Rape is not, typically, the crime of male domination it has been portrayed as by sociologists and feminists in recent years, says a University of New Mexico biology professor.
Instead, UNM's Randy Thornhill and Colorado anthropologist Craig T. Palmer have developed a new theory that rape is a complex sexual crime with strong roots in human evolution.
Moreover, contend Thornhill and Palmer, rape "prevention efforts will founder until they are based on the understanding that rape evolved as a form of male reproductive behavior."
"We have to get real about rape," Thornhill said in a recent interview.
The two scientists co-authored an article titled "Why Men Rape" in the current issue of the journal The Sciences. The journal is published by the New York Academy of Sciences.
Thornhill and Palmer are to expound on their research in an upcoming book, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, scheduled for release in April by MIT Press.
In the article, Thornhill and Palmer take aim at the prevailing societal notion that rape isn't about sex but about male power and is "a symptom of an unhealthy society in which men fear and disrespect women."
Palmer and Thornhill say some sociologists advance a view that, they think, incorrectly assumes that rape is "unnatural behavior that has nothing to do with sex and one that has no corollary in the animal world."
They counter that rape is part of the male mental sexual psyche; was at least part of a successful male reproductive strategy in human evolutionary history; and is strong enough to survive today despite strong social sanctions and legal penalties.
But they do not equate "natural" as good and agree that their public mission is to make rape extinct as a trait in human beings.
In an interview, Palmer said the article aims to convince "those who accept evolution but don't see it as applying to the brain and behavior and particularly the behavior of rape.
"We have to convince them that behavior, including sexual, evolved, just like our morphology and anatomy," he said. "The brain evolved along with the rest of the body."
Palmer said they aren't arguing that men who rape are "genetically predisposed to rape" or that there is a rape gene. Rather, they say that all males appear to be genetically capable of rape, and it is an act which can be triggered by environmental conditions or interactions in life.
The two scientists contend that current thinking about what causes rape is so bankrupt that it ignores the reality that by definition rape requires sexual arousal of the rapist.
Thornhill cites his own study of insects called scorpionflies, in which males are equipped with an appendage used solely to grab a female's forewing and prevent her escape during involuntary mating. The "rape clamp" is used when a male scorpionfly fails to attract a female through the alternative reproduction strategy of offering nuptial gifts, such as a dead insect.
Palmer said the argument actually might get greater acceptance among lay people than in some scientific quarters because people instinctively know that men and women are not just biologically different but think differently, have different sexual agendas or goals and "respond to certain behaviors in different ways."
"These differences are what lie at the basis of rape and what made it a possibility in our evolutionary history," he said.
The scientists say this broke a long tradition of professional journals' sidestepping the issue of rape's evolutionary underpinnings as being politically incorrect.
Reaction to two scientists' argument that rape is a product of human evolution was swift and, in some cases, furious.
Much of the fury came from the scientific community as well as from feminist and rape victim assistance groups, but at least one representative of the latter found the theory by University of New Mexico biologist Randy Thornhill and Colorado anthropologist Craig T. Palmer thought-provoking.
Jennifer Beeman, director of the Campus Violence Protection Program at the University of California-Davis, said she instinctively read the article as "dangerous." But after the third reading, she said, "Some of it rang true, and intuitively it sounds right."
Beeman, who has counseled more than 1,000 rape victims, said she hopes the article and book will force scientists, social scientists, women's organizations and rape experts to do some soul-searching.
"For so long our mantra has been 'It's about power, not sex,"' she said, "that I think we're afraid to admit it might be about both."
A director of a rape counseling and prevention center weighed in on the opposite side.
"It stopped me cold in my tracks," said Lynn Blanco, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio, Texas. "I'm incensed by the article."
Blanco said she fears that if the article and its arguments are taken seriously, "men will have a reason to rape, that rape in a sense will be validated."
The center's director for crisis intervention, Dee Sisenberg said, "These men are giving rapists an excuse to rape. Rapists will have an easy out because Darwinian theory says 'I can't get away from my roots.'"
She said frank prevention efforts, aimed at both young men and women, might set new standards in understanding "our strong biological and sexual impulses" without either excusing rapists or burdening victims.
She said she plans to copy the article and distribute it to members of her program's Sexual Assault Response Team for discussion.At the Feminist Majority Foundation, spokeswoman Julie Bernstein called the paper "interesting but scary." She suggested it could be seen as regressive because it "almost validates the crime and blames the victim."