICLES

Do nice guys finish last?

The latest theory out of America about rape is not just wrong, it’s dangerous.

AMERICAN band Green Day’s Nice Guys Finish Last came in at No. 89 in this summer’s Hottest 100 on Triple J. But if the social Darwinian theories of American academics Randy Thornhill and Greg Palmer are right, some of the guys who finish last in the race for partners aren’t very nice guys.

You’ve got to say one thing for Thornhill and Palmer, they sure know how to grab media attention. A few weeks ago, they were Dr Nobodies: one holed up in the anthropology department at the University of Colorado, the other with his face pressed to the glass of scorpionfly cages in New Mexico. Now their theories have been headlined in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, USA Today, Time Magazine, The Washington Post and The Guardian. They’ve been on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, CNN, the CBS Early Show with Bryant Gumbel, and NBC’s Today Show, to name a few.

Clearly the strategy of accusing feminist beliefs – in this case that rape is motivated by a male thirst for power rather than sex – of being one-eyed and evidence-free is the calling-card for success with the overseas and domestic press.

Unfortunately, both Thornhill and Palmer seem unperturbed by the fact that the evidence they provide to support their claims is flimsy and at times nonsensical.

They contend that rape is an unchangeable though undesirable biological phenomenon, much like a tornado or flood, and that it is about sex (by which they mean the Darwinian, programmed desire of all animals to pass on their genes). Men who have been unsuccessful in attracting a female with whom to copulate consensually use rape as a strategy to pass along their genetic legacy.

But the most persuasive evidence Thornhill and Palmer could muster – and I am truly too embarrassed to repeat their less convincing supporting facts – are that most rape victims are women of child-bearing age, and that rape occurs in a variety of animal species.

What they fail to mention is that most rapists are also of child-bearing age. Not only are these men more likely to have greater access to similarly aged women, but women of this age are more likely than the very young or very old to be out and about and so at risk of stranger rape. They are also more likely to be socially and sexually active and so at higher risk of “date” rape.

Evolutionary academics have a penchant for picking from the natural world that which suits their usually sexist theories, and ignoring the rest. This means that the naturalness of human breeding and child-rearing practices are never explained with reference to the extracurricular sexual activities of the female emu, which roots around while the male stays back at the nest hatching the eggs. Instead, they are seen as akin – in this case – to the mating habits of scorpionflies.

The scorpionfly, we are told, has a clamp-like appendage that seems specially designed for rape. While no similar appendage has yet been located on the human male, our headline doctors proffer this discovery as proof of the pervasiveness of rape in the animal kingdom, and so the naturalness and immutability of its occurrence among humans. In my view, scorpionfly behavior tells us as much (or as little) as does emu behavior about what is natural for humans. Call me a nut.

But the strongest piece of evidence the Darwinian theory of rape has going for it – other than prime-time ratings – is the simple fact that many sexual assaults do not involve the rapist penetrating the woman’s vagina with his penis. And even when he does, he doesn’t always ejaculate. In addition, men rape other men, old women and children, a third of whom are boys. This, if I am not mistaken, puts the men-rape-to-spread-their-genes-around theory in a bit of a bind. It means that unless the evolutionary drive isn’t the brightest light in the harbor, it is a bad explanation for why and whom men choose to rape.

And if rape is a “successful” reproductive strategy, as our academics claim, you’ve got to wonder for whom. Sexual selection is a key aspect of Darwin’s survival-of-the-fittest theory. Put crudely, it gives female desires a strong say in the selection of a species’ characteristics. Peacock plumage is a lightning rod for the bird’s predators, yet by making the cock more attractive to the hen, the bird with the largest, most colorful plumage is at an advantage in the sexual selection stakes.

If a woman knocks back a bloke’s request for consensual sex, and he rapes her, he upsets the delicate balance of sexual selection by – should he actually impregnate her – spreading his ``unfit’’ genes around. Good for the individual male in question, maybe. Good – in Darwinian terms – for the human species? I don’t think so.

Thornhill and Palmer’s reinstatement of the boys-will-be-boys thesis about why men rape has upset both men and women. Men are peeved at being re-tarred with the all-men-are-potential-rapists brush. Women involved in counselling sexual assault survivors are worried that such theoretical walks in the woods might reverse hard-won political, legal and treatment trends that lay responsibility for sexual violence at men’s feet, rather than at women’s hemlines.

But they needn’t worry. Claims by some angry anti-feminists that Thornhill and Palmer’s work is being knocked off by an aggressive case of feminist political correctness – the standard ploy for keeping anti-feminist agendas in the media for longer than they merit – won’t work for long. Thornhill and Palmer’s thesis simply doesn’t stack up. And there are too many nice (and knowledgeable) men and women that say so.

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Email: leslie@cannold.com Mobile: 0417 114 859 Fax: +61 3 9348 2015 - PO Box 1337, St Kilda South VIC 3182 Australia